Hide and Seek
Brooke Gladstone This week, the Chinese spy balloon was still flying across the news feeds. But how to comprehend the spectacle that's both worrying…
Senator Tester Quite frankly, I'll just tell you, I don't want a damn balloon flown across the United States
Brooke Gladstone …and totally absurd.
SNL Everyone's being surveilled constantly, but it's always shoot the balloon and never unplug Alexa!
Brooke Gladstone From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also, when investigative reporter Christo Grozev have got a lead on who poisoned Alexei Navalny, he took it straight to the source.
Daniel Roher Christo just sent him a direct message on Twitter.
Brooke Gladstone He DM’d him
Daniel Roher He slid into the DMs of the leader of the Russian opposition. That's right.
Brooke Gladstone Plus, rereading the Russian classics in a time of war.
Elif Batuman What I came to realize in my late 30s is that, of course, nothing is free from ideology. These novels are products of a time and place in history.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
Brooke Gladstone From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Many reports this week on the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the headline-grabbing Chinese balloon, apparently part of a fleet. On Thursday afternoon, the House of Representatives gathered at the Capitol to vote to condemn the Chinese Communist Party for flying it over U.S. soil.
Senator Murkowski As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words, but I'm not going to. The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America, right?
Senator Tester I don't want a damn balloon going across the United States when we potentially could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands or in some of the areas in Montana.
Senator Murray This incident is greatly concerning to me, not just because of the breach of our airspace but what it signals about our relationship with China, the strength of our diplomacy and really the state of our domestic capabilities.
Brooke Gladstone The House unanimously voted to condemn just a week after the balloon was first sighted by civilians. And just a day after the State Department announced that the balloon had antennas that were, quote, likely capable of collecting and geo locating communications, meaning data from mobile phones and radios. The outrage over the balloon was first ignited when a local news reporter snapped a photo of it over Montana on February 1st. And then the story blew up.
CLIP MONTAGE. The balloon. The balloon, The balloon, The balloon. The Chinese balloon. So where did the balloon come from?
Brooke Gladstone February 4th, just three days after it was snapped, it was felled.
CNN The balloon was so high up when it was destroyed, the sound of the blast took several seconds to reach the ground. Listen to this… [EXPLOSION SOUND]
Brooke Gladstone On Saturday Night Live, Bowen Yang was that punctured balloon.
Chloe Fineman (SNL CLIP) Look, I'm sorry, but people were worried they were being spied on.
Bowen Yang (SNL CLIP) By me? A balloon? Everyone's being surveilled constantly, but it's always shoot the balloon and never unplug Alexa. If you care so much about your data, why do you all keep your bank passwords in the notes app?
Brooke Gladstone So was it a real threat or just the moral equivalent of the creepy clown from Stephen King's It?
IT Clip Come on up, Richie, I got a balloon for you.
Brooke Gladstone John Allsop writes Columbia Journalism Review’s newsletter The Media Today. He says the balloons coverage illustrates the difficulty of regarding something as both concerning and absurd at the same time. Though, shouldn't we be used to that by now? John, welcome back to the show.
Jon Allsop Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone The commentary was satirical, breathless, punny, and it reminded you a little bit of the coverage back in November 2020, right after the election, when Rudy Giuliani appeared at the Four Seasons, which in this case was a Philadelphia landscaping company. And in fact, he was sort of outside in the parking lot.
MSNBC He recited a few unsubstantiated claims about dead people voting in Philadelphia. You almost couldn't tell he was at the Four Seasons Total landscaping, except for the big yellow reel of hose off to the side.
Jon Allsop It reminded me of that because it sort of had this aesthetic as a news story that was two things at once. Rudy Giuliani in the parking lot at the Four Seasons was objectively hilarious. And yet he was, I don't want to even say laying the foundation because I think it was more advanced at that point.
Brooke Gladstone That's another pun, by the way.
Jon Allsop A landscaping plan. I didn't even realize I was making that one, but it was a step towards something that became incredibly dark and scary. Sometimes news stories can be all of those things at once. There is something, I think, inherently funny in everyone following this literal balloon across the sky and the avalanche of memes about it and puns and otherwise serious news coverage would probably suggest that there is something absurd about it. But obviously, at root, the story is a very serious one that certainly ties into a very serious, broader story about tensions between two of the most powerful countries on earth.
Brooke Gladstone And you also noticed the streak of really scare raising coverage of the balloon across the political spectrum.
Jon Allsop Yes. So you have Donald Trump shouting on Truth Social shut down the balloon, and then you have The New York Post a couple of days later with a front page headline with big capital letters to a similar effect. Obviously, you know, as well as playing into their preferred narratives about the huge threat of China, it was an opportunity to bash Biden for perceived weakness, for not following their instructions sooner, even though I think the White House laid out pretty clear reasons why they weren't going to shoot it down while people might be in harm's way.
Brooke Gladstone Yeah, it was a couple of thousand pounds and as big as three busses?
