Transcript

767: Do Not Go Gentle

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Democracy-- Seems everybody was doing so well there for a while-- on the move, spreading hope around the world. And now, of course, more and more countries are moving in the other direction.

There are strongman leaders doing great-- in Poland, Turkey, Serbia, Brazil, lots of other places. Even in our own country, democracy is feeling shakier. What is it-- 1/3 of all Americans think the results of the last election were invalid?

Hungary had an election last week. Hungary used to be a functioning democracy, but it's gotten less and less so. Once again, this time around, Viktor Orban was named prime minister. He's been prime minister there for the last 12 years. Now, he gets four more-- no term limits over there.

And to give you a sense of just how stacked the deck was in his favor-- like how extreme it was-- during the entire election, the amount of time Orban's opponents got on state television to make their case to voters was exactly five minutes. I mean, like, for the whole election-- you with me here? Tons of coverage for Orban-- all of it positive-- speeches, interviews, analysis from months. For his opponents-- just five minutes.

And most of the other TV stations in Hungary followed suit. And the five minutes of the opponents got wasn't even during prime time. It was five minutes on a Wednesday morning for Orban's main opponent-- this guy, Peter Marki-Zay, a newcomer, mayor from a small town.

Basically, how it went is, two weeks before the election, Marki-Zay went into the TV studio of M1, the state-run news station, sat down at a round table, across from a TV presenter. Hanging between them was an enormous circular timer with a big 5 on it, like a stopwatch.

Presenter barely finished introducing him before Marki-Zay took a big breath, tilted his head down, like he was a bull charging into the ring, and spoke.

Presenter

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

Peter Marki-Zay

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

Ira Glass

Thank you very much. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak for five minutes in four years, on behalf of the entire Hungarian opposition, representing some 2 and 1/2 to 3 million people, he says, quickly.

The rest of what he says is more kind of familiar politician stuff. My opponent is a hypocrite. He's corrupt. He's lying about my record. I will keep my promises to you. I will curb inflation. I will pay more to teachers and police.

He closes with the opposition slogan-- upwards. The camera pans back from Marki-Zay's face, we see the timer click over to zero, time's up for Marki-Zay. Before Marki-Zay's five minutes, the station played an Orban speech from a couple of days earlier that had lasted an hour. After his five minutes was up, they replayed it.

Giving exactly five minutes on television to the opposition-- it's like it preserves the appearance of democracy. After all, they're opposition parties. They exist. They can say whatever they want. They appear on television.

But of course, they don't get a real chance like they would in a real democracy. And one candidate pointed to the absurdity of all that in his five minutes. There's a bunch of parties that ran in this election, and this candidate was from a satirical political party, called the Two-Tailed Dog Party.

During his five minutes in the middle of his speech, he got a call on his cell phone.

Candidate

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

Ira Glass

Excuse me one second, he tells the audience. It's the missus. And into the phone, he explains, honey, I'm on TV. I told you about this. Even left a note in the fridge.

And he tries to get off, but the call just somehow won't end. There's stuff that she wants him to pick up on the way home-- milk, cottage cheese. He keeps saying, OK, look, got to go. Love you. You hang up. No, you hang up.

Candidate

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

Ira Glass

Then time runs out. He's like, oh, well, we'll have another chance in four years' time, right?

This year's campaign in Hungary to try to unseat Viktor Orban-- his opponents talked about it like it was their last chance to save democracy. Things have gotten steadily less democratic under 12 years of Orban. If you had four more years, Hungary was going to tip forever into autocracy.

This was such a real possibility, that the political parties did something they had never done before-- a kind of last gasp, Hail Mary, buzzer beater, "send the rocket to push the asteroid away from the Earth to save humanity" move. And we wanted to witness that close up.

We have that story, and another story of people not going peacefully towards the fate that seems lined up for them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: The Brothers Harangazo

Ira Glass

Act One, The Brothers Harangazo. OK, so one of our producers, Zoe Chace, flew to Hungary, with producer Diane Wu, in the weeks before the big election. Zoe is somebody who has immersed himself in American politics and elections over the years and covered it.

And to understand what it's like for the opposition in Hungary, Zoe followed two brothers-- one current and one former member of parliament-- both working to defeat Viktor Orban against, as you'll hear, incredible obstacles that we never see in this country. Here's Zoe.

Zoe Chace

I don't know when this started exactly, but lately, Hungary has become a symbol in American politics. Tucker Carlson went over there and interviewed Orban for his show. Tucker praises Orban's hard-line stance against migrants-- not just the border fence Orban built, but the rhetoric, that new Muslim immigrants will de-Christianize Europe.

Orban says things like, will Europe remain the continent of the Europeans? The American Conservative magazine is constantly publishing glowing stories about Hungary's, quote-unquote, "pro-family policies." Meanwhile, on the left, there are all these people trying to make Hungary this canary in the coal mine for the collapse of democracy, as though that's where we're headed, too. America is going to become an autocracy.

I don't buy that, despite how similar some of this stuff sounds between our countries. And one of the reasons I don't is because of what the opposition did in this recent election. It was really different from anything I've ever seen in America.

I found two people right in the middle of it. They're brothers. First, the elder one, Gabor Harangazo. He's a leftist, a lifelong socialist. He came into parliament in 2010, right when Orban took power.

And he was miserable, he says, right from the beginning. Orban was radically changing things around with his ruling party, Fidesz. Gabor sighs a lot when he talks about Hungary.

Gabor Harangazo

Imagine, the first six months in the Hungarian parliament, I was sick-- physically sick-- because of what I could see that Fidesz has changed the whole country. [SIGHS] It was very bad.

Zoe Chace

Gabor watched as Orban and his Fidesz party took over big parts of the media, forced out all these civil servants, pushed out all these judges, remade key government oversight jobs-- the public prosecutor, the budget counsel-- so that he could stack them with loyalists with long tenures-- basically, just centralizing and consolidating the government in ways that would allow them to maintain a grip on power even if they lost the majority.

And along the way, Orban made policies lots of Hungarians loved. He increased pensions, gave big tax refunds for families with kids. He won a lot of loyal voters.

But to Gabor, Hungary was looking less and less like a free country. He'd hear about something, and he'd be like, no, that's too far.

Gabor Harangazo

Oh, it's too much. They wouldn't do it. But they did it. And--

Zoe Chace

Kicking universities out of the country, the country's biggest newspaper shut down in a day-- in 2020, Gabor and the rest of the opposition started working on a way to get Orban voted out. The idea was get all the biggest political parties to unite against Viktor Orban-- from the socialist to the right wing, and the four parties in between.

There was one party that Gabor knew would be the hardest to work with-- Jobbik, a party that had recently had actual fascists in it. When Gabor first joined parliament, Jobbik representatives harassed him from the floor of the parliament, yelling that socialists should be hanged in the public square.

Gabor Harangazo

When I became a member of the Hungarian parliament, I was seated in the building just next to Jobbik. And they really hated us. There was very, very big hate towards the socialist party from Jobbik.

Zoe Chace

This was part of why he felt so sick trying to function in the parliament. But after 10 years of Orban, things got so bad, Gabor was like, nothing matters but getting rid of Orban. We need a competitive democracy back.

If the biggest parties get together and put all our voters together, maybe together, it's enough to vote him out. The coalition's name was United for Hungary. This winter, in the run-up to the election, instead of each party nominating their own candidate for prime minister, they united behind just one guy-- Peter Marki-Zay, the guy who only got five minutes on state TV-- and all the parties campaigned for him.

Gabor Harangazo

I had really a lot of problem with Jobbik, and now, we will govern together if everything goes well. So everything changed in these 12 years.

Zoe Chace

Imagine if AOC were out here campaigning with Mitch McConnell to get Mitt Romney elected. You'd know things have gotten really bad here for the Democrats to make a compromise like that.

The day I met Gabor, I stumbled upon him in the midst of something rather amazing-- to me. This was a little more than a month before the election. I found him in his office in an old Communist Party building-- just Gabor and a desk, and a large drum set. He used to be in a band-- a band whose name translates to Fairy Louis Pop Show.

And he recently bought this set for himself, because he's so stressed out these days. He says he plays every morning. It's a strong contrast to his academicky affect.

He had the Google Doc of the opposition's whole platform open on his laptop-- everything they stood for, everything they wanted to change, including a whole new constitution. It was a plan to save Hungary's democracy that six different political parties have had to agree on. It was right there in front of me.

Gabor Harangazo

And there were some minor amendments for today, and we just finished it. So it's-- that was on my computer. [LAUGHS]

Zoe Chace

Can we see it? Can you show it to us?

Gabor Harangazo

Yeah, it's--

Zoe Chace

I can see all the different editors in the doc and the text jumping around.

Gabor Harangazo

We want a new constitution.

Zoe Chace

He outlines the basic principles of this new constitution. What you might expect from a country's constitution--

Gabor Harangazo

Re-creation of the rule of law, independence of judges, guarantees of basic rights.

Zoe Chace

OK.

I think of a constitution as pretty settled-- not like you'd win an election, and get to rewrite the founding document of the country. But when Orban came in with his party, Fidesz, 12 years ago, that's what he did.

First, he used Fidesz' 2/3 majority to scrap the rule that you need 4/5 of the parliament to change the constitution. And then, his 2/3 majority voted in a new constitution. The new constitution outlines certain values-- a commitment that Hungary remain Christian, that marriage was between a man and a woman, as examples.

Orban and his 2/3 majority then totally remade the judiciary, the constitutional court, in a way that made it subservient to the governing party, Fidesz. Gabor comes across as both tired and excited today, because today is supposedly the last day-- the day they are finishing the plan after overcoming all the disagreements.

But there's this glitch, a conflict, with Jobbik around the use of this one word that I guess, to be honest, I'd consider fundamental to any constitution if I had to pick one. Jobbik doesn't like this word.

Gabor Harangazo

They don't like to use the word, equality.

Zoe Chace

So what is the word in Hungarian?

Gabor Harangazo

[HUNGARIAN]

Zoe Chace

OK. They don't like that word?

Gabor Harangazo

No. Because it's too leftist. Even not in the gender chapter. When we wrote in the gender chapter that-- it was a title that-- equality between men and women, and they didn't agree with it, so we had to delete this sentence. Because the equality is not supported by them, because we are not the same.

And we couldn't explain them that equality doesn't mean the same. It means that we have equal rights. We need to get equal salaries. And equality is not meaning that the same.

Zoe Chace

OK, but to be fair, Jobbik has to walk a super careful line. If they seem too left-wing now, their voters will just vote for Fidesz, Orban's party. Gabor and the socialists have to listen to Jobbik. They're the only party that's going to bring in any right-wing voters to this coalition. The coalition needs Jobbik voters.

And Jobbik's more tolerable now for socialists. It's easier for him to listen to them. In the last few years, as they've lost voters to Orban's Fidesz, Jobbik has chosen to moderate. I talked with some of them about it. They've gone Jeff Sessions to Jeff Flake.

You could think of today's Jobbik as sort of centrist Republicans. Anti-corruption is their big issue. Gabor called them Never Trumpers to me. Never Orbanists, he said.

Zoe Chace

What does the word, equality, symbolize to the Jobbik voter, that is bad?

Gabor Harangazo

OK, mainly two things. One is, they are anti-communist. And in older generation, equality can somehow can be connected to communist ideas.

Zoe Chace

I see.

Gabor Harangazo

And that's--

Zoe Chace

We are all the same. There's something communist about that.

Gabor Harangazo

And that's what they really would like to avoid, to be able to say that you are flirting with communist ideas or something like this.

Zoe Chace

It was a signal, some kind of signal.

Gabor Harangazo

Yes, yes, yes. And the other reason is Fidesz has a very successful campaign against LGBTI rights.

Zoe Chace

Fidesz, Orban's party, the governing party-- they've recently sponsored a referendum on a law to, for one, get rid of any kind of materials that deal with gay stuff in schools. To safeguard Christian values against Western liberalism-- is how Orban puts it.

It's a little more hardcore than what Florida is doing here, but similar. Even the same language promoting it, I noticed-- protect our children. The Hungarian version is, stop the gender madness coming from Brussels, home of the EU.

