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So to Speak Podcast Transcript: Dodging censorship in Russia

Dodging censorship in Russia

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Genia Simkin: They don’t realize that they are the frog in the pot that is being boiled here right now. This is all –

Nico Perrino: Westerners?

Genia Simkin: Westerners. This is what is happening in the States. It’s just at the very, very early stages.

Nico Perrino: [Intro] you’re listening to So to Speak, the free speech podcast brought to you by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Folks welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino. And it was just over two years ago that Russia invaded Ukraine. And on this podcast, we covered the invasion.

We explored how Russia was purging independent media, banning protests, and shutting down social media access in order to control the narrative and limit dissent within the country. Today, we’re going to revisit the situation in Russia. The war in Ukraine is still raging. And to join us, we have two very special guests who are experts on all things Russia. We have Yevgeny Simkin, also known as Genia. Yevgeny is a technologist. He’s a thinker, musician, comedian. He fled Soviet Russia as a child and has spent the last 30 years dabbling around the bleeding edges of the internet, ITV, and mobile technologies.

And after Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, Yevgeny and his cofounder, Michael Sprague launched Samizdat Online, which is an anticensorship platform whose custom tech allows users to read and send materials from sites that various dictatorships block inside their nations. Yevgeny, welcome to the show.

Genia Simkin: Thank you so much for having me.

Nico Perrino: Also joining us is Stanislav Kucher. Stanislav, also known as Stas is a Russian and American journalist. He’s a media manager and filmmaker with 30 years of experience covering Russian domestic and foreign policy. He has covered numerous conflicts with the Putin administration. And he has interviewed all of the top Russian politicians from Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny. Kucher is now editor and chief of Samizdat Online and a contributor to The Cipher Brief. Stas, welcome on to the show.

Stas Kucher: Thank you, Nico.

Nico Perrino: So, I think we should start with the biggest news of the moment, which is the death of Alexei Navalny. He was pronounced dead on February 16th of this year while serving a 19-year prison sentence on charges of extremism. And he was serving that sentence in the IK-3 penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, which is about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow. It sounds very cold. What’s your initial reaction, Stas? You have interviewed the man before. It seems like you know him pretty well. Does this surprise you?

Stas Kucher: No surprise, but it was a huge shock. It’s like, I mean, what else do you expect when a person is first poisoned, and then thrown into prison for 19 years, and then held in solitary confinement 300 times in the course of the two and a half years he’s been in prison? So, I mean, everybody thought that this would eventually happen, but of course, at the same time, everybody, myself included, had hoped that this would become an exception to the rule. And that he will survive, and somehow repeat the story of Nelson Mandela, serve his prison sentence, and then reemerged on the surface as –

Nico Perrino: Become the president.

Stas Kucher: – the nation’s savior and became president. So, it was a great shock to me because yes, I did know Alexei personally. I’ve known him since 2007.

Nico Perrino: Do you think he knew something like this was likely?

Stas Kucher: There’s no way we can get into his head. Obviously, he knew this was a possibility. And he obviously knew there was a high risk of them killing him. Actually, when we use the word death, I would rather use the word killing.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, murder.

Stas Kucher: He was killed, murdered, assassinated. Whatever verb you pick will be correct.

Nico Perrino: Well, what were told has happened is that he went on a walk. And then, he just fell down dead. We’re supposed to believe that?

Genia Simkin: I think it’s highly irrelevant what we’re told. The nature of this regime and regimes like it is that they say whatever it is that they need everybody to repeat within their own nation. I don’t think that they expect anybody outside their nation – Putin, he’s not naïve. He doesn’t think that anybody outside the nation is gonna believe that this man just fell over dead, but also, even if he did just fall over and die, first when you go and you poison somebody, and they miraculously survive because of the intervention of the West, then already you are guilty of at least attempted murder.

And then, subsequently, you take this man who’s not fully recovered, and you throw him in an incredibly hostile and difficult situation such as the prison system of Russia. It doesn’t matter what the actual – what biologically finished him is not the issue.

Nico Perrino: Sure.

Stas Kucher: I mean, he was definitely tortured there, tormented and tortured. And again, I mean, I hope you never make it even as a visitor to solitary confinement, but I’ve been to Russian prisons. And trust me, even a healthy young person is likely to suffer severe consequences to his health.

Nico Perrino: Is there no accountability for poor treatment in Russia? I mean, presumably you would have lawyers get involved here in the United States.

Stas Kucher: Well, the lawyers got involved, and they repeatedly asked the prison authorities, well, not to take him solitary confinement in the first place. And every time he was taken there, that would be under some stupid excuse like he didn’t salute a guard for example, or he was 30 seconds late to stand up in the morning, and so on. So, every time, I mean, excuses were really stupid. And again, the conditions he was kept under were torturous. So, just like Genia said, no matter what actually happened in the moment, was it a clot that suddenly killed him?

It’s obviously the regime and Putin that killed him because I mean, again, if they wanted him alive, they could have put him in different conditions.

Nico Perrino: Sure.

Genia Simkin: It’s interesting. It just occurred to me. You guys are mostly a legal organization. So, this question’s actually really pertinent. The way that Putin’s regime in particular operates is that they try to make sure that everything is under some statute. They will craft the law as necessary in order to make sure that when it comes time to be accused of having done something, they will say, well, the law is this way. Meanwhile, they’ve just adjusted it in order for it to be that way, but the point is that they’re very concerned about jurisprudence. I met with, I’m forgetting his last name, Pasha, one of the main human rights lawyers.

Stas Kucher: Chikov.

Genia Simkin: Thank you.

Stas Kucher: Pavel Chikov. He’s a famous lawyer and human rights activist, former member of Putin’s council on civic rights. And the development of human rights and the development of civic society, there is even such an institution under Putin called president’s human rights council.