Jon Allsop But I've seen a lot of comparisons to busses. How long is a piece of string? How big is a bus? That might be a question you have to ask, but certainly when it eventually was shot down over the ocean, the debris from the balloon had scattered across a really large area. And so, the idea that you could be confident of breaking that down over inhabited land, even in a relatively less densely populated place without hurting anyone, seems to me to be kind of spurious. But you did see that kind of tough talk in right wing media and among right wing politicians, as you would expect. But I think you also saw it as well in mainstream coverage. You know, you could hear voices on CNN expressing, if not explicit, then certainly implied amusement about the fact that Biden and his administration hadn't shot the balloon down sooner.
Brooke Gladstone You mentioned CNN. It fell on one of its old tropes, having the armchair generals in to talk about the military aspects of this and bringing in a Cold War-style perspective they were trained on and how they view the world.
CNN Why did we let a potential adversary air vehicle penetrate the sovereign territory of Canada the United States? It should have been neutralized as it entered our air defense identification zone.
Jon Allsop Yeah, you saw four-star generals and pundits with deep ties in the military industrial CNN complex. None of this is to say that that strain of coverage about the balloon was entirely illegitimate, but I think it was put across in a way that was kind of hair-raising and over-the-top and a nuance. But beyond that, I think the visibility talks to a second dimension of this, which is maybe this is a human impulse. Maybe it's only a sort of human impulse in the age of cable news. But people just seem to love following stuff on TV. I wrote in my newsletter that it brought to mind the O.J. Bronco chase.
NEWS CLIP We're going to go to a live picture in Los Angeles. Police believe that O.J. Simpson is in that car.
Jon Allsop Many pundits pointed out that it brought to mind the coverage of the balloon boy incident in, I think, 2009, when there was a balloon over Colorado that supposedly contained a young child.
MSNBC What you all see right there is an experimental aircraft that inside of which is a six year old boy who got into that aircraft and accidentally launched it.
Jon Allsop It turned out to have been a hoax. But, you know, a story is fundamentally a movement from A to B, be that metaphorical or literal. And I think when it's literal, people love following it and it's a great story for cable news.
Brooke Gladstone It's that episodic thing. There's a balloon, it's Chinese. What's gonna happen?
Jon Allsop It's going to move.
Brooke Gladstone But despite what you call the unbearable lightness of the coverage of the balloon, there were some measurable consequences. Secretary of State Tony Blinken canceled a trip to Beijing due to what he called a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law. Can you tell me more about that fallout?
Jon Allsop It did have a number of very concrete consequences, not least diplomatically, as you mentioned. The Biden administration since then, including Biden himself, have tried to play down the idea that they're trying to ratchet up tensions. But there have been some pretty aggrieved statements from the Chinese government as well. So clearly, there is tension over this, as you would expect, and it's opened up this public conversation about Chinese surveillance, not just of the U.S., but other parts of the world.
Brooke Gladstone Yeah, I've seen Taiwanese reports that they've seen Chinese balloons parked over the equivalent of their White House. And these Taiwanese scientists also noted that the balloons can pinpoint missile locations, which would make our ICBMs easier to take out in a first strike. I think that's really meant to be scary because, you know, the idea of first strikes is kind of hair-on-fire. So in the wake of the fervor over the balloon, does the incident tell us anything about China's intelligence strategy?
Jon Allsop Just before we spoke, there was this statement from the US government saying that the balloon was capable of collecting communications signals and saying that the capabilities of the balloon were, quote, inconsistent with the equipment on board weather balloons, which was the official Chinese explanation for what this was. So there's that. But obviously, it sort of extends beyond balloons. Even other big stories that have been in the news recently have to do with a similar area. Right. I mean, this is a big story about TikTok being a potential security threat to the U.S., which is now a really long running story and one that I think has at least some degree of bipartisan buy-in, because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. And although TikTok has strongly denied it, there have been reports that US user data from TikTok has been accessed in Beijing. And obviously then there are concerns that if a company is able to access US user data in China, then it would not be a big step beyond that for the Chinese government to get access as well. So clearly this is just a very visible up-in-the-sky manifestation of something that is a much bigger story.
Brooke Gladstone So the balloon, despite being shot down, continues to make headlines. Marjorie Taylor Greene was walking around Capitol Hill with a balloon like a kid at a carnival, saying it was the number one thing that the president needed to address in the State of the Union that night. And on Wednesday, American officials shared that the spy balloon program is part of a surveillance plan to collect intelligence on the military's of countries around the world as more news about the balloon emerges, how can listeners tell what to take seriously and what to ignore?
Jon Allsop Well, if somebody is walking around the halls of Congress carrying a physical balloon, I would say that's a pretty clear indication that they and that should not be taken seriously. I think my guidance, to the extent that I have any, would be to at least question anything that seems like hype or untrammeled outrage or that seems to be lacking in nuance or a different perspective.
Brooke Gladstone Congressman James Comer, head of the House Oversight Committee, said, “We don't know that balloon could be carrying a bioweapon from Wuhan.” Some CNN interviewer said, “Is there any evidence?” He goes “I'm just asking questions.”
