Transcript

763: The Other Mr. President

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Ira Glass

Hey, is that Richard?

Richard Ensor

Yeah, it is. Ira!

Ira Glass

Yes. Hi.

The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Thursday, at the very end of the day, I reached Richard Ensor, Ukraine correspondent for The Economist. He'd started the day in the capital, Kyiv, and spent much of the day traveling.

Richard Ensor

I've got you on speaker phone. I've just moved into my safe house.

Ira Glass

What do you mean by safe house?

Richard Ensor

Well, I'm in Lviv, close to the Polish border. And in January I came here, and I rented a flat for three months on the off chance that all hell broke loose and there wasn't a spare-- there wouldn't be a spare flat in Lviv available. Because this is the place that everyone was going to run.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Richard Ensor

And so I've had this sort of set of keys in the back pocket of-- you know, just waiting in case catastrophe strikes. And catastrophe struck. And so now when I'm tired and after one of the longest days in my life when you're coming home at 2:00 AM, I've got a place to lay my head.

Ira Glass

That's incredible that you ended up having to use it and that you are using it.

Richard Ensor

I called up a rental agency, and they asked me what color I wanted the bricks to be. And I was just thinking, I hope I never have to see these walls. So just give me what you got.

Ira Glass

With him was a woman that he met on the train who needed a place to stay before grabbing another train to Poland. The consequences of talking to the Western press are not clear, so she asked me to call her Natalie here on the radio. She's an English teacher, 25, a Ukrainian who grew up a few hours from Kyiv but moved to the city five years ago.

And when she told me the long, frightening journey she had made that day, escaping the city while the Russians invaded, it wasn't one of those war stories where you think, oh, I can't imagine what it would be like to go through that. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. For anybody who has ever lived in a decent-sized city, it is shockingly, instantly easy to imagine.

Every moment of it happens in such familiar kinds of places. She was not woken up by sounds of bombing, but by her stepfather calling on Skype from England where he lives.

Natalie

And he woke me up and said that Russians are bombing the airport. So I-- you know, I was pretty sleepy, and I didn't believe it. And then I heard the jets. And I was just freaking out. I was panicking. They were bombing somewhere. It was pretty close to me. And it was pretty terrifying.

Ira Glass

Terrifying, she says, but a very specific kind of terrifying that you don't usually run into.

Natalie

I felt like a baby. Actually-- I'm sorry. I felt like a baby because I was alone in the darkness of the morning-- empty streets, some strange sounds. Nobody is around, and only my stepfather staring at me from the UK on the screen. You know, I felt like I'm not a woman, I'm a baby.

Ira Glass

What do you mean you felt like a baby?

Natalie

First of all, you are not able to protect yourself. You are not able to do anything because you're a baby. You're helpless.

Ira Glass

I see. Yeah.

Natalie

And yeah. You just want somebody to come and to save you.

Ira Glass

She says she didn't want to feel this way for another minute, so she packed her things and called some friends who have a car, told them, we have to get out of the city really fast. They headed over to pick her up. It's not far, but they got stuck in traffic. So many people were trying to flee.

Finally when they got to her, they decided to head to a suburb called Irpin just outside Kyiv, maybe 20 miles. Should be a 40-minute drive on a normal day. One of the friends' parents have a house.

Natalie

Because there is a cellar, you know. And again, we got stuck in traffic because people were panicking, as we did. And on the way we saw the Russians' helicopters.

Ira Glass

The helicopters were shooting, she says. Turns out that Irpin was close to one of the big battles in Kyiv that first day over an airport in Hostomel. Russians sent helicopters to seize it, hoping presumably to use it to bring in troops and supplies to take the city. At one point during the day it was reported that they had captured the airport, then later that Ukrainian soldiers surrounded them and took it back. At this point the Russians seem to have it again. So anyway, that is what Natalie and her friends were driving towards.

Natalie

Seeing this, it wasn't terrifying anymore because we were in the constant state of shock. We were just staring at it, just staring. And we were just trying to save our lives. That's it.

Ira Glass

They got to the friend's house, the woman with the cellar, took a look around. They were so close to all this fighting, and Natalie decided this isn't right. She was going to turn around. She was going to undo everything she had spent the morning doing, go back to Kyiv where she'd just come from and try to get a train from there to the border, which would mean leaving a place where at least there would be some shelter and heading into who knows what. It was hard to decide.

Natalie

Because everybody was saying, no, stay. You just have to stay. But I was listening to my inner voice. I was just-- I needed to get to Poland, to get out of the country, or at least to west of Ukraine. We were afraid that maybe the borders will be closed soon.

It is my point of view. When you move, you stay alive. It is my point of view. I just-- you know, I'm also pretty anxious, and I just feel better when I'm doing something. When I'm on the move, that means I'm protecting myself.

Ira Glass

One guy decided to go with her, somebody who she'd never met before that day but who seemed like a rational guy. She said you want to stick with rational people in emergency situations. The friends drove them to the train station, a local train that could take them back to Kyiv. And when they arrived in Kyiv they hoped to take the subway, but Kyiv's subways were closed because they include these stations that are deep underground that double as bomb shelters. And that's what they were being used for.

Natalie

And we had to walk. We had to walk, and we were pretty close to the area where military was. Sorry, I cannot name it exactly because I was just busy running.

Ira Glass

Were you literally running?

Natalie

Let's say jogging.

Ira Glass

They finally get to the train station with trains that could take them west to the border. They had no tickets. It was mobbed. Natalie had money ready in case she needed to bribe somebody to get on a train, but it was such a moment of solidarity. The conductors just let people on without tickets.

Richard, The Economist correspondent, was on that train with her, and he told me he had never been in a refugee situation with so many cats. He said he felt like everybody on the train brought their cat. Eight hours later she was halfway across the country, 300 miles away, in Lviv, far from the fighting.

Natalie

Anything actually may happen, and everything is changing so fast.

Ira Glass

Like it was just two days ago, she told me, she did a photo shoot with a friend in the center of Kyiv.

Natalie

It was sunny, blue sky. She bought me some flowers, tulips or something. And we were just enjoying and having coffee. And now I am a, like, almost refugee.

Ira Glass

It was hard to believe it happened. Even though she was somebody who had thought Putin would invade and she thought that he would quickly try to take Kyiv-- she'd actually been in the process of getting a visa to get out-- but she said most people didn't believe that, told themselves it wasn't happening.

Natalie

You know, it is like a little lie to yourself to feel safer.