Genia Simkin: Which sounds farcical. And I asked him, how are you guys operating in this environment where you’re desperately chasing after – it’s a whack-a-mole game where the laws keep changing. And they are working to advocate for people who are standing up to Putin’s regime. And he says, primarily, even though it does feel completely futile in the moment, primarily it’s that there is a full record. There’s a very, very deep and thorough history of everything that’s been done, so that when these people finally hopefully face some kind of justice, it won’t be whimsical. It won’t be like, let’s just throw them on the gallows. There will be evidence.

Nico Perrino: Wasn’t the Soviet Union known for being very bureaucratic –

Genia Simkin: Yes.

Nico Perrino: – and taking a lot of notes? And there was a lot of records of what they did, just because that was kind of the culture?

Stas Kucher: Just like any autocracy, any autocracy is famous for red tape.

Nico Perrino: So, what is the state of the opposition inside Russia now without Alexei Navalny? He was the main opposition leader. I mean, is there any opposition to the Putin regime within Russia right now?

Stas Kucher: Well, it depends on how you define opposition. Of course, there is nobody like Alexei Navalny right now at large in Russia. Two other very famous opposition leaders, one is Ilya Yashin who was also a friend of Alexei Navalny, he’s in prison now. And another one you might have heard of is Vladimir Kara-Murza who lived here in this country and helped Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny. Boris Nemtsov is another Russian opposition leader who was assassinated in front of the Kremlin on February 27th, 2015. So, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Ilya Yashin, and some other famous opposition activists are in prison.

And all those who call themselves oppositionists and who are still free, they are not real opposition, like Boris Nadezhdin who tried to run for president. And he did not make it to the ballot, but he was what is called a Kremlin project. So, they wanted him to participate in the first place when they saw huge lines of people ready to put their signatures for him. And they realized all those people are against the war because that’s what Nadezhdin’s claim was, that I’m against the war in Ukraine. So, once the Kremlin realized what the pictured looked – and the picture did not look nice to them.

So, that’s when they just took him off the ballot. So, he never made it to the election. And right now, on the eve of the March presidential election, we have Vladimir Putin and three other candidates who have zero chances, literally zero chances of winning no matter if the election is free or if it’s what it is in Russia at the moment. So, no, there is no actual opposition in Russia.

Genia Simkin: Well, I wanna interject and contradict slightly because opposition comes in multiple forms.

Nico Perrino: Sure. A bunch of people showed up to Alexei Navalny’s funeral procession.

Genia Simkin: So, for example, Navalny’s widow is now kind of the face of the opposition, but also the organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, they’re a force for oppositional endeavors, so to speak. But the thing that we built, and the thing that we’re promoting, and the main reason why we’re on this wonderful show is that the primary opposition in any situation of this nature is the press. And we’ll get into how the western press has lost its plot a little bit in the last couple of decades.

But the press in places like Russia, it’s a very distinct dichotomy between the press that simply obeys the regime, and they’re just a mouthpiece for the regime, and they will simply repeat whatever the regime tells them to repeat, and the oppositional press who operate usually outside the borders of the nation because they’re all literally criminals by virtue of the things that they are now saying. They’ve been dubbed, what is the expression, unwanted, un –

Stas Kucher: Well, no –

Genia Simkin: There’s a legal term for it, the –

Stas Kucher: It’s called undesirable organization.

Genia Simkin: Undesirable, right, undesirable organization, which is a –

Nico Perrino: These are the press organizations.

Genia Simkin: This is the press organization and individuals. So, you –

Nico Perrino: So, are you guys undesirable individuals at the moment?

Genia Simkin: I have yet to earn that distinction. I’m hopeful that that will come –

Stas Kucher: Yeah, we’re at – or in this formal distinction, but informally of course, we are undesirable there. And that’s actually why Samizdat Online was banned by Russia’s main censorship governmental body, Roskomnadzor, on Christmas Eve, 2022. But I mean, back to opposition, the thing is again, Genia’s right, there is no politically structured resistance in Russia, which is normally what we call opposition in any country, political opposition. You have Democrats in the White House, and you have Republicans in the House of Representatives here.

So, in Russia, there is literally no structured political opposition to Vladimir Putin, but of course, there are voices of what is called in Russia, [speaking Russian], which means those who don’t agree with the government, with the Kremlin. So, there are voices of those [speaking Russian], both inside Russia, and those voices which are coming to Russia from outside.

Nico Perrino: Well, how many voices are there that do not agree? Can we get a read? Is there polling?

Genia Simkin: As people or as media?

Nico Perrino: As people. What does the population actually think? It’s gotta be hard to get a true reading.

Genia Simkin: It is impossible to get a true reading. So, there’s tealeaf reading, but a true reading in a nation like Russia, where there’s literally a 7-to-15-year prison sentence for anybody who calls what they are calling a military operation a war. That’s it. That’s the level of transgression that you need to do in order to end up in prison. So, moving onto –

Nico Perrino: And that’s enforced. People are going to prison for opposing the war.

Genia Simkin: They are.

Nico Perrino: Or for calling it a war.

Genia Simkin: And I don’t have the numbers on that, but they are. And the thing is that there’s obviously a, what do we call it, chilling effect. You don’t need to have a lot of people being sent to prison for calling it a war. Everybody understands what the reality is. So, when pollsters either call or see somebody on the street and say how do you feel about Vladimir Putin, there’s literally no incentive to be honest at all. Your only incentive is to avoid hassle and to avoid being questioned, or tried, or any of these things are greatly undesirable. And then, going to prison is extremely undesirable. So, there’s really no way to know, but it is –

Stas Kucher: You know what? Excuse me. I have a friend, and I mean, he doesn’t favor the war. Actually, he’s participated in all of Navalny’s opposition rallies in Moscow. So, what happened just four weeks ago, he gets a phone call from one of those Kremlin-controlled polling agencies. And he’s asked this question. Are you ready to participate in our poll? And by the way, mind that all conversations are being recorded for – and so on. And then, he’s asked this question, what do you feel about the special military operation? So, what would you answer if you were him?