Jon Allsop Yeah, we've seen that one before. A lot of questions that don't end up having answers or answers that aren’t “No, that's not a thing.”
Brooke Gladstone John, thank you very much.
Jon Allsop Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone John Allsop is a journalist and author of the newsletter The Media Today for the Columbia Journalism Review. Coming up, as Russian dissident Alexei Navalny languishes in prison, his message is being amplified by an Oscar nominated documentary. This is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Updates trickle in from Alexei Navalny's prison, where the Russian opposition leader has been confined since January of 2021.
CNN Today, Navalny's lawyer says he's being moved to an even harsher solitary confinement facility for a maximum period of six months.
CNN This is a 7 to 8 feet concrete cell. 11 times in a row he's been sent there. And you're not allowed to lay down during the daytime because your bed is fastened onto the wall.
Dasha Navalny Vladimir Putin and the federal penalty service and are slowly torturing and killing my father.
Brooke Gladstone In August of 2020, Navalny fell violently sick on a flight between Siberia and Moscow.
CBS A flight forced to make an emergency landing. Groaning can be heard in this unconfirmed cell phone video.
BBC Mr. Navalny is in a coma after a suspected poisoning. He was flown to Germany.
Brooke Gladstone After initially being treated at a Siberian hospital. His supporters and his wife say he was intentionally poisoned, but Russian doctors said no suspicious substance was found.
NBC Alexei Navalny survived thin and gaunt in a German hospital bed. This picture taken soon after he came round from a coma.
Al Jazeera Germany and France have announced plans to sanction those they blame for the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The country's foreign ministers say Moscow has failed to provide answers about the attempted murder.
Brooke Gladstone In the months following Navalny's poisoning. Christo Grozev, lead Russian investigator at Bellingcat, was stuck in Vienna with filmmaker Daniel Roher. The two had just been booted from Ukraine, where they'd been trying to film an investigation. So now Grozev have had a lot of time on his hands, a laptop and a fresh stack of data from the Russian black market. So naturally.
Daniel Roher Christo walked into a meeting we were having one day and said very quietly, as if he was divulging a state secret, that he thinks he has a lead in who tried to poison Navalny.
Brooke Gladstone Daniel Roher directed the documentary Navalny, which portrays the story of the close collaboration between Navalny, his team and the grows up in the hunt for the dissident’s would-be killers. The film has since been nominated for an Oscar.
Christo Grozev I decided to take this approach, which was Let's look for a bottleneck in the Russian system of state assassinations, somebody that they have to go through. Who would that be in every assassination? Because we had previous data from previous overseas attempts to poison people.
Brooke Gladstone And that's the sort of assassination you mean. Poisoning. Not an Anna Politkovskaya type assassination?
Christo Grozev No, No. Poisoning is something that Putin loves. We knew that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok.
Brooke Gladstone Novichok is..?
Christo Grozev Is a nerve agent, and-
Brooke Gladstone This is his preferred method. In previous investigations, the Russian double agent, what would you call, Skripal?
Christo Grozev Sergei Skripal.
Brooke Gladstone Right.
Christo Grozev He was a double spy because he worked for Russia's military intelligence, but he was working also for the Brits.
Brooke Gladstone Skripal went to London to live and was pursued, as you determined, by Russian thugs that used Putin's favorite poison to do him in.
Christo Grozev That is true.
Brooke Gladstone And others.
Christo Grozev So that became kind of an interesting data point for us, because we knew the scientists who had manufactured and given the Novichok nerve agent to those thugs who went to the UK. So when we were looking at the Navalny poisoning, we thought --- well, they must have used the same scientist. They can't have like hundreds of scientists who do this. This has to be kept top secret. This people have to take the risk to manufacture this toxin. So I started looking at the phone records of these scientists, and we bought them on the Russian markets where you can buy absolutely any kind of data. We started looking at whether these scientists did something strange in their communication around the days in which Navalny was poisoned. Then, lo and behold, we did find something strange. They were talking to this cluster of Secret Service officers from the FSB, from Russia's domestic service, in the ten days before the poisoning. And then at the night of his poisoning, there was a peak of communication.
Brooke Gladstone Is that when you went to Daniel?
Christo Grozev That is exactly when I went to Daniel, because only a couple of days later we found the second smoking gun, which was that these FSB thugs that had communicated with the scientists had actually traveled for four years, always in the vicinity of where Navalny was going. So then we knew that we have the proof.
Daniel Roher I said to Kristen, who's making that movie? And he says, I don't know. Should I ask them?
Brooke Gladstone Ask Navalny.
Daniel Roher As we say in the film, Christo just sent him a direct message on Twitter.
Brooke Gladstone He DM’d him.
Daniel Roher He slid into the DM’s...
Brooke Gladstone It’s so prosaic!
Daniel Roher …of the Russian opposition. That's right.
Brooke Gladstone And I know that your DM’s were met, Christo, with something less than enthusiasm by Navalny's people.
Christo Grozev Well, Navalny himself was enthusiastic. We understand in the background that his advisors and especially Maria, who we've grown to love, but at the time, she was very, very hard to work with.