Ira Glass

I got back on the line with Richard from The Economist. He's actually talked to lots of Ukrainians about this and pointed out that the country's media and its president for weeks have been saying nothing is going to happen. Putin was just posturing. And unless you read the foreign press, you probably wouldn't believe Putin was going to invade. Also he says--

Richard Ensor

The first thing that any Ukrainian will tell you is that their country has been at war for eight years. And so the idea that this or that Russian battalion coming near their border suddenly means that an invasion is likely-- they'll say the invasion happened in 2014.

Ira Glass

2014 is when the Russian military took Crimea from Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in two Ukrainian territories seceded from the country.

Richard Ensor

And there have been all manner of different false alarms and ceasefires coming and going-- threats, crazy rhetoric-- since then. And so it's such a roller coaster ride, the idea that-- you know, in their minds, the idea that a bunch of troops turning up on the border changes the game for them, it's just the latest chess move or the latest drama. And a lot of people have worked out a great recipe for happiness, which is just turning off the timeline and not reading any of this.

Ira Glass

What did you see three months ago that convinced you that this might happen and you got an apartment on the other side of the country?

Richard Ensor

Well, the thing that really worried me was-- it wasn't any troop movements. It was the negotiations. On December the 17th, Russia unveiled a list of demands. And you read these demands, and you start to say, oh my god, they don't care, because they're asking for things that they know they can't get.

And the only kind of person who conducts those kinds of negotiations is someone who doesn't really care whether the negotiations succeed or fail. And when I saw that, that's when I realized they're just going through the motions. They're not serious about these negotiations, but they are serious about the troops on the border.

Ira Glass

It's so crazy, though. You have an entire country with millions of people who basically just have to guess what one man is going to do.

Richard Ensor

Yeah. And maybe more than just an entire country. Maybe the whole world.

Ira Glass

Today on our program we have an episode of our show that we put together back in 2017 about that man, Vladimir Putin. At the time it was inspired by news that had people guessing what his intentions were and what he was thinking. We wanted to understand him better. And there's one story we found that's Act One of today's show that I have to admit I've been thinking about for weeks as Putin amassed troops around the Ukrainian border.

It's this story about whether he came to power in 1999 by killing a few hundred innocent Russians. So we have that. If you haven't heard it, you really should. And more, including what do Russians think of him? Stay with us.

Act One: Going in with a Bang

Ira Glass

Act One, Going In With a Bang. So have you heard this story? This is something people speculated about years ago but now seems mostly forgotten. It happened right when Vladimir Putin was coming to power. This was back in 1999. Boris Yeltsin was president, running Russia. Putin was the prime minister-- not well known, not well liked, polling at 2% as a possible presidential candidate.

And then-- Putin had only been prime minister for a month-- there was a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. 300 people died. Putin blamed it on Chechen rebels, invaded Chechnya, started the Second Chechen War, which he won. It was a popular war, catapulted him into the presidency. When he took office, he had 53% of the vote.

And even back then when he took office in 2000, there was a question. Did he bomb those buildings himself to create the pretext for the war and his own rise to power? If he did, of course it calls the legitimacy of his presidency into question in a big way, murdering his own constituents-- exactly the kinds of Russians that he claims to be serving and protecting as president. One of our producers, Robyn Semien, talked to reporters who covered this and reviewed the evidence with them.

Robyn Semien

Before we get to the more mysterious aspects of the bombings, a quick summary of what happened. The bombings came in fast succession-- four bombs in two weeks in random locations in Moscow and two other cities. Early September was the first one. A bomb in a truck went off right outside an apartment building, collapsing it. Over 60 people died.

Days later, thousands of miles away, another bomb goes off on the ground floor of a nine-story apartment building. Nine stories flattened, killing over 90 people. Within days there was another one, and then a fourth-- buildings destroyed in the night while people were inside sleeping. David Satter was in and out of the country at the time. He's been reporting on Russia since the '70s.

David Satter

It was an atmosphere of panic. The whole country was terrified. People began to fear that any apartment building could be blown up in the middle of the night and any family could be buried under the rubble. There are 30,000 apartment blocks in Moscow. And patrols, night patrols, were organized in all of them to prevent terrorists from putting bombs in the basements.

Robyn Semien

The government immediately blamed the bombings on Chechen guerrillas. Scott Anderson is another reporter who's written about the attacks.

Scott Anderson

Chechens tend to be more darkly complected than your typical ethnic Russians. So anyone who was darkly complected on the streets of Moscow was subject to arrest or being beaten up. And so a lot of people from the Caucasus, they would just stay inside. They were afraid to go out on the streets.

Robyn Semien

But this story that Chechens were behind the bombings was kind of fishy. For starters, it was three years after Chechnya and Russia had finished a war, the First Chechen War. Chechnya basically won. They signed a peace treaty. Again, Scott.

Scott Anderson

What motive did the Chechens have to start this bombing campaign against Russia when they pretty much had everything they wanted? There was no reason to fight the Russians at this point.

Robyn Semien

Right. They'd won the war.

Scott Anderson

That's right. They'd won the war.

Robyn Semien

So why commit acts of terror that were big enough to start another war? And just logistically, it would have been hard to pull off.

Scott Anderson

Even in 1999, Russia was a very heavily policed state. And so certainly by after the second or third bombing, there were police checkpoints all over-- certainly all over Moscow, all over major Russian cities. So the idea of these bombers moving around-- and these are kind of crude explosives. They're very heavy, 50-kilo sacks of explosives you need to haul around.

So you need a car. So you're going through checkpoints. And with the whole hysteria against Chechens, certainly anybody who was, again, darkly complected going through a checkpoint was going to be thoroughly searched.

Robyn Semien

Even some people in the government questioned the official account. David Satter was in Moscow right after the bombings. And a friend who had good connections told David there were people in the security services who suspected the FSB-- that's the modern version of the KGB basically-- might be behind the bombings.

So David asked to meet some of those guys in person, and they agreed. But this was such a dangerous idea. They wanted to make sure they weren't caught. So they had this very private conversation in a very public place, in the center of Moscow.

David Satter

I don't want to give away too many details.

Robyn Semien

It's OK.

David Satter

But I was in a store of some sort, in a building not far from the Bolshoi Theatre. And people coming and going, but we didn't give any indication what we were talking about. Just a couple of men standing there, talking about something.

Robyn Semien

The agents didn't have proof, but some things just didn't add up.

David Satter

For example, the simple fact that the buildings were blown up with hexogen, which is a very, very powerful explosive that's used to top off artillery shells and is available only in one factory in Russia, which is tightly guarded by the FSB.

Robyn Semien

It's also at military bases. But how would terrorists get hexogen at all, the agent said, let alone drive big quantities of it around Russia unchecked?