The thinking was, all this might appeal to Jobbik's voters also. So the socialists, and everyone else in the opposition, agreed, yeah, let's duck this whole thing by leaving any remotely gay issues out of their platform. And they went with Jobbik's ask and didn't include the word, equality, in the gender chapter.

Gabor Harangazo

So that's why-- this is the other reason why they try to take out from all of our papers.

Zoe Chace

The word, equality, is a little bit gay.

There are nine other issues that they all think are too gay to agree on-- things they're not going to go near-- the obvious ones, like raising taxes, and then esoteric ones, like nuclear power. Remember, the greens are in this coalition.

I just-- I really like this example about equality and the gays, because it's easy to say you want to compromise so everyone can come together to defeat autocracy, but what if that means leaving gay people out of your human rights program? Is that a compromise worth making?

To me, it shows how afraid they are in Hungary at this moment. You'll see what they give up. In the US, you hear people on the left say how scared they are that Donald Trump will return to power. But they don't seem scared like the people I talk to in Hungary. They don't seem ready to make those kind of compromises, those kind of sacrifices, in order to win conservative voters who might not want to vote for Trump.

Anyway, the compromises were all hard. And even though Gabor thought they were done, it wasn't until two weeks before the election that the opposition went public with their platform. Gabor felt the clock ticking.

These delays were deeply frustrating to him. They gave him a fiddling-while-Rome-burns-type feeling.

Gabor Harangazo

Because we think that this is our last-- maybe not the last chance, but if lose this chance, then-- [SIGHS] it can happen that it was the last chance, yes. Of course, the opposition parties could work together for another four years. But-- [SIGHS] I'm afraid that many, many people will lose their faith that change could be any time.

Zoe Chace

He has relatives who are afraid to say out loud what they think. He says his kids are being taught to hate people who are different from them in school.

Gabor Harangazo

It's poisoning. [CHUCKLES]

Zoe Chace

He wasn't sleeping at night these days, he says, because he was fighting with his wife about leaving. If they lose, she says, they have to leave the country.

Gabor Harangazo

Yes, I'm not sure that I'm able to leave. [CHUCKLES] Yeah.

Zoe Chace

Even If you lose?

Gabor Harangazo

Maybe I will leave with my family because of my family, but not because of, I would like to leave.

Zoe Chace

Because you would, what, want to stay and keep fighting?

Gabor Harangazo

Mm-hmm.

Zoe Chace

Forming the coalition and keeping the coalition together has been really hard. But the biggest hurdle, I believe-- it's letting voters know what they're even doing.

It's like, is a campaign a campaign if no one knows you're campaigning? That challenge-- I didn't really understand how big it was until I hung out with Tamas Harangazo, Gabor's younger brother.

He's brasher, louder. Gabor's more stoic. Tamas is jumpier. He's part of the coalition, too. Since the beginning, he's been there with Gabor. He's also a socialist. He's out here trying to win his seat in parliament.

I met him in his campaign office, in Szekszard, where the boys grew up. And there were all these things that were both like elections I know, and totally unlike elections I know, at the campaign offices I went to in Hungary.

There were campaign managers, maps, schedules, swag with the candidate's name on it, pizza boxes, and pastries, and coffee, and all the things you expect to see exactly in a campaign office. And talking to Tamas, at first, it was what I expect.

Zoe Chace

What are you guys discussing?

Tamas Harangazo

Campaign.

[LAUGHTER]

Every Wednesday, we are planning the next week, summarizing the last week, planning the next week and the next two weeks.

Zoe Chace

Like, what doors to knock on and stuff like that?

Tamas Harangazo

Everything.

Zoe Chace

But quickly, the bizarre, surreal hoops he had to jump through in order to campaign in Hungary became clear to me. They're planning how to get their campaign literature out. Looks regular, but here's the Hungarian part. There is a policy in Hungary, Tamas is explaining to me. The postal service won't send campaign literature through the mail.

Tamas Harangazo

Last spring, the government changed the rule, and the Hungarian post do not handle flyers and--

Zoe Chace

Like, campaign literature? They won't handle campaign literature? The post office?

Tamas Harangazo

Yeah, nothing. Yes.