Of course, I mean, you would say, well, I think it’s kind of relevant. It’s probably inevitable. So, that’s how people answer, even if they are the embodiment of the opposition, moral opposition to Putin. So, there is no way you can get honest polling in Russia right now. That’s reason No. 1. And second, even if you could get some honest answers via telephone, then all those polling organizations are controlled by the Kremlin. So, they can play with the results in any format they can.

Nico Perrino: Do people within Russia feel free at least to share their true feelings with friends outside Russia over email, or is there a sense that those communications are being monitored as well?

Genia Simkin: There is always that sense. And so, the chilling effect is very real. And it’s – I’m gonna say funny. It’s not funny. It’s tragic. It’s very similar to how I remember the period where we had just left Soviet Russia in late 1970.

Nico Perrino: Sure.

Genia Simkin: And there was communication back home with people, but family members, nobody with whom you would have any consternation about being honest if you were sitting at the dinner table, but it was understood that mail was being read, phones were being tapped. Obviously, there was no internet at that time, but it was just understood that there was no such thing as a private conversation. And then, when you’re with your friends, it was well understood that it's something like 1 out of 3 people were informing the KGB of what was going on. And it was impossible to know who your true friends are.

So, other than say, literally your family members and whoever you think your best friend is, that’s the person with whom you’re honest. And everybody else, you keep things as uncontroversial as you can.

Stas Kucher: And now, here’s an example from recent history. Again, I have a pretty large audience on my Facebook page. And I write. I post things. So, I posted a short story about Navalny after his killing, after his death. And I got this message via WhatsApp, again, from my classmate, who said, “Stas, I just want you to know that I really love your posts. I love everything you write. And I’m thankful that you’re writing about Alexei. I just wanted to say I’m sorry because there was no way I could put my like on your post. “Because last time I did it, one of my colleagues at work reported on me, that that guy” – because people read each other’s posts and reactions.

And exactly like Genia said, it doesn’t necessarily take one to be a formal, I don’t know, affiliate with FSB, KGB, Security Services. A lot of people just try to help.

Nico Perrino: So, they have access to Facebook in Russia?

Genia Simkin: Well, by VPN.

Stas Kucher: Through VPNs, yeah.

Genia Simkin: So, just the use of Facebook, interestingly your friend is violating Russia’s laws just by using VPN to access Facebook because Facebook has been extricated from the DNS tables and is no longer accessible via the regular internet means in Russia.

Nico Perrino: So, what does the internet look like in Russia?

Stas Kucher: Well, actually, just like elsewhere in the world. It’s just, there are certain services, again like Meta, Facebook, or Instagram. They were officially banned in Russia, but then again, you have this double world because I mean, every single member of the Russian government has access to Facebook and Instagram. And you still have Russian propagandas who are using Facebook and Instagram for their propaganda purposes. Again, they’re using it by VPNs or even without VPNs, some of them, but again, an average Russian could literally go to jail for using Facebook and posting something antiwar there.

Nico Perrino: So, Samizdat Online, talk to me about the origins of your project.

Genia Simkin: So, the origins of the project actually start with the word samizdat itself, samizdat which most – well, actually, a surprising number of Americans know that word, but they’re over a certain age. But they’re my peers or older, but –

Nico Perrino: I have to admit when we first spoke, I didn’t know what it meant.

Genia Simkin: You had never heard about it. And it’s interesting. I’m not gonna name him, but I spoke to a major technologist individual here in the States who is about 15 years younger than me, but he came from Russia as well. And he speaks Russian. He’s familiar with Russia, but he had never heard of samizdat, which is fascinating. It really matters which circles you travel in. So, samizdat was a mechanism in Soviet Russia. It literally means self-publication, samizdat. And it was the means by which Russians exchanged illegal, banned, censored content amongst themselves during the Soviet era.

Initially, the materials would be smuggled in by various means, frequently from Czechoslovakia, which kind of, it wasn’t entirely inside the Iron Curtain. And the materials, it wasn’t like it was only political stuff. It was literature, and music, and everything else that was censored because in Soviet Russia –

Nico Perrino: Sylvester Stallone movies.

Genia Simkin: Absolutely, absolutely. So, I grew up, and my origin story as a human being is that I wound up leaving Soviet Russia because my father cured himself of tuberculosis by means of learning yoga. And where did he learn yoga? In samizdat because yoga is a –

Stas Kucher: Yoga was forbidden knowledge, absolutely.

Genia Simkin: It was forbidden.

Nico Perrino: Why?

Genia Simkin: It’s an anti-Marxist mind altering – the thing is, once this is –

Stas Kucher: Yoga was believed to be a religion. And so, the Soviet Union was an atheist society.

Genia Simkin: It was an ideology. It was a religion, but it doesn’t have to be a religion. Any –

Nico Perrino: It competed with the Marxist ideology.

Genia Simkin: It cleared the mind. And then, people would start asking questions. And that’s not a good thing. So, whenever you enter that kinda [inaudible] [00:22:59] information environment, everything is dangerous to it, which interestingly intersects with everything that you guys are doing. So, I’m very familiar with samizdat because again, it’s because of samizdat that we wound up leaving Soviet Russia. Obviously, the antisemitism didn’t help, but when the war broke it, and I have this kind of core understanding that information and the access to information, good information is the key to a healthy society.