Robyn Semien

When you heard this stuff, were you thinking these arguments were convincing, or were you also thinking, well--

David Satter

I wasn't completely convinced that this was a government provocation. But what convinced me was the bomb that did not go off, the fifth bomb.

Robyn Semien

The fifth bomb in yet another city, Ryazan. And this is where the story about the Chechens seems to really fall apart and where the story gets truly strange.

September 22, 1999, 2 and 1/2 weeks after the first apartment bomb. A couple of residents in a building in Ryazan noticed something weird. One guy, a bus driver who lived in the building, saw a car, a white sedan, parked outside the building. Maura Reynolds was a foreign correspondent for The LA Times back then living in Moscow.

She talked to the guy, who told her the license plates on the car didn't look right. They had a local city code on them for Ryazan, the number 62. But, he told Maura, when he looked closer, he saw that the number--

Maura Reynolds

It had been written on. It had been drawn on by hand. It didn't look like it was stamped into the metal license plate.

Robyn Semien

Like with a Sharpie or something?

Maura Reynolds

Yeah, like a magic marker on a piece of paper taped over the license plate.

Robyn Semien

Oh.

Maura Reynolds

And that was immediately something that-- he thought, huh?

Robyn Semien

So he calls the police. In the meantime, two men get out of the car.

Scott Anderson

And start carrying heavy sacks of something into the building's basement. The people jump back in the car. They take off.

Robyn Semien

That's Scott Anderson again. The local police show up.

Maura Reynolds

They went down into the basement and came running back up saying, it's a bomb, it's a bomb.

Scott Anderson

Ryazan is essentially sealed off within hours. Thousands and thousands of soldiers and police cordoned off the city, and they begin this massive dragnet for these two men and a woman who was in the car also.

Robyn Semien

Local FSB start combing through evidence. A detonator was found in the basement.

Reporter

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Here's a TV news clip from them from a documentary about the bombings called Disbelief. The reporter says, "The sacks were discovered by police."

Reporter

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

The sacks were taken to a lab that concluded the contents were hexogen, the same explosive used to blow up the other buildings, the stuff that supposedly only the FSB and military had access to.

One day after the bomb scare, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, remember, has only been in the job for a month, launches the second war against Chechnya over the bombings. He says, quote, "The question is closed once and for all. We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, then in an airport. And forgive me-- if we catch them in the crapper, then we'll rub them out in the crapper," unquote.

Meanwhile back in Ryazan, local police find the mysterious white sedan and the two suspects. They were not Chechen. They were Russian-- Russian FSB agents with FSB IDs.

The head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, goes on TV and is like, there's a totally reasonable explanation for FSB agents to be caught doing this. The whole thing was a drill. This audio of that announcement is from a documentary about the bombings called Blowing Up Russia.

Nikolai Patrushev's Interpreter

First of all, there wasn't an explosion, and an explosion wasn't prevented. But it wasn't good work. It was an exercise.

Scott Anderson

He goes in front of the cameras. He makes this little statement.

Robyn Semien

Again, Scott Anderson.

Scott Anderson

He doesn't take questions. He walks away. It's just like, oh, yeah, that was just a military exercise.

Robyn Semien

As for the hexogen, there was no hexogen, he says. There were no explosives. The white powder in the bags, he explains, was sugar.

Maura Reynolds talked to people who lived in the apartment building in Ryazan back then. She says people were angry, and they thought their own government had tried to kill them. Though, of course, since this was Russia--

Maura Reynolds

They wouldn't say it quite that way. What they would say over and over again was in the form of a question. Whose interests were served by this? Who had something to gain? It doesn't make sense, but who had something to gain?

Robyn Semien

Would you ask them, who do you think?

Maura Reynolds

Yeah.

Robyn Semien

And what would people say?

Maura Reynolds

Who else? The government. But let me say that some weren't willing to go to say that out loud.

They would say, who had something to gain? And then there would be a pause, and they would raise their eyebrows. And I would say, who do you think? And they'd say, who do you think?

Robyn Semien

At the time there was still something of a free press. People could speak out and did.

Woman

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

This is tape from a TV special on an independent channel, the NTV network, which has since been taken over by the state. The special is like a talk show with a host, some FSB higher-ups, and people from the building who are pretty mad. Again, this comes from the documentary Disbelief.

Man

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

He's saying, "The people of Ryazan and many other towns just do not believe all these stories. I'm sitting here and just cannot believe the story the FSB is telling. I myself am a military officer. I was a senior officer for 28 years. I was in charge of countless exercises. What these generals are claiming about this so-called exercise, I just can't believe my ears."

All of this unfolds very quickly. Putin becomes prime minister in August. The bombings are in September. The war starts in September also. Putin is the public face of the war, and it's going well. This is when his popularity soars.

And on New Year's Eve at midnight, the president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, makes an announcement.

Boris Yeltsin

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Scott Anderson

Boris Yeltsin announces-- complete shocking announcement-- that he's going to retire. He's going to resign the presidency, effective immediately. He names Vladimir Putin acting president.

Putin's very first act, his very first presidential decree, is to stop all the corruption investigations into Boris Yeltsin. These investigations have been going on. The elections are supposed to be in June. Instead he moves them up to March, which gives opposition parties very little time to organize. And then he wins the presidency outright in March.

So in this incredibly short period, about eight months, he goes from being a complete unknown to being the president of Russia.

Robyn Semien

Maura Reynolds says when Ryazan happened she saw it in local news reports, but it wasn't a huge story. The FSB may or may not have planted explosives. It wasn't clear what it meant. And it was quickly drowned out by the invasion and the war.

Only in retrospect did it start to seem significant. And in retrospect there were other pieces of evidence that started to seem important. I'll tell you one more.

Right after one of the bombs went off in Moscow-- this was the third bomb-- the speaker of the Russian parliament, a guy named Seleznyov, mentioned the bomb, but got the city wrong. Mind you, he was in Moscow, and the bomb was in Moscow. But he said the bomb went off in Volgodonsk. Here's Scott Anderson.

Scott Anderson

So you could say, oh, somehow he said Volgodonsk instead of Moscow, except that three days later an apartment building in Volgodonsk was blown up--

Robyn Semien

Wow.

Scott Anderson

--raising the question of how Seleznyov knew about the bombing three days ahead of time.

Robyn Semien

The next thing that happens is--

Zhirinovsky

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

--after the bomb finally did go off in Volgodonsk, another member of parliament, a guy named Zhirinovsky, confronts the speaker about how suspicious this looked. He says, you told us on Monday that a building in Volgodonsk was blown up three days before the explosion.