Zoe Chace

Here's how this restriction works. It's tricky. It's diabolical. One year before this election, the postal service stopped accepting political mailings or business flyers.

You know, sign up for this service, or vote for this guy-- you can't send that stuff through the postal service. OK. So you have to use a private company, a local delivery company-- except they won't work with Tamas.

Tamas Harangazo

And when I go there and say, I would like to pay, just please deliver my flyers, they say, sorry, I don't.

Zoe Chace

And can-- what do they say--

Tamas Harangazo

It's not-- it's not like it's prohibited, you know.

Zoe Chace

They just say-- they just decide not--

Tamas Harangazo

It's a shadow state, or something like this.

Zoe Chace

A shadow state, he calls it. It's not that Orban's party, the governing party, Fidesz, runs everything. It influences everything. Orban and his buddies tend to profit from that.

Tamas says the local distributor guy has a contract with the local newspaper, which is currently owned by this media foundation that's run by pro-government people. And because the distributor needs that business, it refuses to work with the opposition to mail their campaign flyers.

There's a handful of public advertising companies linked to the government in various ways that lock the opposition out. Ergo, Tamas' campaign has to deliver all their campaign mailers by hand. Billboards are another big example. It's hard for them to get billboards. It's sneaky, the shadow state.

One of the few things the opposition has been able to do is hold rallies. Some are pretty big, like an event they had in Szekszard-- Tamas' area. The prime minister candidate showed up. I saw pictures. It was a big turnout. But of course, because the local paper is owned by an Orban-friendly group--

Tamas Harangazo

It never happened. It wasn't in the local newspaper, nor in the local radio, or in the television, like it never happened.

Zoe Chace

There's one other thing Tamas described to me about his particular job that was surreal-- almost creepy to imagine it. It's how stifling it is inside the actual parliament. You can't do anything. Like, you really can't do anything in the minority.

Tamas keeps showing up to work, though. The parliament building is a big, beautiful, spiky, castle-looking building-- more "Brothers Grimm" than Disney, which is regionally appropriate. What happens inside is normal parliament stuff.

Tamas comes in, takes his place. He speaks out against the Orban laws, which come fast and furious. But it's like a weird Dadaist performance. There used to be a sort of C-SPAN broadcasting what was going on in there. Orban shut it down.

Television, radio, and newspapers will not report on his arguments. But he says, if he doesn't show up and say something, that's kind of like the whole democracy is throwing in the towel. There has to be debate.

Tamas Harangazo

If you take it away, then you take away the spirit of not just democracy, but the chance to change. It is [HUNGARIAN].

Man

Unbearable.

Tamas Harangazo

Unbearable, what's happening in the house of parliament in Hungary these days.

Zoe Chace

So at the moment, it's like, you go, you debate, you say what you think, but nobody can hear it. The public can't hear it, and there's no publicity, so nobody writes about it.

Tamas Harangazo

We can use our Facebook. That's it.

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Tamas Harangazo

Of course our supporters are following it, but it's, you know, inside our bubble.

Zoe Chace

Obviously, we don't need a Viktor Orban to put ourselves so completely in our own media silos, that you never hear the argument of the other side. We have C-SPAN, we have The Washington Post running around the capital, we have Politico, telling us what's going on inside our government every day.

But who reads The Washington Post and Politico? The people who believe what's in it. Hungary is a similar situation. There is independent media that's not influenced by Orban, but it's mostly online, and you have to know about it to go find it. You have to want it.

Fidesz supporters are often rural and older. They have the TV and the radio on, it's controlled by the state, and they think the opposition is lying. The new phrase in Hungarian for "fake news" is "fake news."

This is the thing that's most similar, in my view, between Hungary and America-- the media situation. There, the right-wing values on radio and TV are enforced by the state. Here, we self-segregate into our own bubbles. But we also live in two different media universes.

A month before election day, Russia invaded Ukraine. Hungary borders Ukraine, and refugees were pouring in. Hungarians were really scared about the war. Orban started saying the opposition wanted to send Hungarian troops to fight in Ukraine-- incredibly unpopular, also totally untrue. The state media repeated this line endlessly.

On the other hand, Orban's so close to Putin, people in the opposition thought, this war can't help Orban. How are you feeling about things? I called Gabor a week before the election.