Brooke Gladstone Maria?
Christo Grozev Pevchikh. Yes. She had been advising Navalny that, well, you have to be careful. I mean, who knows, maybe Christo works for the CIA, maybe he works for MI6. [unintelligible 20:20] But anyway, it worked out. I had the call. At the end of that call, I said, Hey, can I bring a couple of guys? And this young director, we want to make a film while we are doing this investigation together.
Daniel Roher My focus in that first meeting was to present Navalny and his team with a very low risk, high reward proposition. And that was the following: this investigation is unfolding in real time. You will never have another chance to capture it, to document it. Let's just start shooting. We don't have to sign any paperwork. We don't have to make a deal. Let's just start shooting. And if you like the work we do, then we'll continue working together. And if you don't, you can take the footage and we'll walk away. And you can do whatever you want with it. And so for them, it was like, okay, you're right. Let's start shooting. And we did the next day.
Brooke Gladstone One very successful conceit of the film is the sort of moment out of time that he has periodically in the bar with you on the other side of the camera and him staring directly into it. It's got incredible intimacy. At the same time, it's like he's outside his own life for a moment.
Daniel Roher We shot that interview three days preceding his eventual return to Moscow. And so it had this sense of, all right, what do you have to get off your chest because you're not going to be able to speak to the world again for a long while. We shot probably 15 hours of interview over three days. I had no idea in that moment how this interview would be weaved into the film. I had an instinct that it wouldn't even make it into the movie. I thought that this film wanted to be a propulsive, in-the-room, verité political thriller, and it's only when we started editing the film that months elapsed from the last time I had seen Navalny, you know, six or seven months since the world had seen him or heard from him that I understood the historic value of this interview.
Brooke Gladstone Mm hmm.
Daniel Roher This is the guy's last appearance. This was the last person he spoke to.
Brooke Gladstone I think you made the right decision. I understand you're not wanting to mess with the forward motion of the film, but the stakes get higher. The closer we feel to the protagonist. I mean, it's a nature of drama. And you really did that. You also played with time in a lot of ways. You flashback to the Navalny before the poisoning --- this young, promising charismatic lawyer with his flamboyant social media presence and huge following on YouTube and TikTok and had a knack for riling up the crowds against Putin.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) If I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I have to do something practical about it. Well, I have to kind of organize people.
Navalny Clip Well, not see just because you want to the right sort of.
Brooke Gladstone Navalny knew he was becoming notable in the eyes of the Kremlin as he was banned from newspapers and rallies and so forth. And yet with all that, Navalny seemed to become more confident that he wouldn't be targeted?
Daniel Roher He thought that his profile and his fame and his notoriety would protect him in a way.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) I was totally sure that my life became safer and safer because I am a kind of famous guy and it will be problematic for them just to kill me.
Interviewer (Navalny) And boy, where you wrong.
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) Yes, I was very wrong.
Brooke Gladstone Then the Kremlin struck. He was poisoned on a flight between Tomsk in Siberia and Moscow, and was saved only by an emergency landing. The documentary shows harrowing footage of his wife, Yulia, arriving at a crappy apartment building where Navalny was sent…
Yulie Navalny (Navalny) I knew those people would go to Russia.
Brooke Gladstone …Filled with agents and police rather than doctors approaching them.
Brooke Gladstone Eventually a charity German flight sent Navalny to Vienna, where he steadily got better. So, Christo, you are knee deep in investigation into the poisoning, and you convinced Navalny that you would be able to identify the men.
Christo Grozev So they provided the data of how Navalny had traveled to what locations. I matched it to the known travel data of the poisoners and spies. We saw this pattern of essentially a group of 6 to 8 FSB poisoners had been tailing him for more than four years to a total of 66 different towns and cities during his presidential campaign and later after that, during his anti-corruption work. It was interesting because he brought his wife, Yulia, and when I was presenting this and he said, look at these guys that Christo has found. Haven't you seen this guy? Yeah, I think this was the guy in Kaliningrad where we were just two weeks before the poisoning poisonings on and so forth.
Brooke Gladstone And then there's the jaw dropping moment in the film where Navalny essentially prank calls the would-be murderers and the chemists involved in formulating the Novichok.
Christo Grozev: Yeah, it was early in the morning when we did the sequence of calls.
Christo Grozev Alexei Navalny calling his would-be killers and asking them one by one, why do you try to kill me? What have I done to you? That was kind of a sarcastic plot that he had. It was boring. Everybody was hanging up. So then at one point, he decided to change gear and to prank one of them. And he turned to me and said, Who do you think will be the dumbest of these people that I can prank? And he was like pointing to this suspect chart on the wall. And I said, I don't know about dummies, but somebody who may not be trained in avoiding such pranks, maybe one of the scientists and this one looks both dumb and a scientist. So why didn't you call him? That was Kudryavtsev. And he called him, and it worked.