Zhirinovsky

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Zhirinovsky calls the act monstrous and says he'll try to keep the speaker from being re-elected, but he's hard to hear because they keep cutting his microphone off.

Zhirinovsky

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Someone calls Zhirinovsky a scumbag and then a scoundrel who deserves to be shot. Finally Zhirinovsky turns around, walks away, and gets hit in the back with a folder of papers.

There was an official government investigation into the apartment bombings-- trials, convictions-- all held in private, not open to the public or press. People were convicted. They were not FSB agents. They were not Chechens either. There have been people outside the government who tried to look deeper into the bombings, but overall that hasn't gone well, most notably an independent commission of human rights activists, politicians, and investigators. Again, Scott.

Scott Anderson

The head of that commission was killed, was murdered, shot to death in front of his house. Another member of the committee died under mysterious circumstances. Anna Politkovskaya, investigative journalist, one of Russia's leading investigative journalists, was murdered in her apartment building. She had written about the-- casting doubts on the apartment building bombings.

And of course, Alexander Litvinenko came out publicly accusing the Putin regime of doing the apartment building bombings. He is poisoned with polonium in London in 2006 and dies.

Robyn Semien

Radioactive poison, polonium-210, slipped into his tea. A British investigation determined two FSB agents had killed Litvinenko and that Putin had likely signed off on it.

In his autobiography which came out in 2000, Putin roundly denied any FSB involvement in the bombings, writing, quote, "What? Blowing up our own apartment buildings? You know, that is really utter nonsense. It's totally insane. No one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people," unquote.

David Satter has been researching this since it happened and has written two books about it. He's convinced the story went like this. Before the bombings, even before Putin came to power, Boris Yeltsin and his administration were plagued with corruption investigations. He worried they could eventually point to him and his family, especially if some other party or someone unsympathetic to him became president.

So he looked to appoint a prime minister who he could trust. He fired two other guys in just three months before landing on Putin. Then he and Putin together had the apartments blown up as the pretext to go to war and, in the patriotic glow, to install Putin and quash the corruption investigations.

Scott and Maura aren't so sure. For Maura, when it comes to the bombings, she gets that something was done by design and that it appears to be for political purposes. But as for who was behind the bombings exactly, she can't tell.

Maura Reynolds

If you ask me what I think, I have to say, to this day, I do not know. But this is what I would say, is that right now, it doesn't matter.

Robyn Semien

What do you mean?

Maura Reynolds

Because whether the government or people around Putin played a role or whether they didn't, the effect is the same. Either you believe what they said about the bombings, that there were terrorists out to kill ordinary Russians, in which case you are frightened and the world is a very scary place.

Or you believe that your government or someone connected to the government could be bloody minded enough to kill 300 innocent civilians in their beds, in which case the world is a very scary place and you should be frightened. This is how it works in a police state. You should be frightened. And that's how the government exercises control.

Robyn Semien

It's been nearly two decades since the bombings. And I wanted to know, what do people in Russia think about them? Putin is still their president. How big a deal are they? Are people walking around wondering if their president came to power by killing hundreds of Russian citizens?

So I interviewed four people who live in Moscow. None of them said they were big supporters of Putin. Three of the four had heard the rumor that he was behind the bombings. None of them believed it or wanted to believe it. "I can't know the truth, so I can't say," a 42-year-old screenwriter told me. A 22-year-old student I talked to said she didn't want to know if it was true.

As for Ryazan, only one of the four, a telecommunications specialist, had heard anything about Ryazan-- the sacks of sugar, any of that. He knew all the details though, read a book about it. And he believes Ryazan was an FSB drill. The one person who'd never heard the story that Putin might be behind the bombings was Yuliya, a 40-year-old lawyer.

Yuliya

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Interpreter

It's just not something that people discuss. The media doesn't say anything about it, the families don't talk to each other about this, and friends don't talk about this to each other.

Robyn Semien

Does it just seem like old news?

Yuliya

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Interpreter

Yes, absolutely.

Robyn Semien

So I ran through all the facts with her, all the evidence that Putin might be behind the bombings. She said she didn't care. Does it sound like a ridiculous theory, I asked. Yes, she said, most likely some ridiculous theory.

Ira Glass

Robyn Semien.

Act Two: Mr. Popular

Ira Glass

Act Two, Mr. Popular. So one of the notable things about Vladimir Putin is that for years he's had stunningly high approval ratings among Russians. In January and early February of this year as tensions rose with Ukraine, his approval numbers rose with them to 71% from the 60s. And back in 2017 when we first broadcast today's program, the press was reporting that his approval ratings were something like 84%, which for a US president, that would be just unthinkable.

And we wondered, is that real at all, that 84%, or is that from some institution controlled by Putin? So back then we asked Charles Maynes to look into this for us. He is now NPR's Moscow correspondent.

Charles Maynes

Well, it is real. I mean, these are real polls where large numbers of real people really do answer questions. Russia has two big polling firms that are essentially state sponsored and one that's independent. And all three of these get basically the same numbers. This month, Putin dropped by 2% to 82%. And American pollsters like Gallup and Pew, they also get the same results.

Ira Glass

In the 80s?

Charles Maynes

Yeah, in the 80s.

Ira Glass

But are people just saying that they like Putin because they are scared to say anything else?

Charles Maynes

Well, that's part of it, especially with older people. There was a poll done by this Levada Center-- this is the independent pollster in Russia-- saying that 26% of all respondents said they're afraid to share their views of the government with pollsters. So that probably inflates the number, but just how much isn't really clear.

Ira Glass

So OK, if 82% isn't the right number, do we have any sense of what a more accurate measure of his popularity might be?

Charles Maynes

Well, some pollsters say it's the so-called electoral rating. This is when you ask Russians who they'd actually vote for. Like the Levada Center has this poll they do where they say, if the presidential elections were held next Sunday, who would you vote for? And then only 55% say they'd vote for Putin.

And that's, again, the independent pollsters. The state one has a figure that's a little higher, 64%. But that's hardly the 82%, 84% that we've seen.

Ira Glass

So what I get from this is take the 82%, 84% approval rating with a grain of salt, but it is true that most people approve of him?

Charles Maynes

Yeah. He's still really popular.

Ira Glass

OK, so to hear what that approval is all about and what people think of him, we asked you to talk to some people who like him, which you did, people across the country. And then you put together this story about one of them.