Gabor Harangazo

I can't give you a real reason, but-- (CHUCKLING) I'm getting more and more optimistic.

Zoe Chace

(CHUCKLING) Wow.

Gabor Harangazo

I don't know if you could follow the latest opinion polls.

Zoe Chace

Mm. No. Tell me.

Gabor Harangazo

They were-- no, so they were not the best.

Zoe Chace

OK.

Gabor Harangazo

There were some which were quite bad.

Zoe Chace

None of the polls-- the more legit or the less legit-- none of them ever showed a big advantage for the opposition. But the opposition was deploying all sorts of old-fashioned ways to get the word out. There's not a big tradition in Hungary, Gabor says, of door-to-door campaigning.

But they were doing it-- face-to-face interactions, big rallies around the country, handing out literature, holding meetings in the countryside, where media is especially limited to state propaganda. He was seeing stuff he'd never seen before-- people signing up to volunteer. Money was coming in. The opposition was richer than it had ever been.

They were sharing all their lists of supporters so they had all this data they'd never had before. As Gabor went around to make his pitch, the rooms were getting fuller. When I visited, he was worried that no one believed they could win, so they wouldn't bother trying to help them win. But now, he thought, people were starting to believe it.

Zoe Chace

People are starting to maybe want to be part of a historic moment.

Gabor Harangazo

Yes, yes, yes. And we are far more organized than we were before. And I don't believe that it cannot be enough.

[CROWD CHEERING]

Reporter

In Hungary's capital, a few hundred cheered as Viktor Orban headed towards his fourth consecutive term as prime minister.

Viktor Orban

[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]

Reporter

Dear friends, he said. We've achieved a huge victory.

Zoe Chace

It was over that evening, Sunday, April 3.

Gabor Harangazo

Hello, Zoe. It's Gabor.

Zoe Chace

Hi.

Gabor Harangazo

Hi.

Zoe Chace

How are you?

Gabor Harangazo

[SIGHS] Feeling very bad.

Zoe Chace

Oh. I don't know what to say.

Gabor Harangazo

It's a disaster. Yeah. Well. It's really unbelievable.

Zoe Chace

It wasn't just that Orban won, that Fidesz won. They won resoundingly. They won the 2/3 majority again, easily. When I talked to Orban spokesman about all this, he insisted the election would be fair.

But that's contradicted by facts on the ground. The wind was at Orban's back because of a lot of stuff-- these structural advantages, money advantages, gerrymandering advantages, obviously, the media.

But even with all that, the opposition was missing voters, missing supporters. Something like 800,000 to one million voters they had counted on did not show up and vote for them. Where were they? They were voting, just not for the opposition.

They were Jobbik voters. The Jobbik voters probably went for Fidesz, or for this new far-far-right party, an ultranationalist, racist, anti-vaccine party, called Mi Hazánk, My Homeland. That party got a lot of new supporters, enough votes to sit-in parliament.

Gabor says, for sure, they'll be part of the Fidesz voting bloc when they get there. Gabor was back at the socialist building with the party president. They were watching the Marki-Zay concession speech and trying to imagine the next morning.

Gabor Harangazo

You know, tomorrow, we have to say something to our party members and decide what we will do. So we have a kind of emergency meeting.

Zoe Chace

He was expecting people to be upset. Seems like this coalition hadn't worked out.

Gabor Harangazo

You know, when I called my wife, she just told me that she started to pack the big suitcases.

Zoe Chace

No. [CHUCKLES]

Gabor Harangazo

It's really difficult, especially, you know, with the children. If, uh, the people who are thinking just like us, who would like to follow the classical European values, have only less than 1/3 in the country, then it makes further questions.

Zoe Chace

Even the reporters I talked to were taken aback. Everyone had expected Orban to win, but for the election to be close. This is a huge mandate for Orban, and a signal to the rest of Europe that a lot of Europeans like Orban's politics.

Gabor never imagined they were outnumbered this badly. That sick feeling he'd had in parliament 12 years ago-- it was back.

Gabor Harangazo

This difference is shocking.

