My Father’s Daughter | Crooked Media
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July 25, 2022
Another Russia
My Father’s Daughter

In This Episode

In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a young physicist named Boris Nemtsov becomes active in politics and runs for office as the Soviet Union is collapsing. Decades later, his daughter Zhanna Nemtsova tells the story of how her father became the heir apparent to the Russian presidency.

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Ben Rhodes Okay. You ready?

Zhanna Nemtsova I am.

Ben Rhodes Okay. So why don’t we just start, like, introduce yourself Zhanna.

Zhanna Nemtsova My name is Zhanna Nemtsova. I’m a Russian journalist and activist. I’m 38 years old. I’m really old.

Ben Rhodes No, that’s not old. That’s my friend Zhanna Nemtsova. We’re recording this studio in Holland. It’s a few weeks into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. She’s Russian, but she hasn’t lived in Russia for the last seven years. She had to leave her home because of who she is and who her father was.

Zhanna Nemtsova My father was Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal opposition politician. He was assassinated in Russia in February 2015.

Ben Rhodes So, Zhanna, at the time, you’re living your life in Moscow, you’re working as a journalist for RBC, a Russian broadcaster. Can you take us back to February 27th, 2015? What were you doing that day?

Zhanna Nemtsova It was Friday. It was my last day in office before a much anticipated holiday. I was planning to go to Italy with my mother to spend one week there. One of my colleagues approached me and he asked me, “Could we invite your father to take part in our program today? So we’re going to discuss Ukraine”. And I told my father, I said, “you know, my colleague would like to invite you for the evening show, for the main evening show”. He said, “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to. You are busy. It’s not an important channel for me. Nobody watches your channel at all. No. I am now organizing a major antiwar protest, and today I will appear on Echo of Moscow radio station. Everybody listens to Echo of Moscow Radio Station. No RBC. Bye bye”.

Ben Rhodes That radio station, Echo of Moscow, was shut down by Putin’s censorship laws earlier this year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But back in 2015, it was still on air, and Putin had just started chipping away at Ukraine by annexing an area called Crimea.

Reporter With cheering crowds greeting him, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, turning a Russian holiday commemorating World War II into a celebration of Putin’s new Russia.

Ben Rhodes Boris was taking a risk in speaking out against this. But Zhanna says she couldn’t have imagined what happened next.

Zhanna Nemtsova I came home. I was waiting for my mother to come. She took a train to Moscow. And she arrived really late, at 11 p.m. probably. It was a one bedroom apartment, like a studio. My mother slept on the sofa in the living room. And I think at midnight I heard her crying and yelling. And I thought, my my immediate thought was that an intruder had broken into our apartment and about to steal something.

Ben Rhodes So you wake at you’re –.

Zhanna Nemtsova I woke up.

Ben Rhodes You’re, you’re fast asleep, you get, you wake up hearing your mother.

Zhanna Nemtsova Yeah. And she just she just came into my room and she said, your father was killed and he is dead. I was shocked and I couldn’t believe her words. I asked her, “Who said that?” She said “I got a call from Welga, my friend, and she told me that and it’s already in the news”. So I turned on my phone. I read some Russian language news outlets and I still could not believe it. And then I went directly to the CNN’s website. It was on the front page. And then I believed.

Reporter Breaking news coming in from Russia. Prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been shot and killed by an unknown assailant.

Ben Rhodes What’s going through your head like what are you thinking?

Zhanna Nemtsova Putin.

Ben Rhodes You’re just thinking Putin?

Zhanna Nemtsova Putin did it.

Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media, I’m Ben Rhodes.

Zhanna Nemtsova I’m Zhanna Nemtsova.

Ben Rhodes And this is Another Russia. I first met Zhanna in the spring of 2017. I had just finished eight years working in the Obama White House as deputy national security adviser, and I was trying to understand why the world was moving in the direction of nationalism and authoritarianism. The opposite of what I’d worked for all those years. Zhanna was also searching for something. The truth about who killed her dad and why. Both of us knew that the answers to those questions led, at least in part, to one man, Vladimir Putin. I had encountered what Putin had done from the perspective of the Situation Room, Oval Office phone calls, and many hours in meetings with the Russian government. But Zhanna and her family had lived the events that I’d experienced from a distance. Zhanna’s father was at the center of all the major turning points in Russia’s modern history. He was an activist for democracy as the Soviet Union collapsed.

News Clip I am ceasing my activities in the post of President of USSR.

Ben Rhodes He took on the newly minted oligarchs as Deputy Prime Minister.

News Clip We call them oligarchs. They’re buying up newspapers, airlines, oil companies.

Ben Rhodes He went from being the heir apparent to the presidency.

News Clip *In Russian*.

Ben Rhodes To the leader of the opposition when Putin took power. When he protested in the streets, he was thrown in prison. When Russia annexed Crimea, he raised the alarm bells about endless war and corruption.

News Clip Russia, Ukraine, Putin. *in Russian*

Ben Rhodes Then he was assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin.

News Clip Shot in the back. Right out in the open. Just blocks from the Kremlin.

News Clip *In Russian*

News Clip Shot four times from a passing car near the Kremlin in what some say looked like a contract killing.

Zhanna Nemtsova My life changed in one night. And there were two options for me. Either to keep silent or to speak up. And I decided to speak up.

Ben Rhodes On the day Zhanna’s father was killed, it wasn’t only her life that changed. So would Russia. Boris Nemtsov was far from a perfect man, but he represented the future that Russia lost. The road that was not taken.

Unidentified He was very unlike any Russian politician I ever met. He was just so incredibly full of vitality. Of life, of ideas.

Unidentified He was big. Actually, he not only physically, but also the energy around him.

Unidentified He was talking to this woman. He was talking to her as a real human being, respecting, as a voter. And she absolutely fell in love. He completely changed her mind.

Zhanna Nemtsova And I think that this love for my father is still the main driving force in my life. But once again, how can you explain that you love one person.

Ben Rhodes Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova You just love this person. And that’s it.

Ben Rhodes This is the story of what happened to an entire country. But more than that, it’s a story of one man and one family who was and still are fighting for another Russia. So we’re at the beginning of this podcast in a sense. Kind of thinking about this project. Why do you think this is an important time to be doing this? Like, what is the the value in telling this story now?

Zhanna Nemtsova In the West, discourse about Russia has been largely dominated by Vladimir Putin. And there is a notion which is, I think, wrong, that Russia cannot be a democracy. That it’s it’s cursed to be an autocracy forever and nothing can be done. Just give it up. And yes, other European nations in the East gave up on Russia. You see.

Ben Rhodes Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova So it’s personal for me because I want more people know about, about Boris Nemtsov. Not all Russians are represented by Putin. There are Russians who are represented by Boris Nemtsov. And those Russians are proud.

Ben Rhodes At every step. Boris Nemtsov was fighting for a different kind of Russia. A different Russia that today looks like a distant dream. So we’re going to tell Boris’s story to learn from his fight, his successes, his failures, his big ideas, and his warnings. It can tell us how we got here and maybe it can tell us something about what we should do next. This is episode one, “My Father’s Daughter”. Well, I want to go back all the way to the beginning. So tell us, where was Boris Nemtsov born? When and where was he born? And and what were the conditions like when he was born?

Zhanna Nemtsova His parents were from Gorky originally. His family was very poor, but my grandma was very serious about her children’s education. So my father was a brilliant student, but he didn’t want to have anything in common with the Soviet system. So my father chose a field that was not affected a lot by the Soviet system. So he decided to become a physicist.

Ben Rhodes And he did pretty well. During his ten years working at the university in Gorky, he published over 60 papers. Then in the early eighties, he met Zhanna’s mother, and in 1984, Zhanna was born. What are your your early memories of Gorky and your early memories of that time?

Zhanna Nemtsova So the historic name of the city is Nizhny Novgorod. But in the Soviet times it was renamed and they got the name of Gorky. Gorky was a talented Soviet writer, but Gorky actually has a second meaning in Russian. It means bitter. And I thought like, Oh, this name is justified because life in our city is is not happy at all. And we had food shortages.

Reporter People spend up to 3 hours a day waiting in line. The longest lines are at the vodka shops.

Zhanna Nemtsova We lived in a wooden house in the center of Gorky. We didn’t have a loo. We didn’t have a shower. We basically took a shower once a week. And it was normal.

Ben Rhodes Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova I didn’t have a babysitter and my parents wanted to go out to party and they would leave me alone. And they they used one trick. They told me “so sit on this bed because there are wolves everywhere on the floor”. And I was so much scared. When they left, I didn’t move. I truly believed that there were wolves all around. They would eat me if I got out of the bed.

Ben Rhodes In April 1986, when Zhanna was two, something happened that would change her family’s life and the Soviet Union forever. A nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine.

Reporter There has been a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union and the Soviets have admitted that it happened. The Soviet version is this. One of the atomic reactors at the Chernobyl atomic power plant near the city of Kiev was damaged. And there is speculation in Moscow that people were injured and may have died.

Ben Rhodes The radiation started seeping out, endangering hundreds of thousands of people, but the government kept it under wraps.

Reporter Tens of thousands of people will die as a result of Chernobyl, and the effects of its radioactive fallout are still being felt as far away as Britain.

Ben Rhodes It was a cover up and people were scared.

Reporter For 36 hours after the accident, there was still no warning. Yet each single hour men, women and children were getting more radiation than it’s safe to receive in a whole year.

Zhanna Nemtsova People were very much concerned about radiation. They were literally obsessed with the idea of radiation. And of course, my grandma, my grandma is my father’s mother. She’s a medical doctor. And she was very much concerned. She could spot radiation everywhere. And then she made my mother buy a Geiger counter to measure radiation. Whenever my mom went shopping to a farmer’s market, she would take it with her to measure radiation. And she would also ask questions. She would ask, “Where did you bring those tomatoes from? Where did you cultivate those potatoes?”

Ben Rhodes So Russians are scared, but they’re also angry. They were used to their government lying to them. But this was a whole new level. This was a threat to their lives. This was a moment when it became clear just how broken and corrupt their government had become. Chernobyl became a turning point. President Gorbachev started opening things up.

News Clip Because at the same time he’s managed to breathe a little spring into Soviet society. People have more freedom now than ever.

Ben Rhodes People were given more freedoms. And with those freedoms, they began to express themselves.

News Clip The young people, the next generation, who are remarkably candid about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Everything is worse than it it could be.

Ben Rhodes Protest movements sprung up, including in Zhanna’s hometown. And in Zhanna’s own home.

Zhanna Nemtsova In 1982, before Chernobyl, they started the construction of a nuclear plant near Gorky. The condition of our infrastructure was very bad, so it was pretty dangerous. And of course, when Chernobyl happened, people didn’t want a nuclear plant near Gorky to be constructed. My grandma had never joined any public campaigns, was one of the active members of this environmental movement in Gorky. After her work, she would go to the ministries of Gorky to collect signatures against the construction of the nuclear plant. And she got a lot of signatures, but there were a lot of questions and she lacked knowledge. She lacked expertize. She couldn’t answer all the questions. And then my grandma turned to my father. My father was a physicist. I think that he shared his mother’s anxiety about the nuclear plant. He cared about his city. He was an eloquent person, a charismatic person. And she turned to him for help.

Ben Rhodes So Nemtsov got to work. He organized protests. He built coalitions in the city. He gave a lot of public speeches.

Zhanna Nemtsova And, of course, people flocked to him. And we had a lot of guests. Our house was full of guests every evening. My mom was mad. She hated everybody because she had to work. And then she had to go to buy food. And then in the evening, she had to cook.

Ben Rhodes Eventually, Zhanna’s father and grandmother won the battle. The nuclear plant was never built.

Zhanna Nemtsova After that, I think that he got a taste for politics because he understood that he could be a very good leader. When my father was asked “who brought you to politics?” he would say, “My mother”. That is true. I think right now my grandmother regrets this decision.

Ben Rhodes Yeah. In 1989, the Soviet Union held its first ever free elections. This meant that you could run as an independent. You didn’t have to be affiliated with the Communist Party. So Boris Nemtsov ran for office.