The reason that the Russians are so easily dragged by the nose into this conflict and have no bearings from which to protest or say wait a second, what the hell are we doing, they are simply saddled with a narrative about something Nazi, something, something, NATO, something, something, Biden, something, something, we’re going to war.

Nico Perrino: So, they believe that?

Genia Simkin: They do. They do, and that shouldn’t be surprising because the history of people believing stupid nonsense because they have no resources to access good information, that’s the history of humanity. We are very easily led by the nose into all sorts of horrendous enterprises by various bad faith actors. I can name them. We all know them. So, Putin is just playing from that playbook where as long as he is able to isolate the population within this barrage of silliness, they believe it because it’s presented in an incredibly compelling way. It sounds silly. I’m mocking it, but in fact, it is very highly produced, very elaborately put together.

It’s very well thought through. And just to give an example, not that it was interesting, but when you see Putin’s conversation with Tucker Carlson –

Nico Perrino: I was gonna ask you guys about that.

Genia Simkin: So, I’m happy to talk about it, but the key takeaway for me was here’s this guy who, everybody knows who he is. Everybody understands that he’s a mob boss, that he’s a murderer, that he is an autocrat in the full sense of that word. And here he is being all – right. And it’s very easy to fall into the spell of, oh, yeah, well here’s the history of Russia, which is actually half the stuff he says is outright nonsense, but it doesn’t matter. You kinda go along. And he lulls you into this false sense of he knows what he’s talking about, or he’s got at least a reasonable point of view.

Stas Kucher: Everything is logical.

Genia Simkin: He’s logical.

Stas Kucher: It makes sense in his world.

Genia Simkin: Yeah, in his world it all –

Stas Kucher: So, once you’re in his world, then everything is justified, assassinations, him being this mafia boss, invading Ukraine, fighting the United States, probably World War III. Everything makes sense once you’re in his world. And the reason why you are in his world is because you are fed with all that kind of information that only proves every point he makes.

Genia Simkin: So, this is the mindset that I come to this with, that as long as this is the only information these people will have, then the outcome is a foregone conclusion. There will be conflict. There will be war and worse. So, I’m thinking what can I do? And I have this because I’m a technologist, and I have some of these political ideas and some very tangential connections into this world. I don’t come from this world, the world of advocacy, the world of politics, but I weirdly, serendipitously throughout the course of my life because I started my career at CBS News, and so I have this foothold in western journalism and some connectivity to it.

So, it occurs to me that the thing I can do is I can build a thing that would simply sidestep Putin’s narrative and give people the ability to simply engage in reality. There are dozens and dozens of these, we’re gonna call them oppositional media companies who are now living in exile but still operating in full force. They are professional journalists who have spent decades being professional journalists. And they’re continuing to be professional journalists.

Nico Perrino: Are a lot of them here in the United States?

Genia Simkin: Very few are in the United States. There are ones in Latvia, in Holland, in Germany. Friends of ours who are operating in literally, I guess in the United States. They’re on a beach in Hawaii. They’re one of the –

Stas Kucher: Living in a tent.

Genia Simkin: And living in a tent. They’re a journalistic couple. They get scooped all the time because they have all the latest breaking stuff because they’ve got people on the inside who feed them information. But it’s very scrappy, very kind of like real journalism. And I’m like, these are the voices that the Russians need to actually have access to and that the people outside of Russia, either the expat Russians or just people who are keen to help, everyone’s like, what can I do to help? Well, the thing you can do to help if you’re listening, if you’re still listening, if we haven’t bored you yet, the thing you can do to help is just get engaged with dissemination of information.

We’re one conduit to that. There are others, but we’re a very easy way to get information into Russia, and to Belarus, and to Iran. If you know people who are in those areas and who need access, easy access, we are – so that’s how that was born. That was the idea. That’s how I decided that I’m gonna participate and help.

Nico Perrino: Well, can you talk about functionally how it works, how you get this information to them to circumvent the censorship regime? Because I think it’s pretty interesting technology.

Genia Simkin: It’s not. It is incredibly uninteresting technology. It is –

Nico Perrino: Interesting to a layman like me.

Genia Simkin: No, it’s really – no, not even, not even. So, we really need to brace ourselves for everybody turning their podcast off now because – no, I will keep this very brief. So, the interesting part is that there’s tons of engagement. People really want to be able to participate in this project. So, when you have these dozens of media operations, and you bring them all together under one roof, and you say look, here’s all of this incredibly engaging, insightful content that you here in the West don’t see, people should come and read Samizdat Online because they will suddenly be much more informed than they are based on whatever they’re reading currently.

And the technology itself, it simply taps into the way that the internet actually works, which is that as an autocrat, you can turn off, You can turn those off, but if that information was coming through some other domain name or as in our case hundreds of domain names that keep changing continuously, and keep evolving continuously, and are just random letters that nobody would think to ban these domains preemptively because there’s tens of millions of domains floating around. You can’t monitor them all.

So, a domain has to rise to the surface and be noticed as a domain under which some content that you are opposed to is flowing. And then, as an autocrat, you could say, ah, that one. We’re gonna turn that one off. All right, fine. We’re actually watching you turn it off. And we’re gonna spin up five more as you do. So, it’s a game of whack-a-mole that they can’t win. So, from a technological perspective, that’s all we’re doing. It’s not even particularly clever. It’s –

Nico Perrino: It’s brilliant in its simplicity.