Charles Maynes

This is someone I knew wouldn't exaggerate their feelings about the president because they were talking to a foreign reporter, someone I've known for decades.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

That's her talking here, Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva. I lived with Olga Sergeevna and her two children back in the mid-90s when I was an exchange student in Moscow. It was a good five years before Putin arrived on the scene. Over the years she took in several American exchange students.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

That's her telling me I was her favorite. And I tell her I always say I have a Russian mom.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

She says, I always say I have an American son who I don't see as much as I like. We took the tram to her apartment building through the neighborhood I lived in with her family back in the '90s, and she started pointing out all these changes-- a new playground, new stores.

And just by the new museum they're building a community pool. Now, none of this was here back when I lived with them. It's all part of the prosperity that's come to Moscow since Putin came to power. And it's why Olga Sergeevna and lots of people in her generation-- she's in her 60s-- it's why they love Putin.

When I lived with Olga Sergeevna and her family Boris Yeltsin was president, and things in Russia were really, really tough. In fact, there's a poll for that. It says 68% of Russians think nothing good happened in Russia during the Yeltsin years, nothing.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Olga Sergeevna says life was hard back then. People didn't have enough money. Grocery stores were empty. And they only began to clear with the arrival of Vladimir Putin.

It seems almost hard to remember now, but when Putin first arrived as prime minister in 1999 Russians had no idea who he was. He was this awkward public speaker back then. His suits were ill fitting. The guy never smiled.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Hardly, says Olga Sergeevna, the specimen she sees now.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

She told me Putin's appearance was predicted earlier, when mystics said one day a man named Volodya would save Russia. Volodya is short for Vladimir. Lots of the older generation will tell you stuff like this.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Nobody thought that savior would be Putin. I mean, let's face it, she says. He's kind of short. No one believed he'd change Russia, that Russia would rise from its knees. But it did rise from its knees. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was seen as this buffoon-- visibly drunk in meetings with world leaders, an embarrassment.

Putin was younger. He didn't drink. The fact that he was a former KGB agent at least meant he was disciplined and educated. He spoke German, practiced judo. And he brought an end to the chaos of the Yeltsin years during which the ruble had collapsed several times, the government was constantly reshuffled, and a few insiders, the so-called oligarchs, became billionaires while most everyone else lost their savings.

But as soon as Putin took over, the economy boomed, mostly because of oil prices shooting up. And soon he exiled or arrested oligarchs who'd been running the country behind the scenes. A lot of people talk about how Putin saved Russia.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

If you compare 1994 and 2017, Olga Sergeevna says, the difference is night and day. In 1994 and '95, we didn't celebrate holidays. Nobody was in a festive mood. The theaters were all closed because nobody went. Nobody had money.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Under Putin, she says, she lives a comfortable life-- has a job, can afford to travel, can go out to eat or to the theater. It's hard to overstate how important this is. During Putin's first decade in power Russians had never lived better, particularly in the bigger cities. People like Olga Sergeevna became part of something that was happening for the first time ever in Russia, the emergence of a middle class.

Over time, this economic miracle turned Putin into sort of a folk hero. There's the side of him we know in America, the guy flying jets or riding horses shirtless. But in Russia he's cultivated this image that he's frugal, lives modestly, works all the time.

A political analyst told me Putin's seen as the only one who can fix anything or improve people's lives, the one who keeps corrupt bureaucrats in check. He's the good czar. For Olga Sergeevna it wasn't just that Putin made the country better. It was that he could do no wrong.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

I love Putin.

Charles Maynes

Why?

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Because he's smart, intelligent, cultured, athletic, she says. He's even a musician, plays and sings.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

I asked her if there's anything he can't do. Her response--

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

He can't cook, but he doesn't need to. Finally I said, come on. Isn't there anything you don't like about him, anything at all?

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

Nyet. Nyet. Nyet. Nyet. No!

Charles Maynes

While we were talking, Olga Sergeevna brought me over to her computer, started scrolling through her Facebook page. She subscribes to a Putin feed just to see what he's up to. And her feed is filled with pictures of him-- Putin snarling, Putin laughing. Doesn't he look like a benevolent lord, she says.

I just want to point out here that Olga Sergeevna doesn't work for the government or Putin's United Russia party. She's an accountant. She has been for decades, with a daughter who lives in London and a son who works for an American tech company.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

One of the things Olga Sergeevna likes best is that Putin stands up to the West. And this is a big thing for Russians.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

As Putin likes to say, when they curse me in the West, it means I'm doing the right thing.

When it comes to the bad things Americans hear about Putin-- that he's corrupt, that he's secretly one of the world's richest men, or that he's meddled in the American elections-- Olga Sergeevna says that's all lies perpetuated by Western journalists, people like me, a reminder that we have this ongoing joke where she tells me to leave our Putin alone. And she says she means it.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

I ask her about the many opponents of Putin's who've ended up dead-- the journalist Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB whistleblower who was poisoned with a radioactive isotope. Who poisoned him, she asked. Some say it was Putin, I tell her. Oh, please. Everyone says it's Putin.

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

The moment somebody sneezes or farts in Russia, Putin is to blame. I say, but what about the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov? He was killed. But she interrupts me and says--

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Charles Maynes

Nothing of the sort, nothing of the sort. There was an investigation. Nemtsov died over a love triangle. She doesn't buy any of it. In fact, a lot of Olga Sergeevna's opinions are things you might hear on state TV. But I think with Olga Sergeevna and the other people I talked to, people who love Putin, the moments I understand them best are when they talk about the past, everything they went through before Putin arrived.

It's why sometimes I think the real reason people like Putin is not because they believe he'll keep moving Russia forward into the future. It's because they fear someone else, anyone else, might drive Russia back to the past.

Ira Glass

Charles Maynes in Moscow. This past week, he phoned Olga the day that Moscow invaded Ukraine to find out what she thought. She thinks Putin made the right call, that he was going in to help the separatists in Eastern Ukraine who've declared themselves independent of Ukraine and pro-Moscow. She believes Ukrainian authorities were going to attack people in that territory with arms they got from the United States.

The President of Ukraine, Zelensky, she told Charles he's a clown. Biden's a dope. Putin, still the smartest of the pack.

Coming up, another reason Russians see Putin the way they do. We get to know the disinformation mastermind who reshaped the world of Russian politics into what it is now. That is in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Maybe Pay Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain  

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Other Mr. President, stories of Vladimir Putin and those around him. We've arrived at Act Three of our program-- Act Three, Maybe Pay a Little Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.

There's a quote that we heard while we were working on today's program back in 2017 from a writer named Peter Pomerantsev. He said that if the old Soviet Union was 75% violence, 25% propaganda, in today's Russia those numbers are reversed. It's 25% violence and 75% propaganda. And propaganda was radically reinvented under Vladimir Putin, its tactics and its methods, by this one political operative. Sean Cole explains.