Zhanna Nemtsova He took part in a televised debate. Those debates were not very popular because they were extremely dull because people repeated the same things. And he was listening to other candidates promising everything on the earth. And he was the last one to speak. He had only 2 minutes or so. And he said, “Guys, I’ve been listening to you promising all kinds of things, but I want to say one thing. And I can promise one thing. I will not lie”. Pause. That’s it. And just like that. He won the election.

Ben Rhodes Nemtsov went on to become governor of their province in 1991 when he was only 30 years old. Just a month later, President Gorbachev resigned.

News Clip In Moscow, the hammer and sickle is lowered for the last time. And an era comes to an end.

News Clip I am ceasing my activities in the post of President of the USSR.

Ben Rhodes I was 13 when the Soviet Union collapsed. I remember watching the images on television. My parents couldn’t believe it. They’d lived most of their lives in the Cold War. Suddenly that history was over. But our lives in New York didn’t change that much.

News Clip To work in equally constructive ways with his successors.

Ben Rhodes For people in Russia, everything changed.

News Clip The tri colored banner of the Russian Republic now flies over the Kremlin.

Ben Rhodes The entire system they lived in collapsed. Soviet republics like Ukraine became independent nations. What was now called the Russian Federation began to move towards capitalism, something that Russians had been taught to hate their whole lives. In America, we assumed that meant things would inevitably get better. But the truth is more complicated. Suddenly, people couldn’t afford basic goods. Professors were selling socks in the subway. But there were new freedoms. There was a new sense of possibility. For people like Boris Nemtsov it was an exhilarating time. The future was up for grabs. What kind of country would Russia become? The answer to that question would shape the lives of people like Zhanna and the entire world. So it’s 1991. Boris Nemtsov now finds himself in a new country. Russia has gone from communism to capitalism. Even the name of a city is changed from the Soviet Gorky to what it’s now called, Nizhny Novgorod.

Zhanna Nemtsova It was a very rare chance for young and energetic, enthusiastic people to do something, to make a change, to achieve a lot.

Ben Rhodes And most of that change involved a wholesale uprooting of the economic system.

Zhanna Nemtsova Because in the Soviet Union, everything, almost everything belonged to the state. So we are now in the studio. If we had recorded this podcast in the Soviet Union, it would have belonged to the state, everything. So his main goal was to transform a state run economy into a market led economy. But he hadn’t had any previous experience in governance. And back then the World Bank helped the government to transform our economy. And there were a bunch of consultants and some of those consultants were sent to Nizhny Novgorod.

Alan Bigman My name is Alan Bigman. I worked for the International Finance Corporation in Nizhny Novgorod in the early nineties with Boris Nemtsov, who was governor at the time.

Ben Rhodes Alan is an all-American kind of guy, but when he was a kid growing up during the Cold War, he got obsessed with this idea.

Alan Bigman The idea that there was this “other” out there, this country that considered us to be an enemy that had a completely different system.

Ben Rhodes And so when he was at college, he decided to study as an exchange student in the Soviet Union.

Alan Bigman And I had been traveling back and forth, trying to see if there were some things that I could do there. And then watching on TV while they lowered the red flag from the Kremlin the last time and hoisted the Russian tricolor, I was thinking, this just changes everything.

Alan Bigman Bigman was thinking, How can I get in the mix here? At the time, the International Finance Corporation was getting ready to provide assistance to the new Russian government. Bigman was a young economist. He knew about Eastern Europe. So the IFC called him up and said, “Can you help us?” And he was like, “Hell yes. I want to teach the Russians about good old American capitalism and private enterprise”. And that is how Alan found himself traveling in early 1992 to Nizhny Novgorod.

Alan Bigman Because there was a young forward minded governor, Boris Nemtsov, who was very, very eager to start the reforms immediately. He saw the problems and he saw that there needed to be immediate solutions.

Ben Rhodes Despite Alan’s youth and excitement about meeting the great Nemtsov, he also quickly realized he was very much an outsider in this new city.

Alan Bigman I was walking with two of my colleagues, one American, one Russian. We were walking back to our hotel and we had taken some bottles of what the Russians call mineral water. Unfortunately for us, those bottles look a lot like vodka bottles. So there were two large men that clearly had not had enough vodka, although probably already had too much, and wanted ours. So they came up to us, took it, and then started fighting with us. I got my hand pretty badly cut up and wound up in the emergency room. So this was sort of our welcome to Nizhny Novgorod.

Ben Rhodes Alan’s run in with these vodka enthusiasts became the stuff of legend. He laughs about it now, but it was a lawless, chaotic time, a time where you always felt on the cusp of danger. Soon after this encounter, Alan met the young governor, Boris Nemtsov, for the first time, and he found out that his reputation preceded him.

Alan Bigman And I was translating. And Boris looked at me, fixed me with his eyes and said, “You must be Bigman. I said, “yes, *in russian,” using the patronymic, the polite form address in Russian “I am Alan Bigman”. He said, “You are the one who goes to our collective farms, drinks vodka, and then sniffs black bread afterwards”. And I said, “Yes, *Russian form of address*. That would be me”. And he said, “I think you’re going to go very far in Nizhny Novgorod Mr. Bigman”.

Ben Rhodes Allen says from the minute he met Boris, he just knew there was something about this guy.

Alan Bigman He had that charisma. He had that ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room.

Ben Rhodes But it wasn’t just his political chops that set him apart. It was also what he was doing to the economic system.

Alan Bigman Some Westerners referred to Nizhny Novgorod as a laboratory of reform because Boris Nemtsov gave a unique opportunity to try things faster and more radical than in other places in Russia. A radically new way of looking at the economy for them. We were trying to push forward as quickly as possible, but it was a way to show, in at least one place, what it could look like.

Ben Rhodes They were basically trying to answer this one simple question.

Alan Bigman How do we get assets out of public hands and into private hands?

Ben Rhodes Land, shops, factories, everything. Just think about the challenge here. After 74 years of communism, 74 years of pinning capitalism is the enemy. They suddenly had to figure out how to make a capitalist economy work, almost overnight.

Alan Bigman I remember when I had been studying the Soviet economy in college, thinking, well, this is this could be done better. This is clearly wrong. And now we were faced with the task of, okay, you’re so smart, figure out a way to fix it. I think if I had been any older or more experienced, I would have walked away.

Ben Rhodes But Alan stuck around and they came up with a straightforward solution to the problem.

Alan Bigman The way the IFC principally privatized these small enterprises was through auctions.

Ben Rhodes This basically meant that everything that used to be owned by the state, all those shops, laundries, grocery stores, they were auctioned off. The rules were clear. People came and whoever made the biggest bid won the prize. Bit by bit, Nemtsov and Bigmen started to take businesses out of the state’s hands and put them into the hands of private individuals. And it was successful. In fact, it was so successful that even the queen of free markets herself came to pay her respects.

Margaret Thatcher I stand before you tonight in my red star chiffon evening gown. The Iron Lady of the Western World.

Alan Bigman Margaret Thatcher was very impressed with what was happening in Nizhny Novgorod. She had, I think, similar instincts to Boris Nemtsov. She was not from a political family. She was the daughter of a grocer. She understood what hard work and free enterprise meant, and she was very impressed that Boris Nemtsov did as well. And that’s what he was trying to bring to the Nizhny Novgorod.

News Clip Yes, of course.

Margaret Thatcher They were fearful to make the first plunge.

Zhanna Nemtsova She wanted to see what was going on in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She could have gone to St Petersburg. She could have gone to Moscow. But she landed at the airport of Nizhny Novgorod because she wanted to meet Boris Nemtsov.

Ben Rhodes At the time. And, you know, you’re describing in the late eighties, you know, you guys, you’re very poor, you know, don’t own your own apartment. You’re standing in breadlines. And then it just, you know, two or three years later, your father’s meeting Margaret Thatcher. And he’s he’s this kind of globally known figure. I mean, how did that impact your parents? Like, how did they feel about it?

Zhanna Nemtsova My mother and me, we could not understand how popular my father was. For me he was my father. There was one televised interview. It was conducted by Nina Zvereva. Nina Zvereva was a very prominent journalist in Nihzny Novgorod. She supported my father and she was a friend of our family. And she got an idea to do an interview with this little kid.

Ben Rhodes How old were you?

