AMSTERDAM — A group of Russian expats was hurriedly making final adjustments to a bank of automated cameras, fine tuning microphones and painting the walls of a freshly kitted-out studio. They were in the new home of Dozhd TV, or TV Rain in English, Russia’s only independent TV station, and preparations were underway for their first official broadcast as a channel in exile.
Many of its staff were still in Moscow as recently as a few weeks ago, but Russia’s war in Ukraine made it impossible for TV Rain to continue its work from inside the country. Its decision to report honestly about the conflict put it on a collision course with the Kremlin as it cracks down harder on the media.
As Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the state broadcaster, Rossiya-1 told its audience that a “special operation” had begun in eastern Ukraine, and that “there was no other way to protect Russia.” TV Rain, meanwhile, reported what was really happening – that all of Ukraine was under attack and that Kyiv was being shelled by ballistic missiles.
TV Rain’s website was blocked just days after the war started, and its journalists faced the possibility of up to 15 years in prison under a raft of new laws which criminalise discrediting the military and punish so-called “fake news.”
This led Natalya Sindeyeva, the founder and driving force behind TV Rain to make an emotional announcement on the 3rd of March. “We haven’t faced a decision this tough in our entire lives. We’ve decided to temporarily suspend operations of the channel,” she told viewers. She ended the broadcast by saying, “No to war” as the assembled staff filed out of their Moscow studio for the last time.
Despite being declared a ‘foreign agent’ and forced out of her country, Sindeyeva was upbeat about the channel's new home in Amsterdam. She wore a bright pink hoodie – the trademark colour of TV Rain – told us that she and her team will one day return to Moscow.
Sindeyeva is an unlikely dissident. When she started TV Rain back in 2010 its slogan was “the optimistic channel.” Back then, Sindeyeva drove a pink Porsche, was married to a former banker and was named woman of the year by Russian GQ. Her channel even hosted a visit from Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President at the time.
The channel, which originally focused on culture instead of politics, soon became one of the Kremlin’s biggest critics.
“I wanted to create a channel that wouldn't be about news and politics. Then we received feedback from our viewers… they told us we were lacking news, alternative views, and other opinions,” she told VICE World News.
It was during the Bolotnaya protests of 2011, where thousands of Russians came onto the streets wearing white ribbons to protest against what they said were fraudulent legislative elections, that TV Rain found its anti-authoritarian voice.
“We put on the white ribbons and took to the streets and it was very important for us,” Sindyeva said. “This is when we made a decision to become a socio-political news channel.“
Sindeyeva said she quickly started getting calls from the Kremlin to reign in the reporting on the protest movement. But she refused. In 2014, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman even called into the channel to attack it live on air, claiming it had “crossed a red line.” Almost immediately, Russia’s main television providers took it off the air. But TV Rain never stopped reporting, reinventing itself as an online channel funded by subscriptions rather than advertising.
Now, TV Rain is having to reinvent itself all over again. After an initial hiatus in March, the channel has been broadcasting every night on YouTube since July from borrowed studio space in Europe. Its time off air has only added to Sindeyeva’s belief that its work is essential.
“The main idea among our viewers is that when TV Rain was shut down, it was as if there was no air, it became stifling,” she told VICE World News.
Sindeyeva hopes Amsterdam will now be a permanent home for the channel, from which it can still reach its Russian audience via YouTube, which hasn’t been banned by the Kremlin. She believes President Putin’s partial mobilisation of civilians to fight in Ukraine this September has only broadened TV Rain’s reach.
“When Putin announced the mobilisation, this was actually the first time when the war really came home to Russians. When everyone suddenly realised It's not just on TV, someplace else,” says Sindeyeva.
After mobilisation was announced, Sindeyeva said their audience increased fivefold. She has chosen the official relaunch as an opportunity to speak directly to these viewers as part of her call-in show Direct Line for the first time since being forced out of Moscow.
People tend to call in to talk about how much they hate the war. One, on the verge of tears, told Sindeyeva, “We are simply living in the midst of zombies. Yes, it's hard, yes, it's hard.” The caller added that Russians have “to listen to all this bullshit, all this nonsense, which they spew – fighting Nazis and fascists.”
Sindeyeva believes these voices show not all Russians have bought into state propaganda and those who do oppose the war “are not alone.” This is despite polls that show Putin’s war has a high level of support among Russians, with one June poll showing three-quarters of people who were asked said they had a positive view of the invasion.
Sindeyeva says TV Rain has about two months to find a way to keep broadcasting before the money runs out. The channel doesn’t get funding for YouTube views in Russia because of international sanctions against the country, so they have also launched an English language service to broaden their viewership and its revenue.
Sindeyeva thinks her “optimistic” channel is still just that.
“We give ourselves and our audience the hope that with our work something can change, that sooner or later the situation will turn around, and Russia will begin to progress on a different path. And therein lies our optimism,” she said.
Sindeyeva conceded that she “may be naive” but it gave her “strength, because If you don’t have faith. If you think it's only going to get worse, why work then?” she said. “You might as well just quit. Why try at all?”