Brooke Gladstone Navalny poses as an aide to a former FSB chief, and he talks about having received the number of the chemist from the head of the FSB Special Technology Center, and then he gets all urgent. “How did the mission go awry?” he asks Konstantin. He asks exactly how the poisoning was carried out, and that's when the infamous blue underwear comes into the conversation. We get to see your jaws eventually dropping on the table. Not the least, Navalny's aide, Maria's jaw hitting the table. I mean, you guys, it's just electric. How did that feel?
Christo Grozev 10 minutes into the call, we started getting new names and new circumstances beyond what we had discovered ourselves. And then I knew, okay, this is for real. This guy is actually spilling the beans. And then over the next 50 minutes, it was a gamut of emotions that went through the surprise, then went through the feeling that we actually may have just caused the demise and the death of this spy because he's going to be punished. He can't be allowed to go unpunished. And then one of the feelings that both I and Maria shared that we experienced towards the end of the call was a feeling of doom, that we've kind of peaked in our journalistic career because we'll never get to see anything like this again.
Brooke Gladstone And so what was the view behind the camera?
Daniel Roher I don't speak a word of Russian. But when we were shooting that scene, I had very little expectations that anything meaningful would happen. We were up at five in the morning. We were shooting for probably an hour and a half before he got Kudryavtsev on the phone, and I was nearly falling asleep behind my camera. And that's when I saw one of the conversations was progressing longer than the other phone calls had. And then I saw Maria's jaw unhinge and hit the floor. And this is a woman whose emotional range towards me, up until this point, had been mildly annoyed to very annoyed. So to see her experiencing this shock and I could just see she was floored. And I just kept rolling.
Brooke Gladstone The other challenge was how to portray Navalny not just as a political hero, but as a human being with flaws. I knew about his background and his associations with the far right and some anti-Semites, and I was waiting for that moment to push back. And you provided it when you questioned him about marching with Nazis earlier in his career.
Daniel Roher (Navalny) Because a lot of politicians would be uncomfortable that even associating or being in the same photograph with one of these guys. Are you comfortable with that?
Alexei Navalny (Navalny) I'm okay with that. And I consider it as my political superpower. I can talk to everyone. Anyway, well, they are citizens of Russian Federation. And if I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I cannot just ignore the huge part of it.
Daniel Roher Essentially, what he's saying is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and his singular focus is unseating this regime, relegating Vladimir Putin to the dustbins of history and installing a democratic tradition in Russia.
Christo Grozev I've historically challenged Navalny over his foreplay with the extreme right. He says, I did it because I thought at that point in time, this is the best for Russian democracy. And you have to understand, we are now fighting against a single party system. And when we get rid of it, we will then have a meaningful discussion on the subject, on the content of the platforms of different parties, and then is the right time or the right place to challenge these Nazis or these extreme rights on their platforms. But it's not now, we first need to get rid of the one party system.
Brooke Gladstone As you've observed, he's a master politician. He's unbelievably charismatic. He really understands social media. But I think the thing that struck me the most, he has a certain messianic quality, a sense of destiny. I think that's why he went back to Russia after having nearly been killed. Did you get a sense of the messianic, either of you, from him?
Speaker 8 Let me start. I did, it's clear, it has to be put in the context of the messianic proclivity of the Russian soul. A lot of my friends who are journalists in Russia, they have that messianic quality to themselves and they're doing a job that essentially puts their lives, their families’ lives at risk at any given moment. I spoke with him and I spoke with his family at length about this plan to go back to Russia. And I alerted them, I thought for the first time, to the risks of them were going back. And they all said, we are aware of the risks. We know that Alexei will be jailed and not for a week, not for a month, but for years. And I said, And you're fine with this? And the answer was yes, because that's the only way for him to earn the trust of the Russian people for a time when he can actually go and run for president again. So, it is messianic, no question about it. But I think societies are changed by a minority of the people that have messianic tendencies.
Daniel Roher And what I often think about is whether or not Navalny would have been so keen to go back so quickly had this war in Ukraine already been launched. He went back about a year before the war started.
Brooke Gladstone His family was Ukrainian. They had to decamp from where he grew up after Chernobyl.
Daniel Roher That's right. And of course, now he is the single loudest anti-war advocate in Russia, which is why he is in a little solitary confinement cell removed from the general prison population in what amounts to torturous conditions. He has no regard for his own longevity. His only, it seems, mission and ambition is to end this war, even as the regime is ratcheting up their torture towards him, which includes weaponizing other prisoners as biological weapons, sending in men with tuberculosis and a fever and COVID to try and get him sick. And then when he gets sick, they treat him with prison doctors, and he's not informed of what his treatment is and he doesn't know what they're injecting him with. In the last, I think, two and a half weeks, he's lost about 15 pounds. And it's quite clear that the regime is trying to murder him in slow motion.
Brooke Gladstone It's interesting that he's still able to communicate with the world that the Russians are letting him continue to communicate with the world. It seems like the Russians are doing the maximum to look bad. We get to watch him die, even as he exhorts us. What is the calculation, do you think?