Zoe Chace

It's funny. I expected that Gabor might castigate himself for making compromises he shouldn't have, or castigate Jobbik, or others in the coalition. They'd made a big plan, and the plan had failed. Things must not have been going as well as he thought.

No, he told me, the parties did a great job, really campaigned hard. We finally met all of our supporters face-to-face. There just weren't enough of them.

I could read many campaign books on how to run campaigns, he said. It wasn't the campaign. Orban said over and over, if the opposition won, we were going to war in Ukraine. It wasn't true, but people believed it. Authoritarianism works, he said. They always find a way to win.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace-- she's one of the producers of our show. Coming up-- secret recordings from inside a Russian police station that surprised even Russians. That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Putin’s On Our Side

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, "Do Not Go Gentle"-- stories of people doing whatever they can think of to fight back, to resist, to say no, to what fate seems to have in store for them. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Putin's on Our Side.

So the laws on reporting the news in Russia have changed since the invasion of Ukraine. You may have heard about this. If you're a media outlet in Russia, you cannot use the word "war" to characterize the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You have to call it a "special military operation."

You can't talk about Ukrainian civilians being bombed. Novaya Gazeta is one of the oldest independent newspapers in Russia. Its editor-in-chief won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

And when the war began, it didn't follow those new rules from the Russian government. It did straight accurate reporting. Then, the Russian Ministry of Defense sent a written warning saying all their news was fake news.

They couldn't keep operating the way they had. They could be shut down, which left the paper to figure out what to do, how to report on the war. And what they came up with was pretty ingenious. One of our producers, Robyn Semien, tells the story.

Robyn Semien

Reporting in Russia has all sorts of perils. Since Putin has been in power, Novaya Gazeta has seen six of its journalists murdered by methods that include poison and gunshots at close range. They've had other journalists threatened. And it was clear that the new rules on reporting on Ukraine and the warning the paper got from the government would require new tactics.

So the first thing the paper did-- this was in early March. They removed any story they'd run that potentially broke the law, like the one called "Putin Invades Ukraine," or "There's No Justification for this War." Or the cover story, "Russia is Bombing Ukraine," was gone, taken down. I talked to Nikita Kondratiev, the Head of News there, about this pause. Nikita said, they had to.

Nikita Kondratiev

Stop printing the news for a while, just to understand how to exist in this new reality.

Robyn Semien

Nikita had watched as just this year, other independent news outlets, one by one, had succumbed to the pressure and closed, fled, or been taken over by state media.

Nikita Kondratiev

Dozhd is "rain" in Russian, so TV Rain-- they--

Robyn Semien

First, TV Rain shut down. Meduza's reporters fled the country. Nikita knows this by heart. There are others.

Nikita Kondratiev

There is a media outlet called MediaZona. They also fled the country. Who else? The oldest liberal radio station called Echo of Moscow, Ekho Moskvy, closed. Now, their radio frequency is now occupied by state propaganda radio, called Sputnik.

Robyn Semien

Novaya Gazeta was the last major independent media outlet in the country, and they'd stopped reporting on the war to figure out their next move.

Just days into that pause, a story fell into Nikita's lap that would reshape the paper's entire approach to their coverage. He was sent audio recordings of police brutality. The recordings had been made secretly by Russian civilians-- women, specifically-- many from a feminist anti-war group, who'd been out protesting the Russian invasion one afternoon in early March and were taken into police custody. Hours later, Nikita listened to it.

Nikita Kondratiev

It was during the night, and I just had to wake some of my colleagues up to help me with this recording. That's not any news for us that people are tortured in police departments and so on. But just before the 8th of March, before the International Women's Day and on a peaceful protest like that, policemen tried to torture and beat young women students-- that was shocking.

Robyn Semien

It was shocking to them, because peaceful protests are legal in Russia. And up till now, there wasn't such blatant evidence of this kind of misogyny and violence directed at young women, college students, feminists.

Robyn Semien

What was the discussion inside your newsroom about the importance of running this?

Nikita Kondratiev

Their reaction was just shit, fuck, that shit is fucked up. That was the reaction.

Robyn Semien

(CHUCKLING) OK.

Nikita Kondratiev

(CHUCKLING) Nothing else.