Sean Cole

The operative's name is Vladislav Surkov. He was Putin's deputy chief for more than a decade, starting in 1999. In Russia he's what's referred to as a political technologist, but those are a dime a dozen. At the top of his powers, Surkov had a much more ominous, if unofficial title. He was known as a gray cardinal.

He doesn't look like a shadowy mastermind. He sort of resembles Rowan Atkinson, the actor who played Mr. Bean, except handsomer. And he actually doesn't manage propaganda at the Kremlin anymore. But the methods he invented to manipulate people and information, I've even heard them called artistic.

See, in the Soviet era the country was run by the Communist Party and the propagandists pumped out literally the party line and tried to suppress all other opposing messages. And then the Iron Curtain fell, a whole bunch of new political parties were created, and it was the messy early stages of a real democracy with parties bickering and vying for power.

And then when Putin became president-- I'm obviously skipping over a lot here-- his right-hand man, Surkov, helped solidify the Kremlin's power by putting together this party called United Russia, which gained majority in parliament and backed Putin. And then instead of tamping down the opposition like the old days, Surkov built a new system where there was opposition, but he dictated what the opposition stood for.

Vasily Gatov

You do not allow political parties to create their own agendas. You just write these agendas for them.

Sean Cole

This is Vasily Gatov. He's been a very high-level player in Russian media for nearly 20 years. These days, he's a visiting fellow at the Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership, and Policy.

Vasily Gatov

Well, we decide one of our parties is left party with some sort of communism. Another party is you're a socialist. And the third party is deep conservative, kind of evangelicals. And the fourth party would be sort of liberal radicals. And that's what Surkov actually constructed.

Sean Cole

And he created whole new political parties and wrote their agendas.

Vasily Gatov

For example, he created a party called Spravedlivaya Rossiya, Just Russia.

Sean Cole

Just Russia.

Vasily Gatov

Yeah. It was a political cadaver.

Sean Cole

Are you saying cadaver like a corpse?

Vasily Gatov

Cadaver, like a cadaver.

Sean Cole

Like Frankenstein.

Vasily Gatov

Frankenstein, yeah.

Sean Cole

Got it.

Vasily Gatov

Created from some sort of pieces of socialist, labor, activist, more pro-government type of labor unions. He also decided that he cannot allow any grassroot activities which would not be vetted by Kremlin. So he decided that he will create also youth movements and write agenda for them.

And he also tried to do the same thing with NGOs, like political NGOs or those that control elections' transparency or expose corruption, sort of writing agendas for every one of them in the Kremlin.

Sean Cole

It's like directing a movie in a way.

Vasily Gatov

Absolutely. I would even provide you with a very funny hypothesis. In 2001, I think, Russia has been invaded by reality shows, things like Survivor, Big Brother. And he was amazed how scripting can improve even those likely spontaneous interactions between people. And I know that he was very good friends with all the producers of these reality shows. And actually, I think he was once even present at the filming of the Russian version of Survivor.

Sean Cole

No way.

Vasily Gatov

Yeah.

Sean Cole

And he's like, if they can do that on TV, sort of fake reality in TV, maybe we can fake reality in reality.

Vasily Gatov

In a way, yeah.

Sean Cole

By 2003, so about four years into Surkov's tenure as gray cardinal, Vasily says Surkov had built up a whole cadre of deputies that would carry out his agenda with these different parties and other groups. I asked Vasily for an example of how all this worked, and he told me what everybody told me when I asked for specifics. He said, it's not like I was in the room with him. I don't know exactly what he said to whom, nor when.

He did tell me about this one case that he heard about from someone who worked with Surkov. In 2004, Vladimir Putin decided that governors shouldn't be elected anymore. They should be appointed by him. It's a long story. But at first, every other political party besides Putin's was against the idea, genuinely against it. But then Surkov manipulated them over to his side. It helped that he controlled their funding and the number of seats they got in the Duma.

And then the parties went through this whole drawn-out public drama, which had all the trappings of democracy. The bill was submitted. There were arguments for and against it, protests around the country. People announce they've changed their minds. There were several votes. And finally, after three months, it passes. All of this, Vasily says, was scripted by Surkov's people.

The name you hear for all these techniques is managed democracy. Surkov uses the phrase sovereign democracy. I suggested to one person I talked to that managed democracy sounds like a contradiction in terms. He said, exactly. It just means there's no democracy.

I don't want to overstate Surkov's power, nor his malevolence. Apparently he was much more carrot than stick in his approach, explaining why, no, you really want to align yourself with the Kremlin. Here's what's to be gained. And he didn't try to do this with everybody.

Vasily Gatov

He maintained, under this managed or sovereign democracy, a certain level of dissent.

Sean Cole

Some actual opposition.

Vasily Gatov

Actual opposition, both in society and press, and even enjoyed this dissent because it was developing natural leaders like Navalny.

Sean Cole

That's Alexei Navalny. You may have heard of him. He's a high-profile activist. He's considered to be the only real opponent to Putin, except he can't run against Putin because Putin's people had him arrested, and you can't run for president in Russia if you have a criminal record.

Vasily Gatov

To be honest, Navalny emerged within these sandboxes of allowed freedom that Surkov created. And it was important for him because it was making his camouflage of autocracy much better looking.

Sean Cole

The more you hear about Surkov the man, the more it makes you understand how his whole Truman Show theatrical directing of society developed. He has all of these opposing factions inside of him too, all working in an unlikely but perfect concert together. Back in the early '90s he was a PR guy, designing ads for the richest oligarch in Russia.

At that point Surkov said he wanted to be like, quote, "the hero in Pretty Woman." He meant the Richard Gere character. But he's also a huge fan of the anti-bureaucracy, gay, Buddhist beat poet Allen Ginsberg. This is Surkov reciting Ginsberg's poem "Sunflower Sutra" from memory.

Vladislav Surkov

And you there standing before me in the sunset and all your glory in your form-- a perfect beauty of a sunflower.

Sean Cole

You might be able to tell that Surkov studied theater, but he got kicked out of the Moscow Institute of Culture after a fistfight, reportedly. He's written lyrics for a Russian band called Agata Kristi. And so you marry PR and art and performance, plus his time at Russia's main state TV network Channel One-- managed democracy was just the natural culmination.

Vasily Gatov

He was kind of entertaining himself.

Sean Cole

Again, Vasily Gatov.

Vasily Gatov

It was really funny for him to make these things happen, to achieve certain results, and sort of creative building of reality. Again, as I said, it's a very much Big Brother type of scripting.

Sean Cole

He means the reality show Big Brother.

Vasily Gatov

I mean, you need to create a conflict, and this conflict will create the conflict. And then we just roll it out, and people will vote, and that would be fun.