Christo Grozev Navalny is very good at playing the foibles, the weaknesses of Putin, and he knows that Putin wants to indict him for more and more crimes, and each new indictment --- and we've seen four since he was incarcerated --- now, the latest one is he's accused of running an extremist organization from inside jail, the extremist organization being the anti-corruption fund that has been banned by Russia. But each of these new indictments brings the constitutional requirement for Alexei to meet with his lawyers. And each new meeting with the lawyers brings him the opportunity to send a message in the form of a handwritten note that is posted on Instagram and Twitter. So it becomes a vicious circle because each new message brings a new indictment and it brings back the lawyers. So that's how he's playing the system.
Brooke Gladstone We got the news in December, Christo, you are the first foreign national to be placed on Putin's most wanted list. You are Bulgarian. You have been in Vienna. Not a very safe place to be. England isn't such a safe place to be. Where are you going to go?
Christo Grozev Fortunately, I have the excuse of needing to stay in the United States for a while because we're waiting for the Oscars, and I'm taking that opportunity to also teach a little bit here --- investigative journalism. But you're right, I'm on the wanted list. And furthermore, I know that I'm on the kill list in addition to the wanted list. And therefore, I'll have to reconsider where my family lives, where I live. And I can't claim that I'm as messianic as a Russian, but I still see that this is also a recognition of the effect of our investigations. And I see the positive side of that too.
Brooke Gladstone Have you done any of your own research to look into your own case?
Christo Grozev That is literally what I'm working on at the moment, looking for my would-be killers. It's one of the most surreal experiences to do that. It's almost like a doctor trying to cure themselves.
Brooke Gladstone Wow. How do you begin? They haven't left a trail like they did for Navalny years in advance.
Christo Grozev I'm looking for people--- I shouldn't be telling you because they will know what I'm doing. Yeah, let's talk about it after I catch them.
Brooke Gladstone Oh, boy. Christo Grozev, lead Russian investigator at Bellingcat features in the film Navalny, directed by Daniel Roher. Thank you both very much.
Daniel Roher Thank you for having us.
Christo Grozev Thank you for having us.
Brooke Gladstone Coming up, reading Dostoyevsky while war rages in Ukraine becomes a very different experience. This is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In all but the most recent times Russian imperialism has shaped how people outside of Ukraine have viewed that country --- as dryly depicted in this scene from The Wire.
The Wire You’re Russian right? No, Ukraine. Kyiv is Ukraine. It's the same difference though…
Brooke Gladstone This idea, of course, was the same one that Putin used as grounds for a full scale invasion nearly a year ago.
Sky News “They are one people,” he said, “a common culture, language and politics stretch back to the beginning of ancient Rus and more than a thousand years ago, when Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine, was the regime's center of power.”
Timothy Snyder Mr. Putin has made very clear, actually for the past ten years or so that he doesn't believe that Ukrainians are a people and he doesn't believe that the Ukrainian state is actually a real state. Those are the classic arguments that Europeans made for 500 years when they colonized other people.
MSNBC He wants Ukraine to become part of his sphere of influence in perpetuity.
Brooke Gladstone But the effort to eliminate Ukrainian identity started long before Putin, as described in this video made for the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.
Varvara Shmygalova The cultural genocide began with Tsar Peter I, who in 1720 issued a decree banning book printing in Ukrainian language and removing Ukrainian texts from church books. In 1804, Emperor Alexander I banned all existing Ukrainian language schools.
Brooke Gladstone In her recent piece in The New Yorker, “Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War,” writer Elif Batuman recounts a trip to Ukraine in 2019 to discuss two of her books --- One a novel, one not. Both with Dostoyevsky and titles: The Possessed and The Idiot. She found herself learning that her beloved books that she believed transcended politics did not and could not.
Elif Batuman My idea of how I grew up during the Cold War was that I was part of the tiny minority of the world who was not brainwashed. I alone had access to ideas that I was choosing freely and without ideology, and that I was specifically choosing novels because they weren't political and they weren't ideological and they weren't tainted by these things. And what I came to realize in my late thirties is that, of course, nothing is free from ideology, that these novels are products of a time and place in history. So what I realized after I came back from Ukraine was, you know, I've already been on this huge rethinking of Anna Karenina and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin because of gender norms, why would imperialistic norms not be there too? Then I started this project of rereading. And what I found is that it's not that the writers were bad or that they approved of these things, but that the writers were a product of empire. The novels were a product of empire. Writing a book is something that takes enormous resources of leisure and money and a whole literary culture to be in conversation with. Without a robust literary culture and robust literary institutions, Pushkin would not have been able to write Eugene Onegin.
Brooke Gladstone Pushkin had a fraught relationship with the imperial regime, didn't he?
Elif Batuman So Pushkin, as a very young person, he was exiled from St. Petersburg by the czar personally for some poems that he wrote when he was still a teenager. Part of how Pushkin got his start was by sort of adapting Western European romanticism into a Russian context. So he had written these poems. The famous one is “An Ode to Liberty,” and it's just, you know, like, let us shake off our chains and autocracy is wrong. And the czar felt so called out by this that he banished Pushkin from St. Petersburg and he didn't return for another ten years.
