The Spike: Natasha Sindeyeva

The remarkable story of the exuberant socialite who founded Russia’s only independent television channel


The tango: a ballroom dance from Buenos Aires, distinguished by marked rhythms, postures and abrupt pauses. It’s dramatic, extravagant and ostentatious, also intimate and sexy: it’s a suitable passion for a glamorous Muscovite. But tango-lover Natasha Sindeyeva is not just a dancer; she is the founder and CEO of Russia’s only independent TV channel and the face of journalistic resistance. 

Sindeyeva is an exhibitionist, from her vibrant suits to her garish earrings. “Today is all about me, Natasha Sindeyeva,” she announces, giggling, in a clip filmed at a glitzy party in the noughties. “Without any false modesty I’m going to sing and dance. Prepare to get sick of seeing me on stage.” 

Not long later, she swapped stage for screen. “Why isn’t there TV for normal people? That’s how it started,” her husband, ex-oligarch Aleksandr Vinokurov explains, although he must have been aware that his wife was far from “normal”.

So why? Her co-founder, Vera Krichevskaya, describes Sindeyeva as a “dreamer” with ideas for a fun lifestyle channel with Western-style chat shows. Plus, entrepreneurial innovation was the flavour of the month and independent business was thriving in the relatively liberalised Russia of President Medvedev (he served from 2008 to 2012). 

“Natasha knew nothing about TV, how it works or what it’s for,” Vinokurov says. Their budget wasn’t limitless either; the first studio was an old Soviet factory, smelling of “caramel and rats”. And rather than the stalwart professionals that dominated Russian television, Sindeyeva populated her channel with younger, diverse staff and fostered an untraditional, DIY attitude. Everything was buoyed by her enthusiasm and boundless generosity – the champagne flowed freely.

Unsurprisingly, on launching in 2010 they became “TV’s biggest joke”, according to Krichevskaya, but their viewers grew steadily. As CEO and a presenter, Sindeyeva was involved in all the big conversations and was the face of the brand. “The optimistic channel”, she dubbed her new project, TV Rain, in a promotional video, as she tangos in pink heels on a rooftop while fake rain comes pouring down on her. 

The station couldn’t avoid politics for long. A year after its launch, the Domodedovo International Airport was subject to a suicide bombing which killed 37 people. TV Rain found themselves the only Russian channel covering it live. “Suddenly we found ourselves in a different reality to the one pictured by other TV stations,” Sindeyeva explains. It continued. In 2012, Sindeyeva found herself urging viewers to vote, even though it was the first time she would be voting. In the protests that followed Putin’s re-election, which TV Rain helped expose as rigged, the channel obstinately covered activists and their resistance. Sindeyeva and Vinokurov even attended the protests, chanting with others “Russia without Putin”.

“When I found myself on this wave of information, I realised just how much injustice there was around us, which I simply didn’t see before,” Sindeyeva says. TV Rain depicted the fighting in Chechnya and Kyiv and provided platforms for Boris Nemtsov (before his probable murder) and Alexey Navalny (before his arrest). Reporters risked abuse and arrest. “I realised I couldn’t keep not having an opinion.” 

Her commitment to showing the truth became unwavering. “On our TV station, nobody can make us do something or not do something – that person doesn’t exist,” Sindeyeva told Vice. She totally dedicated herself to her staff, who determined the editorial policy.

In 2013, Putin passed the infamous anti-gay propaganda laws that in effect created second-class citizens. The staff of TV Rain was 50 per cent LGBTQ+. When one of her staff became the first Russian journalist to come out as gay, Sindeyeva applauded. The channel continued to champion LGBTQ+ rights.

While President Medvedev had visited TV Rain (albeit in slightly ominous circumstances). Putin’s government waged a “campaign to destroy our TV channel” Sindeyeva told Vice. Two years after his election, Putin took TV Rain off air in January 2014 for its coverage of protests, wiping out its source of income from advertising revenue. It lost 80 per cent of an audience of 15 million. In an interview with the Guardian, Sindeyeva recalls this as a “moment when I wanted to quit everything: the day when our landlord in the Red October district, in the very centre of Moscow, said that we were no longer allowed to work there. But that despair lasted, I guess, for 24 hours or so.”

Sindeyeva and Vinokurov lost all their money and moved out of their huge white mansion to “live a simpler life”. “Those decisions weren’t so hard,” she told the Guardian. “Because when we were selling our house, the audience for the channel was growing. We didn’t see it as some sort of a tragedy.” Sindeyeva had invested everything in TV Rain. She didn’t want to let it go. They had some support: activists demonstrated with umbrellas as a symbol of support for TV Rain in Moscow in 2014.

Sindeyeva remodelled TV Rain as an online platform with a paywall and later shifted to YouTube. This adapted business model, plus personal sacrifices, sustained it for almost a decade. It’s not a perfect fix: Sindeyeva was well aware that only those with money were able to access “the truth”.

But then, the war. TV Rain was the only channel depicting it, the accompanying anti-war protests as well as the destruction caused in Ukraine by Russian attacks. All other state media presented viewers with a “liberation”. 

But the death threats mounted. Harsh new media laws threatened jail for those broadcasting “fake news”. Horrifyingly, Sindeyeva had heard that “special police forces were heading to our newsroom along with pro-Kremlin mobsters”. With a heavy heart, she made the gut-wrenching decision that she had spent a decade battling: TV Rain was shut down – “temporarily”. It was “like the decision a mother has to make in a war, to hide her kids in the basement”. TV Rain’s YouTube channel now has only one video that hasn’t been purged: just the hour-long final broadcast, which is a chat and Q&A among the staff. Sindeyeva stands out in a mint-green blazer, mostly laughing while colleagues weep. 

“I’ve always been optimistic and I’m still optimistic.” Sindeyeva told the Guardian days later, from an undisclosed location outside Russia. “But optimism is not dreaming, it also says get your ass off the chair and try to make things happen.” The last shot shows
the staff, including their CEO, trudge out of the newsroom before cutting to a performance of Swan Lake – a reference to Soviet-era TV censorship.

The story of Sindeyeva’s journey from socialite to dissident has been told beautifully in a new film, Tango With Putin, directed by Krichevskaya. In an interview about the film, Krichevskaya admitted that when she first started working with Sindeyeva in 2008, she didn’t consider her or her husband to be “serious people”. But over time she realised that despite not always having a set political agenda, they were committed, against all odds, to being honest. 

Honesty seems easy, but in a regime like Putin’s, it’s not. Krichevskaya described the couple’s journey from non-politicos to rebels as “completely unique”, adding that “many oligarchs thought Sasha [Vinokurov] was a really stupid guy who allowed himself to be led by his wife – completely unacceptable in Russia.”

Even before the war, the last years have been especially difficult for Sindeyeva. Putin had clamped down further in 2021, labelling TV Rain a “foreign agent”. She battled breast cancer in 2020, a diagnosis she shared on air with her viewers. She separated from
Vinokurov, a decision that was compounded by the struggle to keep TV Rain alive.

Today, the channel’s staff are mostly in hiding abroad. A fund has been set up to support them. But it seems impossible that this will be Sindeyeva’s last act; she will do everything in her power to return TV Rain to action. “We just need strength to exhale and understand how to return to the air and continue our work further.”

19th May 2022