Sean Cole

Besides which, he could totally get away with it. Because not only was he good at it, but in Surkov's time as gray cardinal not very many people were paying attention.

Vasily Gatov

At this moment people were absolutely uninterested in politics because Russia had a natural economic growth of about 9% a year. And the ruble was kind of taking strength. Credit was extremely cheap. The country was booming. It's easy to build autocracy when country's booming because nobody cares about politics.

Sean Cole

Right.

Vasily Gatov

And I think Surkov was enjoying this moment because he was not only kind of a shadow cardinal, but he actually was openly cardinaling the situation.

Sean Cole

That is, after a certain point he wouldn't take very many pains to hide what he was doing, which I can imagine the feeling. Here he is carrying off all of these feats of manipulation in secret. You'd think he'd want a little credit.

On this point, there was a moment when Surkov seemed to be showing his cards a little bit, deliberately. It's a story that Peter Pomerantsev likes to tell. He's the journalist that I recorded earlier. Peter used to work in reality TV in Russia, and he's written a lot about Surkov.

Peter Pomerantsev

This liberal blogger, liberal photo blogger-- he has a very, very popular blog-- took some photos of the office.

Sean Cole

Of Surkov's office?

Peter Pomerantsev

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sean Cole

He was there to photograph an official meeting, but he said on his blog that he was much more interested in what was in the office.

Peter Pomerantsev

And that's where you have the phones on his desk with the names of all the opposition political parties.

Sean Cole

Like literally there's a whole mess of phones. And on one of them in particular, next to the numbers, there's a bank of buttons labeled Mironov, Zhirinovsky, Zyuganov, all heads of parties.

Peter Pomerantsev

And you have the portrait of-- the photo of Tupac Shakur next to like Machiavelli or something.

Sean Cole

Yes, Tupac Shakur the rapper. It's actually next to a picture of Barack Obama.

Peter Pomerantsev

And at the time everyone was like, oh my god, wow, we've got to see inside Surkov's office. And then many years later when everybody realized that Surkov had been funding this liberal blogger, everyone was like, oh my god, he leaked that. He wanted us to feel his power.

Sean Cole

And he wanted to create an atmosphere where you can never really tell what's true anymore, so everything is suspect. That was absolutely intentional. Surkov himself has come just shy of saying it openly.

Peter Pomerantsev

He talks about it in his book.

Sean Cole

This is another shape Surkov is reported to have shifted into. He wrote a novel under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky. He won't admit it's really him, but Surkov's wife is named Natalya Dubovitskaya. So everyone's like, nutty coincidence.

The book's called Almost Zero, or Close to Zero. It's about a PR guy who grew up in the sticks, like Surkov did, moved to Moscow to hang out with bohemian artists, like Surkov did, and is now embroiled in the seedy, murderous underworld of illegal book publishing and distribution. Oh, and it's got an English subtitle-- Gangsta Fiction.

In any case, Peter says there are these really telling passages in which the hero realizes, oh, wait, everything's made up-- language, politics, every ideology. Everything's fake. I can see through it all. It's an epic kind of cynicism.

Peter Pomerantsev

It's not cynicism as in like, oh, I don't believe in anything, but almost like, oh my god, I've burst through the shallow shells of morality and ideology and belief.

Sean Cole

It's like "I'm seeing behind the matrix" kind of thing.

Peter Pomerantsev

Yeah, very much. The Matrix was a super popular film in Russia.

Sean Cole

I bet.

Peter Pomerantsev

Which makes sense if you think about Russian history. I mean, this generation like Surkov or like Putin, they've lived through Communism. They've lived through the mafia state. They've lived through fake democracy, through sort of religious national socialism or an empire building, which they have now.

And it's all the same people. And they've gone through so many different modes of being in the last-- what-- 30 years in such blistering progression that they're kind of left with the feeling that everything is a masquerade. So when Surkov says everything is controlled in a construct, what he's actually saying is not a confession. It's a piece of psychological propaganda to say, so there's no point struggling for anything.

Don't even try to do any of your silly protest movements. So in a way you're killing-- if you tell people that everything is a conspiracy, it doesn't lead people to revolt. It leads people to go--

Sean Cole

Give up.

Peter Pomerantsev

--well, then I might as well give up.

Sean Cole

Yeah, yeah.

Peter Pomerantsev

But again, we might be overinterpreting here. But it's a book, so we're allowed to.

Sean Cole

Like I said before, Surkov is no longer the grand manager of propaganda in Russia. He was sidelined in 2011 after a dispute with Putin. But he stayed a personal advisor to the president, and he was also an organizer of Russia's takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine in 2014. His involvement in that annexation got him sanctioned by the West, meaning he's not allowed to travel to the US or Europe anymore, and he can't have assets in the West either.

Surkov was unfazed. "The only things that interest me in the US," he said, "are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work," which, you know, good comeback.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our show. Surkov, by the way, seems to have been one of the people overseeing Russia's Ukraine policy until a few years ago. There's some hacked emails from his account in 2014 when pro-Moscow separatist groups in Ukraine had declared that two territories on the Russian border were no longer part of Ukraine.

In the email Surkov seems to be managing them. In one of the emails, Surkov received a list of potential leaders for these supposedly independent regions of Ukraine with asterisks by certain names as the best options. And he was asked in one email to edit a statement that allegedly came from Ukrainians living in the separatist-held territories. In 2020, Surkov was fired by Vladimir Putin without any public explanation. One headline about that read, "Putin fires his puppet master."

Act Four: A Matter of Principal (podcast only)

Ira Glass

Act Four, A Matter of Principle. Let's talk about the people in Russia who don't like Vladimir Putin. There have been protests against the invasion of Ukraine across Russia-- in Moscow, St. Petersburg, other cities. A group that monitors the protests, OVD Info, said that in just the first two days since the invasion over 1,800 protesters were arrested in 60 Russian cities.

Back in 2017 when we first broadcast today's program, there were protests all over the country organized by Putin's most prominent critic, the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny, about government corruption. In the years since 2017, Navalny was poisoned, fled to Berlin for treatment. German authorities said the nerve agent that poisoned him must have come from the Russian government. When he returned to Russia, he was arrested. He's in prison today.

But in 2017 he was turning out huge crowds of young people who showed up because of these great videos that he'd do online about the issues. After the protests teenagers started posting their own videos to the internet of their teachers lecturing them about the protests, telling them they were wrong about the issues, and the kids arguing back.