Brooke Gladstone And Czar Nicholas was actually Pushkin's personal censor. You found that he went in line by line.
Elif Batuman When Pushkin was allowed to return ten years later, by then there was a new czar. That was Czar Nikolai. And Czar Nikolai was Pushkin's personal censor. And when I was in Georgia this summer, I found a monograph that had been written by a Georgian philologist about Czar Nikolai’s changes to Pushkin's history of the Pugachev Rebellion. And he, starting with the title, he rewrote it, He rewrote everything. It was completely bonkers.
Brooke Gladstone Tell me about Pushkin's poem, “The Bronze Horseman.”
Elif Batuman So The Bronze Horseman is a poem that Pushkin writes after he is allowed to return to St Petersburg. It's now celebrated as a founding canonical text of St Petersburg about this iconic monument to Peter the Great, which is a bronze horseman by Falcone. I was interested in The Bronze Horseman because part of the backlash against Russian literature in Ukraine in the past year has taken the form of dismantling Pushkin monuments, which are all over the former Soviet Union and certainly all over Ukraine and their streets named after Pushkin. So I was thinking about The Bronze Horseman, and I reread it, and the preface starts with Peter the Great, looking out at this desolate swamp dotted with the miserable huts that Finnish people built and thinking from here we can menace Sweden. And then he builds this imperial capital, which gives Russia naval access to the Baltic Sea and key to Russia becoming a major imperial player in the European balance of power. That's just sort of a little prequel. The rest of the poem is about this bronze monument of Peter coming to life and jumping off his pedestal and terrorizing this clerk to his death. So, you know, reading it, it just occurred to me that Pushkin did not have unmixed feelings about monuments. He didn't have unmixed feelings about Empire. And it's not about like he loved the czar. It's much more complicated than that.
Brooke Gladstone Now, let's talk about Dostoyevsky, who inspired the titles of your books, the murderous protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the ultimate dark depiction of Nietzsche's Übermensch, the man of the future who could rise above conventional Christian morality to impose his own will. You also see Raskolnikov using the logic of imperialism.
Elif Batuman The logic of the Nietzschean Übermensch is the logic of imperialism. These things are all connected. They come up at the same time. Raskolnikov justifies his crime with this argument that most people are ordinary. And then there are some people who are extraordinary. And the iconic example of the extraordinary person is Napoleon. These people have the right to kill others for the fulfillment of an idea. And his logic for committing murder is he's a law student and he's penniless and his sister is having to marry this horrible guy and kind of prostitute herself to pay for his studies. So he's going to murder this old woman --- she’s his landlady. And she's also a pawnbroker who he says makes the world worse, murder her, take all her money and fund his own education, and then he's going to philanthropically spread his largesse. And it's going to be a great thing for the world. He talks about Napoleon being this hero who invades Egypt. And if you think about Napoleon, he goes to Egypt. He plunders the treasures resulting in the death of huge numbers of Egyptian people. And then he's celebrated as founding Egyptology, which is, you know, already an insane name for a scholarly discipline. So, in a world where we're taught that people like that are heroes, Raskolnikov logic is not really that crazy. He's following something to the letter.
Brooke Gladstone In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky doesn't endorse the logic of the Übermensch or of imperialism, and yet Dostoyevsky gives a speech towards the end of his life in the 1880s honoring Pushkin. Many people have drawn a connection between Dostoyevsky and Putin because of that speech.
Elif Batuman He linked Pushkin's universality to the reforms of Peter the Great who westernized Russia, and made Russia competitive with the powers of Western Europe. And he did that through drastically modifying all aspects of Russian life. Dostoevsky says So what happened in Peter's reforms? Is it just that we adopted European customs and dress and science? No. We actually accomplished this much larger thing, which is we learned how to take the genius of a foreign people into our soul.
Brooke Gladstone He said that Russia, like Pushkin, was on a course to, quote, “reconcile the contradictions of Europe, thereby fulfilling the word of Christ.” There's definitely a Christian bent to a lot of Putin's justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and the battle with the corrupt West.
Elif Batuman Yeah, So I think the speech is an expression of what people call Dostoyevsky's messianism, and Putin definitely also has messianism. You know, I don't know that Putin is the world's most sophisticated reader or analyzer of Russian literature. He just kind of takes what he wants. So, Putin at an event this but there's this ideology called russkimiri, the Russian world, that started after the fall of the Soviet Union, a philosophy or a movement to maintain the power of the Russian language and what they called the “near abroad.” You know, places like Ukraine that were now abroad, but that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union. And Putin now invokes the Russian world. He's invoked it to justify his invasion of Georgia and the invasion of Ukraine. And it means the suppression of Ukrainian language and national identity.
Brooke Gladstone You can find Dostoyevsky's speech quoted on the russkimir website, but at the time he was delivering it, Dostoyevsky was met with cheers and weeping and exclamations that he had solved the riddle of Pushkin.