Genia Simkin: Oh, wow. Thank you. I’m gonna use that from now it. I am [inaudible] [00:30:18] brilliant. No, it is brilliant in its simplicity, but it’s also the only way that it can be really undermined, and this is something that Putin is driving towards is for them to literally turn the internet off. They’re building what they’re calling a cheburnet. This is a word that your listeners will have never heard before, but now they’re gonna hear it all over the place because this is something that Putin has been threatening to do for a while. And the cheburnet is an entirely self-contained internet.

And if they go that route, then our technology stops working there, just like it does not work in North Korea at this time because you need for the public to have access to the wider internet in order for us to operate successfully.

Nico Perrino: So, if they identify one URL that you guys put together, they can ban that, but then you spin up some other ones.

Genia Simkin: Correct.

Stas Kucher: I could give you an example of how my classmates are using it for –

Nico Perrino: But let me ask, how did they get to these URLs in the first place? Because Stas, you had mentioned that on Christmas Even in 2022, they had banned your website. So, now folks need to have been shared one of these URLs by someone who had previously had access to your website.

Genia Simkin: Correct. So, the initial engagement, the initial coming to grips or coming to know our project has to happen by some other means. So, somebody here hears this podcast. They say, oh, this sounds fantastic. I have a brother in [inaudible] [00:31:45]. I’m gonna send him a link. And that initial –

Nico Perrino: And the link is not to Samizdat Online, it’s to one of the articles you’ve featured.

Genia Simkin: Correct. This person is listening to this podcast wherever they’re hearing this podcast, in Wichita or in Los Angeles. And they go to the website. They find an article that’s interesting, or they could send an encoded link to the website itself. There’s a circuitous self-referential link as well. And then, that person could either, if they’re not afraid to – there has to be some level of bravery, but they have to sign up to our daily email, in which case we will then start sending them these links every day. And the links keep changing. And then, they have an infinite resource.

Nico Perrino: Sure.

Genia Simkin: Or they can find us on Telegram where we also provide a new link every day, but at that point, it becomes a motivated reality. And the thing is that we’re not really looking to solve that because anybody who’s already motivated, they do know how to use a VPN. And they’re already fairly well informed. They’re just gonna be our entry point. The person who’s motivated is gonna be the first person to find it, grab it, use it, and send it to that next person who doesn’t know and to whom this is some kind of revelation. I think Stas was about to mention an anecdote of his from his –

Stas Kucher: Well, yeah. See, I went to high school in the Russian city of Oryol, which is 200 miles southeast of Moscow. And most of my classmates joined the military later. And so, we have this WhatsApp chat called boys from our backyard, where we correspond. We started this chat about maybe nine years ago. We congratulated each other on holidays, birthdays, and so on, share some funny stories, anecdotes, and so on. And so, once the war broke out, of course members of this chat divided into two parts, those who favored the war, those who were against the war.

So, we would have a lot of arguments. One of the first arguments was those Putinists, pro-war classmates. They wrote all the atrocities you were talking about, like Bucha for example. That was all staged. That was all staged in Hollywood. Nothing like that happened. Russian troops are not committing any atrocities in Ukraine. They’re not killing civilians. Nothing of that’s happening. Well, of course, they needed proof somehow. And since again, Facebook and Instagram were banned, and there was no way they could get any information, they couldn’t get access to New York Times investigations or other investigations, which were conducted at the moment, I would simply send them those links.

Just links to certain stories, certain precise investigations on the matter, and eventually we ended up having at least two of my classmates change their mind about how the Russian army behaved. And then, they were spreading those links subsequently. They were sending them to their parents, and grandparents, and friends, and so on. And that’s exactly how it works.

Nico Perrino: It creates a contagion effect.

Stas Kucher: Absolutely.

Nico Perrino: Essentially.

Genia Simkin: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: I wanna ask you about, was there an opportunity to overthrow Putin with Yevgeny Prigozhin? And would that have been good for Russia? I mean, it seems like, just as an outsider who just knows what I read in the newspapers, this was a serious threat to the regime.

Stas Kucher: Oh, once the opportunity hasn’t become the reality, you can always say that there was no opportunity. There was no chance, but of course at the same time, of course there were chances. And I guess, if Yevgeny Prigozhin was stubborn enough in pursuing his goal, I mean had his goal been actually seizing power in Moscow, he could have succeeded.

Nico Perrino: You think he could have? You think he had the means to?

Stas Kucher: But his goal was different. His goal was different. His goal was again to swear his loyalty to the chief, to Vladimir Putin, and to overthrow the minister of defense, Shoigu. So, he had a different goal. That’s the point.

Genia Simkin: I was rooting for him because his name is Yevgeny. And I thought if somebody with a prominent position in Russia could become known, then telemarketers would stop screwing up my name when they call me. And that would be a win. No, the interesting thing is that it’s been how many months now, six months since that whole ordeal. In the moment it was happening –

Nico Perrino: Has it only been six – gosh. That feels like –

Genia Simkin: Has it been longer? I don’t know, time –

Nico Perrino: What was it? It was August of, I think it was –

Stas Kucher: It was July.

Nico Perrino: It was July of 2023, so yeah.

Genia Simkin: Eight months, whatever it is.

Nico Perrino: Yeah.

Genia Simkin: In the moment, I remember us having these conversations where we were thinking is this a mortal wound for Putin? It doesn’t matter what the outcome is in terms of will Prigozhin accede him, or be assassinated, or whatever, but the fact that this happened, the fact that this level of danger – they were within some miles of Moscow with this operational force. And nobody was there to stop them. And then, if they rolled into Moscow, there’s no military in Moscow.

Nico Perrino: It was so weird. It was so weird, yeah.

Genia Simkin: Would the police would – who would intercede? And this seemed like an obvious mortal wound for Putin. And at the time, we were like, there’s no way he can recover reputationally, having shown this level of weakness. And the fact that he murdered him a couple of weeks later, who cares? It seems like the king’s been exposed as a paper tiger, and yet here we are eight months or whatever it is later, and –

Stas Kucher: Well, actually, he came up with strengthening his positions in Russia, Putin, I mean because I know millions of Russians saw what Putin does to traitors. So, it was again, a mobster message to the crowd. I’m still strong. I control the situation. I’m in charge of everything.

Nico Perrino: Prigozhin had to know that was gonna be the outcome though, once he started moving toward Moscow. So, why would he stop?

Genia Simkin: I think, so –

Nico Perrino: It’s like, the die is cast. You’ve crossed the Rubicon.

Stas Kucher: And again, his line of thought that what he was doing was not a ride against Putin. It was not a rebellion again Putin’s authority. Rather, it was just an attempt to make Vladimir Putin see the actual state of things, how corrupt the army became, how weak the minister of defense became, and that a lot of changes needed to be introduced to the way the army functioned, the way the army fought in Ukraine. So, it was to him –

Genia Simkin: But also, his fate was sealed.

Stas Kucher: It was like, I’m helping the emperor.

Genia Simkin: Yes, but his fate, we’re forgetting now that when this all happened, he was as good as dead at that moment, before it happened. He was already –

Nico Perrino: Before he had taken over those army bases, before he started –

Genia Simkin: Correct.

Nico Perrino: – marching or driving to Moscow.

Genia Simkin: Correct. In the weeks before that, he came to the conclusion quite correctly that his operation, what, its name, Wagner.

Stas Kucher: PMC Wagner.

Nico Perrino: The Wagner Group, yeah.

Genia Simkin: The Wagner was about to be nationalized and incorporated into the larger Russian military. Shoigu was gonna become the leader. He was gonna become a useless pawn. And then, immediately thereafter, he would either be murdered or just sidelined. It was a last-ditch mechanism to try to regain his pertinence or relevance in the whole thing. But I’m sure that he understood that this was a massively risky thing to do, but I think it was just a –

Stas Kucher: But again, remember this film starring Tom Cruise called The Last Samurai?

Nico Perrino: Yeah.

Stas Kucher: And the leader of the samurai rebellion, Akimoto was his name, who actually, wanting to show the emperor that the country was not going in the right direction. Whereas, at the same time he was very loyal to the emperor, and he believed he was a servant to the emperor. He believed he was doing him a favor by launching that rebellion. So, I mean, the situation’s pretty similar with Prigozhin anyway.

Genia Simkin: If you’re suggesting that Tom Cruise should play Prigozhin – you’re suggesting Tom should play Prigozhin in the Hollywood adaptation of what happened, I agree. I think –

Stas Kucher: He could. He probably could.

Nico Perrino: So, Stas, what –

Stas Kucher: I prefer Brad Pitt, but…

Nico Perrino: I wanna ask you, Stas, briefly about kinda the progression of Putin’s regime in Russia because it was a fairly free society relative to what it is now. There was an independent media at some point in Russia, wasn’t there?

Stas Kucher: Well, in the first few years of the new millennium, yup.

Nico Perrino: What happened?

Stas Kucher: This –

Nico Perrino: I mean, you worked in that media, right?

Stas Kucher: Exactly. Well, this has been actually one of the most rapid pivots in modern history from a free society to a police state. That’s what happened to Russia in the past 24 years. And yes, in the ‘90s, Russia was probably a, I would even say freer society in a sense than the United States because the Soviet Union had collapsed. And Russians believed that there was no way they could ever become an authoritarian society again having suffered the 70 years of communism. And what happened was first a series of compromises made by journalists, a set of compromises where the – again, believed their material wellbeing was more important than the freedom of the word in Russia.

Seriously, I mean, the choices were as simple as that in the first place. And then, when Putin came to power, he realized – well, the first official document which was called information doctrine of Russia, that was the first official doctrine of Russia, I think it was passed in the fall of year 2000. It was not the defense doctrine. It was not a security doctrine. It was called information security doctrine. So, Putin realized that control of information was crucial to his staying in power as long as he could. And I would say that his plan was to, when he came to the Kremlin, he came there for good. That was his plan.

And so, what he started doing first, the Kremlin got control of all the national television stations, then all national radio stations, then all national newspapers. And then, step by step, I mean, the progress, what was happening was like the story about the frog in a pot. If there’s boiling water in the pot, and you throw the frog there, the frog will jump out, but if you warm the water up steadily, that’s exactly what happened to the Russian society. Putin was breaching the freedoms steadily. He didn’t take all the freedoms away all at once. This was happening year after year.

In the first decade, again, he got all the mass media in Russia under Kremlin’s control. And then, in the second decade, the Kremlin became – working with the mindset of the Russian people, persuading them that Russia was in danger, that Russia was actually fighting the West. This was a civilization struggle that the West was vicious, that the West planned on conquering Russia, and all that bullshit. So, first, to get control of the media, and then you brainwash your population using that media as a tool. And that’s what happened.

I mean, a lot of Russians believed that. And a lot of Russians were actually happy to believe that. Basically, Putin’s major victory as far as the mindset of Russians is concerned was tying his own political wellbeing to the feeling of self-dignity, self-importance of the Russian people. Again, imagine you are an average Ivan living in Russia, somewhere in Siberia. You’re 40-something years old. And your life –

Genia Simkin: So, you just retired a year ago.

Stas Kucher: Yeah. Your life is not working out. You have a family. You’re kind of tired. You’re bored. You have to pay your mortgage. You don’t have a destination in life. And you’re tired. And then, suddenly, he comes to you and says, you know what? Your life is not wasted. You can be a part of something truly big. You can be a part of this great war against this vicious West. And every next step you hear of is an essential step in this war. We kill Boris Nemtsov. You know why we kill him, that opposition leader who was shot in front of the Kremlin in 2015? You know why we did that?