Zhanna Nemtsova Seven years old. She came to our apartment and she asked what the governor should do. The answer was “the governor should resign”. Well, yes. I mean, I wanted to say “I would like to spend more time with my father and I don’t like his new job. So please resign. Somebody else will take care of everything here”. Well, this interview was broadcasted and Nina started to get very critical letters. And those letters like said, “why on earth did you interview this stupid girl? She is silly. She does not understand anything. We don’t want to listen to her”. And there was so much offended and they said, “okay, guys. So from now on I will not do any interviews except from Ben Rhodes”. I’m joking. I will not do any interviews unless I have my own achievements.

Ben Rhodes Zhanna ws reacting to the fact that her father’s stature just kept growing and growing. He wasn’t just making friends abroad. He was also making alliances with some of the most powerful people in Russia. People like the president, Boris Yeltsin.

Zhanna Nemtsova Yeltsin. He needed a coalition of like minded people. And that’s why Yeltsin approached him and asked “Boris. Are you from Gorky?” He said “Yes”. “Do you know how to build the beautiful Russia of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas?” He said “Yes, I have some ideas.” “Okay, let’s discuss them”. So and that’s how he got to know Boris Yeltsin.

Zhanna Nemtsova In 1994, Boris Yeltsin took an impromptu trip to Nhizny Novgorod to visit Nemtsov. Little did Zhanna or her father know at the time, but that visit would change their lives.

Zhanna Nemtsova Yeltsin loved to play tennis. He was not really good at it, but he loved to play tennis. My father was much better, was a better tennis player. I don’t know exactly who came up with the idea to organize this tennis match, but it was quite a weird scene. So they came to the tennis court in the center of Newton Novgorod. There was a big park and there was one big tennis court. It had a name, The Presidential Tennis Court. I think it had been built for this great match between my father. So they came there. There were people sitting everywhere. There are crowds. There are journalists, reporters. It was not looking like a real tennis match, but something really strange.

News Clip *In Russian*.

Zhanna Nemtsova My father was young and healthy. He looked quite athletic. He played tennis a lot. Yeltsin, he old. It was evident that he had severe health problems. Even though it lasted only for 10 minutes, it was evident my father was much stronger as a player than Boris Yeltsin. Then after this match, then a journalist approached Yeltsin. She wanted to ask a couple of questions and she asked him. It was a very simple question. “What do you make of Boris Nemtsov? Is he a good governor?” And he said.

News Clip *In Russian*

Zhanna Nemtsova “I think that he has made a huge progress and I can see it. I think that he is experienced enough to have an ambition to become Russia’s next president”. And it was the breaking news because nobody expected Yeltsin to say that. In our culture, that means that Boris Nemtsov will be Russia’s next president. So after this statement, he was regarded as Boris Yeltsin’s successor.

Ben Rhodes What did your dad think about that?

Zhanna Nemtsova Well, I think that he was flattered. But also it was a burden for him because now all those guys, crocodiles in Moscow, known as oligarchs, would keep a watchful eye on this young governor.

Ben Rhodes So Boris Nemtsov, a physicist who was born in the Soviet Union, now finds himself an elected governor in the Russian Federation and the potential heir apparent to the president. But those crocodiles that Zhanna mentioned, the oligarchs, they had other ideas about who should be in charge.

Unidentified If we are the smartest and if we are the richest, then we are the elites and we are the ones who are going to decide how the country is run. And whether we are elected or not, we are the barons. We are the elite. We will decide.

Ben Rhodes That’s next time on another Russia. Another Russia is an original podcast from Crooked Media. It is produced by Samizdat Audio. I’m Ben Rhodes, your co-host, writer and executive producer.

Zhanna Nemtsova And I’m Zhanna Nemtsova, your co-host and executive producer.

Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer and Katie Long. With special thanks to Alison Falzetta. From Samizdat, our executive producers are Dasha Lisitsina and Joe Sykes. Asya Fouks is our producer. All three also helped with writing on the series. Fact Checking by Amy Tardif. Archival by Molly Schwartz. This series was sound designed by Jeff Emtman and Martin Austwick composed our theme music and score.

Zhanna Nemtsova If you want to learn more about the stories of Russians who are standing up to autocracy and how you can help support their work, check out We will also put a link in our show notes.