Elif Batuman Yes, that's right. The war and the necessary and overdue revisitation of Russian classics that it has led to, I really want it not to be an occasion for us to villainize Russian books or to view them as being somehow like Darth Vader vehicles of imperialism. I want to question what was it about me that I was able to go through this long in life thinking that these books actually were somehow universal and were not political? And I think it's because I had a certain worldview that comes both from U.S. ideology and from Turkish national ideology, and that there's two kinds of countries in the world, you know, there are some that are invaded and others that expand. And what Dostoevsky was saying in the Pushkin speech is Russia has this destiny to expand and become universal. And any of these Slavic people who block that, why are they being backwards and provincial and not getting with our great forward program?
Brooke Gladstone And so a year ago, after Russia invaded Ukraine, when a number of Ukrainian literary groups, including Pen Ukraine, signed a petition for a total boycott of books from Russia in the world, that was met with a statement from Pen Germany saying that the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin.
Elif Batuman Mm hmm. So if you say that enemy is Putin and not Pushkin. While that is true, inserting literature into this rhetoric of blame and enemies is not productive. To say the enemy is Putin and not Pushkin to me implies that Putin and Pushkin have nothing to do with each other. I think elsewhere in that statement they talked about grouping Pushkin and Putin together as a kind of stereotyping just because they both happen to be Russian. And I think that that argument is counterproductive. It's infuriating to Ukrainian people. It's a kind of gaslighting to say that these things aren't connected because, of course, they're connected. Pushkin was a product of the Russian empire, and Putin's ideology owes so much to imperial expansion. None of this is Pushkin's fault, but they're both expressing an expansionist agenda, and it's very important to look at Pushkin's work, to look at the role of expansionism, to look at how he felt about these things, and the very ambivalent and ambiguous way he treats expansionism.
Brooke Gladstone Gogol's The Nose. Now he's regarded as a Russian writer by the Russians, he wrote in Russian. But he was born in Ukraine.
Elif Batuman Yes, absolutely. He was born in Ukraine. And he spoke Ukrainian with his mother. And it was really a decision for him to write in Russian. He moved to St Petersburg. That's where he first achieved literary fame. And it was for writing in Russian on Ukrainian subjects and Ukrainian themes and also incorporating some aspects of Ukrainian vernacular into his writing. And he became famous as like, you know, the critics of St Petersburg were like, look at this young guy out of Ukraine writing these provincial, hilarious sketches, but it's time for him to set aside the provinces and start writing about more universal themes. And he comes to Petersburg and switches to Russian themes. He writes The Petersburg Stories and Dead Souls.
Brooke Gladstone I don't know if he did Russian officialdom any favor with those books. I mean, Dead Souls is the -err example of corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance.
Elif Batuman Yeah, absolutely. It was very ambiguously received and a super ambiguous book. All these great books are quite ambiguous.
Brooke Gladstone And with regard to The Nose?
Elif Batuman So The Nose is this famous story about a civil servant who wakes up one morning and has his nose is missing. He's a civil servant who's reached his degree of rank by serving in the caucuses in the colonies there. And now he's come to Petersburg to try to get a promotion and to try to get married. And now he doesn't have a nose and he's like, How am I going to get married? How am I going to impress my superiors? So he runs out and starts looking for his nose, and then he sees a carriage pull up in front of a building and an imposing figure gets out, and it's his own nose. And the nose is wearing a uniform of a higher-ranking civil servant than he is. And he confronts the nose and says, You know, sir, you know, excuse me, you are my nose. And the nose says,
Brooke Gladstone How dare you?
Elif Batuman How dare you? Yeah, you're mistaken. I am a person in my own right. And rereading that, I just thought Kovalyov the civil servant. His attitude towards his nose is so similar to the, you know, great Russian attitude toward Ukraine, which is how dare this little appendage go off by itself. And then just as Ukraine is saying, I'm my own country, the nose is saying, no, I'm a person in my own right. And actually, as in so many of these works, the interests of empire prevail. And at the end of the story, the civil servant gets his nose back, the police bring it to his house and they say, Oh, we caught it. This nose was about to board the stagecoach to Riga. Which is also interesting because you find out the nose was trying to go west.
Brooke Gladstone This trip you took to Ukraine, having written two books with Dostoyevsky titles. Is there a way to sum up what you were left with, with this argument, this discussion, and also the incredible passion for books?
Elif Batuman The place that I came out is that it was sort of a journey of thinking like the best novels enable us to see more than the writer saw at the time. So, I think it's sort of an act of generosity or imagination that we can do as readers is to put all of Dostoevsky in context with the best Dostoevsky, because we're not all our best selves, certainly were not our best ideological selves all the time.
Brooke Gladstone The Ukrainians, they are just steeped in trauma right now. And so, some of them right now, they can't give Dostoyevsky a pass.
Elif Batuman Yeah, and nobody should read something that's going to cause them pain.
Brooke Gladstone Thank you so much.
Elif Batuman Thank you so much.
Brooke Gladstone Elif Batman's latest novel is called Either/Or. And that's the show this week. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger Elouise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical directors, Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano, Sham Sundra, Jason Isaac, and Dave Satkowski. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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