Because he was a traitor because he was working for the West. He was this fifth column who was who was working against us inside the country.

Genia Simkin: But I just wanna –

Stas Kucher: If you take part in this opposition rally, again, you are in the rows of our enemies and so on.

Genia Simkin: I just wanna say I know that in the West, in America in particular, people are very – they don’t realize that they are the frog in the pot that is being boiled here right now. This is all –

Nico Perrino: Westerners?

Genia Simkin: Westerners. This is what is happening in the States. It’s just at the very, very early stages. We haven’t started to see media be coopted or true censorship, people being sent to prison for things they think. That is starting to happen in Great Britain. Konstantin Kisin on his show was talking about how the British people are being – I mean, they’re not being sent away for years, but they’re being arrested for things they’re saying on social media. So, the Brits are some steps ahead of us in that regard, but everything that Stas was just describing, people living in some level of discomfort, not enough discomfort to start a revolution, but enough discomfort where they don’t have meaning.

They don’t have sense. They feel something is off. And then, somebody comes along and says I’m gonna give you a purpose. So, certainly white supremacists have been doing this for many decades. Islamists have this game plan, but at this point, Americans are being subsumed from both sides. The left has its mantra of we’re gonna show you how to finally find meaning. The right has its analogue. And people are willing to give up their freedoms, their rights in the name of this grander purpose. The ends justify the means.

Stas Kucher: And also, remember Benjamin Franklin said if you’re ready to sacrifice your freedom for the sake of your security…

Nico Perrino: You’re get neither.

Stas Kucher: Yeah.

Genia Simkin: Yeah.

Stas Kucher: You’ll lose both. And so, that’s exactly what happened to Russians because Putin’s initial message was hey guys, we’re so tired of reforms. We need stability. We need confidence in the future, and I’ll give you that. But yes, for the sake of that, we’ll need to sacrifice certain freedoms.

Genia Simkin: He was promising to make Russia great again, was that what he was doing there?

Stas Kucher: Absolutely. I mean, when I first heard Donald Trump using that expression, make America great again, I was like, Jesus, I’ve heard this already because Putin’s major message was let’s help Russia get off its knees, as if Russia once stood on its knees, but that was the message. That Russia had to stand on its knees before the West in the ‘90s. And now, we gotta get up from our knees and make Russia great again, the great empire, the kinda empire it’s been for centuries. And I mean, the reference Genia’s making, I’m right now writing a book called Russian Dreams, Russian Nightmares, exactly how Russia turned from democracy to a police state, and how the media helped do that.

I mean, there was no way Putin could have done what he did without the help of the media. And what is media? Media consists of journalists, of individuals. So, I personally witnessed how Russian journalists made all those sacrifices, how they made their moral choices, so the story of the Russian media, the story of cheating on their mission, of cheating on their job. And things very similar to that are happening in this country right now. Something like this, I can see happening to journalists. Some of this I see happening to politicians.

Look what Trump did to the Republican party, where now a lot of Republicans, even those who disagree with him and those who would oppose him, they choose to be silent because what happens when he becomes president or if he becomes president? So, they’re afraid. They’re sacrificing their freedom of expression for the sake of their personal careers. And that’s exactly what happened in Russia 20 years ago, 15 years ago. And that’s exactly what made today possible.

Nico Perrino: Have you guys read Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible about Russia?

Stas Kucher: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: I thought that was a fascinating book. And one of the contentions that he has or one of the main themes is that there is just so much information, and so much of it is bullshit, that nobody knows what to believe. And it creates cynicism within the society.

Genia Simkin: Yeah. And this is Putin’s primary objective and has been this operation tactic of creating so much noise. The other person who talks about this a great deal is Garry Kasparov, to create so much that people are exhausted by it, and they lose interest in trying to whittle out what is true and what isn’t. I am not writing a book, but if I were to write a book it would be called The Age of Babel, where we’ve entered into a place where there are so many areas of expertise, there are so many things within which one could be an expert that it is impossible to be an expert in more than one or at most two things, but you have to live your life.

You have to know do I take a vaccine? Don’t I take a vaccine? Is it safe to get on an airplane? Is it not safe to get on an airplane? Is the globe getting warmer, or is it not getting warmer? And you see people who are experts taking diametrically opposed views on this. And you as the layperson say what am I supposed to do here? I can’t operate in this – I wanna know, and these are important matters in which I should have a position, but I don’t know who I should believe. And if you have enough of this, then again, getting back to Putin’s sort of wet dream of a world in which you just then have a culture of personality.

So, you love Donald Trump, you’re gonna believe what Donald Trump says. He was setting this up. I wrote a piece about this for The Bulwark four years ago when he was setting up this precedent where, believe me, it doesn’t matter that the CIA who works for me is saying something that is 180 degrees different from what I’m saying. You’re gonna believe me. I’m telling you that they’re wrong. Putin’s right, they’re wrong. NBS is telling the truth. My intelligence operatives are misleading you. It’s the deep state. Now, again, unless you somehow have access to the people working at the State Department, and even if you have access to those people, they’re gonna disagree amongst themselves.

You can’t know. So, then, in Putin’s world, you believe Putin because he’s just gonna be the cipher. And you just trust me. I know what I’m doing, and you’re all gonna be great. The problem is that it doesn’t work like that. I mean, things fall apart very quickly. And –

Stas Kucher: That’s the point, but nobody cares how it actually works. Margarita Simonyan who is editor in chief of RT, and she is one of the Kremlin’s chief mouthpieces at the moment, she put it very simply to the Russians. You love the boss, you love the country, and you’ll be okay. You’ll thrive. And then, her other message was you know what? After all, life sucks, and no matter where you are in this world, things are going wrong. This world is going nowhere. And Americans are not much better than us. Yes, they have kind of less corruption, but not really.

