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Reporter's Notebook: How Putin's Television Covered The Nemtsov Killing

To get on Russian TV, Boris Nemtsov had to do just one thing: Die.

Shunned by state channels for years, the 55-year-old former deputy prime minister was suddenly a celebrity after being ambushed by a gunman as he walked with a girlfriend late on a Friday night.

In the days following the February 27 killing, it was fascinating to watch how the coverage unfolded and how the various tasks of that coverage evolved.

Television viewers were at first perplexed by the blanket coverage of the event by all the national channels. It seemed particularly strange because the hosts and correspondents seemed never to neglect an opportunity to point out that Nemtsov was "an insignificant player in Russian politics."

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the massive coverage indicated that Nemtsov was actually important. But then the inconvenient question arises: Why was he hardly ever shown on state television in the years before his death?

It is well understood that Russian national television doesn't do anything "just because." And it certainly doesn't devote hours of airtime and marathon talk shows to a particular topic for no reason.

A careful viewing of the initial coverage over the first day or two after the killing leads to the conclusion that the purpose was to pound into viewers' heads the notion of Nemtsov as "a sacrificial victim" of cynical Western powers. This idea had the additional beneficial effect of preparing the public in the event that Nemtsov's killers are never identified. After all, Western spy agencies are very slippery.

The initial coverage also seemed determined to sow the notion that the Western agencies who supposedly killed Nemtsov were intent on turning the March 1 mourning march into a Russian Maidan on Red Square and to warn viewers not to let themselves be tricked by Russia's insidious enemies. Some moderators even urged that the mourning march be canceled altogether. After the march passed by peacefully, the same moderators were quick to pat themselves on the back for warning the Russian public of the danger in advance and to praise the public for not letting foreign agents split society.

At the same time, state television figures worked hard to dismiss any notion that Nemtsov might have been killed for his ardent opposition to President Vladimir Putin or his relentless criticism of the war in Ukraine. They also dismissed out of hand any suggestion that Nemtsov's killing may have been facilitated by the general atmosphere of hatred toward the "fifth column" that they themselves have been cultivating for months.

TV host Vladimir Solovyov: "They are even accusing me of creating such an atmosphere! Me!"
TV host Vladimir Solovyov: "They are even accusing me of creating such an atmosphere! Me!"

"Just imagine," Rossiya television host Vladimir Solovyov gasped, his eyes upturned in disbelief, "they are even accusing me of creating such an atmosphere! Me!"

But the praise of Nemtsov as a victim of nefarious Western powers couldn't last for long. After the threat of Western-inspired Maidan receded following the peaceful mourning march, Russian national television quickly switched gears and began to rein in the pathos and darken the memory of the victim. How? Bastard children, multiple wives, dubious lovers, money, resorts, and so on.

NTV produced a singer named Natalya who breathlessly told audiences how Nemtsov took her virginity. Dressed in black leather pants and a leather jacket (mourning clothes, apparently), she told about her various trysts with Nemtsov in cities around the world, including -- predictably -- Washington, D.C. Viewers were on the edge of their seats as Natalya told how she asked Nemtsov to buy her some fancy sneakers so that she could use the spa at one resort.

"Did he buy them?" the curious host asked.

"He did!" Natalya enthused.

The same channel brought in a lawyer who, although he had no obvious connection to Nemtsov at all, detailed the various "trusts" the slain politician left to his four children.

Rossiya's Live On The Air had a report on how Nemtsov and his 23-year-old Ukrainian model girlfriend, Anna Durytska, enjoyed "full-body oil massages for two." "On the table, Boris joked a lot and was very sociable," the baby-faced reporter intoned.

Nemtsov's former partner, Yekaterina Odintsova (second from left), their children Anton (right) and Dina, and Nemtsov's mother, Dina Eidman, attend his funeral in Moscow on March 3.
Nemtsov's former partner, Yekaterina Odintsova (second from left), their children Anton (right) and Dina, and Nemtsov's mother, Dina Eidman, attend his funeral in Moscow on March 3.

There was a lot of talk about his wives and his children -- so many! -- and how he loved them all. But they couldn't resist alleging that he refused to acknowledge one son until he was 7 years old and, reportedly, didn't pay child support very regularly. Likewise, they insisted that he forced Durytska to have an abortion in Switzerland, for which he paid 2,200 Swiss francs ($2,300).

Rossia had its work cut out because, for some reason, no wives, no children, no friends of the late Boris Nemtsov appeared on its programs. So they had to make do with old footage and the baby-faced reporter had to make all the heinous accusations on his own, citing some unnamed masseurs or without any citations at all.

Filling up airtime was problematic. At one point, a man in the audience introduced himself as "Yuriy Kot, a Ukrainian public figure," and explained that he was conducting his own investigation into Nemtsov's killing. He started by urging people not to fall for Western propaganda and make premature judgments before going on to say former U.S. national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski blamed both the CIA and Ukraine's SBU security service, a view that Yuriy Kot completely agreed with. The audience nodded solemnly and no one, not even the host of the show, bothered to mention that the supposed Brzezinski quote was a soundly discredited fake lifted straight from social media.

When the mic was passed around the studio audience, various opinions were heard: "The Ukrainian model was an agent in Nemtsov's entourage." "This story has an Anglo-Saxon odor." "We saw them all on at the mourning march with Ukrainian flags! Why? They wanted to use the situation and politicize the march!" "We don't have a visa regime with Ukraine! The killers could easily get on a train. They are already in Ukraine."

After a while, everyone seemed to remember that the topic of the evening was Nemtsov's questionable personality.

"I read somewhere that Nemtsov was interested in Scientology." "Isn't it interesting that [Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk is a Scientologist?"

After a bit of this, the host of Live On The Air turned to the camera and expressed his deepest sympathies to Nemtsov's elderly mother and other relations. The studio slowly faded into darkness. The audience, without instruction, stood as one person and observed a moment of respectful silence.

Were they praying that Nemtsov's mother never, ever had to watch the show they had just made?

Yelena Rykovtseva is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. This article was adapted from the Russian by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson