MOSCOW — Not many in Russia nowadays could give you a revealing look inside the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Alexei Venediktov has been there. Over the last 15 years, the editor in chief of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow has spent many hours chatting, arguing, and philosophizing with the Russian president.
As Venediktov and I talked the other day in his Moscow office, he said there was one particular conversation with Putin that stuck in his mind. It lasted for two and a half hours back in 2000. Putin had just come back from Vidyayevo in the Arctic Circle, while Russia was still in mourning over the accidental sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk with 118 crewmen on board.
“He kept me for a philosophical discussion—what else could two non-stupid men of the same age do but talk philosophy,” said Venediktov. One was a product of the KGB, the other a key figure in the struggle for freedom of speech, and Venediktov asked Putin how he planned to deal with his critics and the opposition.
“Putin told me that he saw two kinds of opponents: betrayers and enemies.” Defining and labeling opponents was always the most crucial part of Putin’s world view, Venediktov said.
Many radio news reporters are unseen faces, but Venediktov, with his cloud of curly gray hair and his checked shirts, is well-known to the public, and on this day his face was unusually sad. He is heartbroken by the political course Russia has taken under Putin, and also by a series of damaging scandals that have shaken Echo to its foundations.
To Putin, “enemies” are those who fight him openly. “Sometimes he makes peace with them, draws borders, then again begins the war. Putin defined ‘betrayers’ as those who first pretended they were his friends and as soon as he grew weak stabbed him in his back. ‘No mercy to betrayers,’ he told me,” the editor said. And when Venediktov wondered how Putin defined him, he was told that by Putin’s lights he was an enemy. “True,” said Venediktov. “I always played against Putin openly and honestly. That was probably why Echo has still survived.”
But the game in Russia has gotten very rough for people perceived by Putin or his allies as their enemies. Venediktov has lived under a constant threat of assassination. Since Jan. 9, he has doubled the number of his bodyguards. “Might not save me, but I feel a bit more confident,” he told me. “Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov considers me an enemy of Islam and friend of Charlie Hebdo; Kadyrov promised there would be somebody to punish me, and a month and a half later some people killed [political opposition leader] Boris Nemtsov, whom Kadyrov had threatened, too, in the same fashion.”
About a million Muscovites and many more across the country love to listen to Echo and read its website. The Echo community has fretted every time their radio station has been on the verge of getting killed.
But this time it is not only the Kremlin threatening Russia’s only independent radio station, the danger also has come from within. Echo was shaken by series of noisy scandals that seemed all the more disgraceful because it is such a respected institution. One after another the radio’s longtime guest authors and speakers, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and novelist Boris Akunin, have chosen to boycott Venediktov and his radio station.
The apple of discord is a 23-year old blond woman, Lesya Ryabtseva, Venediktov’s personal assistant, who has shown herself capable of extraordinary boorishness and vulgarity in a series of vulgar blog posts that aggressively target Russia’s key opposition leaders. On Echo’s website, she has called them “spineless jerks who lie to themselves.” Fans of the station who’ve been appalled by her behavior note that she lacks expertise and authority, she confuses facts, uses curse words, and publicly insults Echo’s oldest guests and Venediktov personally.
You’d think those would be firing offenses. But no. To the surprise of all his friends, Venediktov did not dismiss his personal assistant, even after Echo’s founder, Sergei Korzun, quit his job at the station, saying that Ryabtseva was “dangerous for the mental health” of Echo and its audience. For her part, as if to further humiliate her boss, she has even suggested that sex played a role in his decision making.
One of the most popular of Echo’s guest speakers, satirist Victor Shenderovich, tells The Daily Beast, “Venediktov is either madly in love, which I don’t believe; or he deliberately decided to damage Echo by turning it into a stinking closet, so we feel disgusted with that rubbish and all quit.”
I asked Venediktov point blank: “Is Ryabtseva more important for you than Echo?”
“No,” he said, “this is not a choice between Ryabtseva or anybody else and Echo of Moscow but a choice of our basic principles: Echo gives voice to everybody, including those who represent the majority and also including radicals,” and then he added, “It’s me who suffered most of all from Ryabtseva’s comments.”
Echo of Moscow should turn 25 year old this summer. For any celebrity or political leader, Echo’s studios, cluttered with papers and old furniture, have been a must-stop on a visit in Moscow. (A joke about Bill Clinton and Venediktov kicking each other under the table during last week’s live show has already become a part of Echo’s history.) Venediktov has interviewed U.S. Secretaries of State Hilary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, as well as Richard Gere and Liza Minnelli, Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, and many more famous figures.And then, again and again, Echo’s boss spoke with Putin, Putin’s friends and team members, who today condemned everybody who has a different opinion, as non-patriots, or betrayers, or enemies.
“Many out there are keen on warming up by the fire of Putin’s fury,” Venediktov said, considering the idea with a grin. He is proud of Echo’s journalism, of broadcasting voices from the higher floors of mostly opaque Kremlin hierarchy. Echo’s voices continue to criticize the Kremlin for the war in Ukraine, for anti-Western propaganda, for persecuting the opposition.
“Many politicians claim that Echo of Moscow is not behaving,” said Venediktov. “They accuse us of being U.S. State Department’s radio, enemy radio. They give me all sorts of names a Gasprom, a jihadi or an Assad agent—OK, these are all their own difficulties,” Venediktov said looking though the window at the cityscape of the Russian capital.
Venediktov said he has told Putin face to face about the most damaging side of his politics. “I told Putin that he burned to death all competition, all alternative opinions in all spheres—now everything, including aggressive lies and propaganda about Ukraine is the consequence. The competition’s been destroyed when it comes to decisions on the economy, in the political field, in opposition and in ideology—as a result obscurantism took over in all decisions.”
Venediktov said he felt heartbroken seeing how isolated Russia has become. And after Putin, he warns, it could be even worse. “If instead of Putin some really bloodthirsty creature comes to power—and I am sure that creature is waiting in Putinist disguise right now—the institutions are ready for Stalinization.”