And so, humans are vicious creatures by nature everywhere in the world. So, we just gotta take care of ourselves. So –

Genia Simkin: This is Margarita Simonyan. These are not your points.

Stas Kucher: Yes, this is Margarita Simonyan saying –

Nico Perrino: Well, but –

Stas Kucher: So, if we live in Russia, let’s just stand behind Putin. Let’s group around Putin. And let’s fight America and the rest of the world because that’s what life is.

Nico Perrino: Wasn’t that the argument that you hear from China and Russia, which is that democracy essentially failed, it’s corrupt –

Stas Kucher: Absolutely.

Nico Perrino: – it can’t accomplish anything, so why not try an autocracy?

Genia Simkin: Yeah. This drives me crazy because this is entirely our fault. I’m gonna lay the blame at the West’s fault. China, never mind if the day we’re recording this, China is in all sorts of trouble, but let’s imagine that we were recording this two years ago when all the evidence was that China was just this absolute success story having pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and into a middle class, and everybody’s thriving, everything’s fantastic. Yeah, there’s an autocracy, but who cares? Xi’s argument is that is the better way to run things, but nobody takes a step back and said, but how did they manage to do that?

Oh, they became a really, really cheap factory to the West, which generated all the capital that actually funded all of this improvement. If they had to do this on their own, they would still be starving to death because their mechanisms don’t work. And Putin’s Russia, which isn’t as well funded by the West, and at least they have oil and gas to sell, but that’s it. They’re a giant petrochemical resource that –

Nico Perrino: When they can’t fix their airplanes.

Genia Simkin: They can’t – well, again, this is two weeks after Boeing’s doors are flying off their planes, but –

Nico Perrino: Yeah, we can’t fix our airplanes either.

Genia Simkin: But the point is that there is only one proven way to lead a successful society, and that is through a free, liberal, democratic, open thought, knowledge-based society. Knowledge-based societies work because people invent cool things, and then start selling them to each other. And everybody thrives. Is it perfect? Far from it, but the fact that China was able to position itself as this success story, nobody takes one step further back and says, yeah, but they’re only a success story because it was funded by the thriving West.

Stas Kucher: Well, again, any authoritarian –

Nico Perrino: A counterpoint to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, [inaudible] [00:56:39]

Stas Kucher: Any authoritarian society can show a success story at some point for the time being like the Soviet Union in the ‘30s, a country becoming an industrialized nation from an agricultural backward nation some 20 years before then, but it’s always a matter of the price you pay. The Soviet Union paid the price of tens of millions of lives for that. And China by the way has paid a huge price of again, of millions of lives for their success story. And by the way, then the success story is always short. In terms of history, the 70 years of the existence of the U.S.S.R. is nothing. It’s just a moment. So, and there will be –

Genia Simkin: And it was running on fumes for the last 25 years of those 70 years. So, it really ran out of gas very, very quickly.

Stas Kucher: So many people forget the lessons of history very fast in all countries because the advantages – I mean, Churchill again said that democracy is the worst thing, but there is nothing better when it comes to running the country. And the West and the western –

Nico Perrino: I think Benjamin Franklin said that too.

Stas Kucher: Exactly. The western democracy has proved that it is stronger by –

Genia Simkin: But for all the others. That was the Ben Franklin –

Nico Perrino: Yeah, apart from all the others, yeah.

Stas Kucher: Absolutely.

Nico Perrino: Well, how can folks help?

Genia Simkin: So, there are a multitude of things people can do. First of all, we need money. And that’s always true for everybody. If you –

Nico Perrino: And what’s the website URL?

Genia Simkin: So, the website is I’m assuming you guys have show notes.

Nico Perrino: We’ll link it in the show notes.

Genia Simkin: The other way that you can help, I’m imagining that the audience for this show are very well educated, very well positioned, people really interested in freedom of expression given who you guys are. And so, to the extent to which they have any capacity to introduce us, we seem like we’re very well established. The website looks very pretty and so forth, but we’re just a few people, very scrappy, very get up and go. But if you know somebody who you think I should be introduced to, please introduce – I’m looking right at the camera. Please contact me. Please just get in touch, help us spread the word.

It’s surprising how easy it is to help us at this stage. And yes, at the very least, subscribe to donate five bucks a month. What we’re doing is well worth it, and it won’t hurt you. And who knows? Maybe we’ll bring down the Iranian regime, and the Russian regime, and the Chinese regime. And the world will be a perfect place to live.

Nico Perrino: We can only wish. Stas, Genia, I appreciate you both coming on the show.

Genia Simkin: Nico, thank you so much for having us.

Stas Kucher: Thank you.

Nico Perrino: Next time you’re in D.C., you’ll have to come back.

Genia Simkin: Absolutely. This is great.

Nico Perrino: The website is

Genia Simkin:

Nico Perrino: And we will have it linked in the show notes. I encourage everyone to check it out. Again, this podcast is hosted by me, Nico Perrino and produced by Sam Niederholzer and myself. It’s edited by my colleagues, Aaron Reese, Chris Maltby, and Ella Ross. You can learn more about So to Speak by checking us out any of our social media channels. We also have video of this conversation and other conversations on our YouTube channel. And you can email us feedback at If you wanna get in touch with Genia or Stas, you can shoot me an email, and I’ll do my best to get them in touch with you guys.

If you enjoyed this episode, we encourage our listeners to leave us a review, Apple Podcasts, Google Play. Those reviews help us attract new listeners to the show. Until next time, I think you call again for listening.