Joshua Yaffa

You were called in for a lecture by your principal. You think the very idea of your principal lecturing you on the subject of protest is either unjust or absurd or funny or whatever. And so you film it and post it, just like, I think, a lot of 16, 17-year-olds might be tempted to do anywhere.

Ira Glass

Joshua Yaffa is a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine in Moscow. And he wrote about one of these videos that was filmed in the provincial town of Bryansk, 200 miles from Moscow. Apparently there was a student there who tried to enlist other kids to go to the protests, which led to their principal and homeroom teacher to talk to them, which they filmed.

Joshua Yaffa

It's obvious that it was filmed surreptitiously. You see a lot of the desk in front of you and kind of half cut-off shots of the school principal in front of a chalkboard.

Ira Glass

OK, and I should say that most of it is just completely black. You see nothing, and you hear sound. And then occasionally the camera sort of bops up.

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

She's essentially saying, with a tone in her voice that suggests you kind of naive, juvenile, somewhat immature in the ways of the world students are interested in this guy Navalny. What does he really stand for? What is he really offering or suggesting other than just getting rid of the country's leaders?

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

The principal says, guys, I can see that you're looking at this problem one-sidedly and that you lack range in your political view. You see Navalny, you watch his video, and boom, you believe it all.

Ira Glass

When you wrote about this recording in The New Yorker, you described her tone as hectoring and frustrated.

Joshua Yaffa

I would say that that's really the most interesting or striking thing about the whole video to me, which is to me it sounds like Kira Petrovna, the principal, is experiencing something between confusion, exasperation, anger. I think she's really at a loss. She doesn't understand them, maybe, in the same way that-- I don't know-- five years ago, seven years ago, there was something more shared between her and her students.

Ira Glass

At one point she starts defending Vladimir Putin, saying, you can't blame him for the bad economy. That's because of the sanctions that the European Union and the United States imposed on Russia. And she says on the world stage and foreign policy he's doing a great job, which the students challenge.

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

The student is asking the principal, OK, so what is our foreign policy? America is against us. Europe is against us. And the principal says, OK, well, why is that? What's the reason? And the student, without thinking, says, well, that's because of Crimea. We took it.

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

And the principal, responding with some surprise or indignation, says, so was that bad?

Ira Glass

Because in most of Russia it's seen as like a patriotic thing to have taken Crimea.

Joshua Yaffa

Yeah. The annexation of Crimea is incredibly popular. It's widely perceived to have been a good thing basically.

Ira Glass

And then the homeroom teacher jumps in and argues with the kids over Crimea.

Teacher

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ira Glass

The teacher says, did we really take Crimea? Didn't they vote and choose to become part of Russia? The kids correctly point out, yes, Russia did take Crimea, and the sanctions were the result. Soon the conversation turns to the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Russia officially denies that its soldiers are there, but all kinds of evidence has come out proving that this is untrue.

Joshua Yaffa

And the principal is essentially trying to blame the crisis in Ukraine on America.

Ira Glass

Let me read exactly what she says because it's so aggressive. She says, kid, you haven't read anything about this, and you don't know a thing.

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ira Glass

You've got some very superficial knowledge here.

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ira Glass

What started this whole conflict? Maybe it was because America stuck its nose in. And then they start to argue.

Joshua Yaffa

Right. And the student asks somewhat mockingly of the principal, did you see American troops in Ukraine?

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

And the principal says, did you see Russian troops in Ukraine? And this is this moment where the student reveals just this like basic, elementary, non-ideological factual knowledge, and the student just says, yes.

Student

Da.

Joshua Yaffa

There are videos going around. And then comes really maybe my favorite line-- you have no idea.

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Joshua Yaffa

And that to me gets to the key point of this whole dialogue, which is the kids just have access to this information and just a worldview that they've gotten on the internet themselves, information that's not on state TV. And that alone seems kind of somewhat destabilizing or uncomfortable for the principal.

Ira Glass

The kids don't watch TV the way older Russians do. The principal tells them, OK, you don't remember how bad it was here before Putin. The country was in chaos. People had to carry guns and knives. And this is when I was in college.

Kira Petrovna

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Ira Glass

When she says this and when she parrots talking points that you might hear on Russian state TV, she seems totally sincere. As an American watching this, it's one of the things that's actually most interesting about this video. You think that these government talking points on Crimea or Ukraine or whatever, you wonder if authorities are just mouthing these points and they don't actually believe them. When you hear the principal, she seems totally emotional when she runs through these talking points.

Joshua Yaffa

But those talking points are, in a way, emotional, couched in the language of patriotism and appeal to history-- Russia as a great power, Russia as this besieged fortress surrounded by enemies who wish it harm. And the students just seem less receptive to those messages.

Ira Glass

At one point the kids openly laugh at the country's ruling political party, President Putin's party, United Russia.

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Students

[SNICKERING]

Ira Glass

We're against United Russia, the kid's saying. The student asked everybody to raise their hands who is against United Russia. And then you get the sense-- this part is dark in the video. You get the sense that lots of hands are going up.

Student

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Students

[CHATTERING]

Ira Glass

This is one of the things that's interesting to me about this, because I feel like we read about how the Russian government sort of floods the zone in their own country with all kinds of misinformation and disinformation to make people feel that Putin is doing a great job. And here it seems like you have a bunch of kids who just seem utterly immune to it.

Joshua Yaffa

Yeah. And that, I think, must freak out the political advisors and political technologists, as they're called here in Russia, in the Kremlin who just seem to have lost the country's youth. They just don't seem to be able to come up with the kind of messages and rhetoric that, for an older generation, worked so easily and naturally, and it flowed with so little resistance.

Ira Glass

Joshua Yaffa of The New Yorker magazine in Moscow.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, the original version of today's program back in 2017 was produced by Jonathan Menjivar. Our update of the program today was produced by Chris Benderev and David Kestenbaum with help from Mike Comite, Katherine Rae Mondo, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney.

Special thanks today to Alisa Sopova, Oleg Krishtal, Dan Charles, Christopher Miller, Tanya Lokot, Mika Golubovsky, John Earle, Robin Hessman, Max Pozdorovkin, Matvey Kulakov, Andrew Wilson, Arkady Ostrovsky, Christopher Chivvis, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, John Dunlop, Yuri Felstinsky, Andrei Nekrasov, Anastacia Anishchenko, Ramzia Polizzi, Neli Esipova, Nikolai Zlobin, and Alexey Kovalev.

Our translation of the Russian student video was done by the website Global Voices. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Obviously, like so many public figures, people ask him all the time, did he ever meet with Russian officials during the transition to Donald Trump's presidency?

Olga Sergeevna Dmitrieva

Nyet. Nyet. Nyet. Nyet. No!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.