Robyn Semien

Yes. It wasn't a high-minded debate.

Nikita Kondratiev

Yeah, yeah. The point is that this is an important story. We have to report it.

Robyn Semien

Important enough, they decided to start publishing again. This was Novaya Gazeta's first big multi-part story. It is explicitly not set in Ukraine or talking to Ukrainians about the war, but instead, about Russian resistance to the same war-- the one they had to shut up about.

I'm going to play you some of these recordings, because this was news, even for veteran journalists like Nikita, who've seen and reported on corrupt and shockingly dark stuff. I also want to play these, because in them, you can hear the variety of ways that the protesters deal with the cops.

Their personalities are so present. They don't cower. In fact, they really do the opposite. They assert who they are in the face of real violence. A quick warning-- this probably isn't right for kids to be listening to.

[INDISTINCT RUSSIAN SPEECH]

Audio is hard to hear and in Russian. But the protester has just been asked for her name and gives it-- Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh. Alexandra was one of 30 protesters brought from a square in Moscow to this precinct in Bratayevo that day, and she anticipated making this recording.

She brought two phones with her to the precinct-- one old broken one, a decoy for the police, who actually do take the phone and hurl it at the wall, and another phone she hid in her pocket to make this recording.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

She's asked, where do you live?

Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Aleksandra says, um, how do I say it? Well, see, the 51st. The 51st is the right to remain silent in Russia. This makes the male officer angry. And he hits her-- the first of many in the recording. You can hear the muffled sound. It's like a crack.

[SMACK]

Next time, it'll be even harder, he says before hitting her again.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Lots of this audio is odd, because it's filled with this kind of exposition by the police. Something happens, and before Aleksandra can do it herself, the police narrate through it, like they're performing for a recording they don't know they're making.

Like, one officer says out loud, what is your goal? This will only get exponentially worse for you. And Aleksandra asked, point blank, are you threatening me? And the officer, as if he is reading lines from a bad script, says, yes, I'm threatening you. I'm threatening you with physical violence.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

When the officers don't narrate their own actions, Aleksandra does. And she tries to appeal to their sense of reason. She asks one female officer, is this normal? You're fine with this, watching this happen?

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Perfectly fine, the female officer responds. Another officer erupts. Look at yourself! Fuck. Your fucking tits, hanging like goddamn utters. Look at yourself, fucking monkey.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Place of study? The woman officer asks, like nothing happened. The officer's language is so obscene, it's embarrassing to quote it. Another protester told me she was more surprised by that-- by their language-- than by being hit.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Female officer-- how did you find out about the protest?

Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Aleksandra-- ugh, I refuse to answer. The 51st.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Female officer-- you're all fucked in the head. All of you are fucked up.

Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Aleksandra-- a man is beating me in front of you, and I'm the one who's fucked up?

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Female officer-- yeah, yeah. Listening, I worried what these officers would do if they discovered Aleksandra was recording them. They're such hotheads.

Nikita thinks, though he isn't sure, that some of the police were probably Center E Police, a specialized unit who are known for their brutal interrogation tactics. Center E is the center for combating extremism. In the past, extremism meant terrorists. Today, it means protesters.

We contacted the precinct in Bratayevo about this. They said, no comment. One officer in the precinct with Aleksandra makes it very clear who is behind his disdain. He tells her--

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Putin told us to fuck all of you up, fucking dumb fucks. That's it. Putin's on our side. You're the enemies of the Russian people, OK? Fucking enemies of the state.

[ALEKSANDRA SIGHS]

Aleksandra sighs.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

We're going to fucking kill you, OK? And that'll be it, finished. And then, they'll give us a prize for it, too. Putin's on our side. That quote is the headline of the entire Novaya Gazeta series, in big bold letters, white font on black background-- "Putin is on Our Side."

It's kind of a funny lead headline for the opposition paper to use the day it starts publishing again. If you don't read the story, all you see is, Novaya Gazeta, looking down, whistling, hands behind its back, the most obedient Putin-friendly paper ever.

I talked to another protester, who I'll call Sofia. Sofia was in the precinct the same day as Aleksandra. Sofia and Aleksandra first crossed paths in the police van.

Sofia

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

That's Sofia's voice. She wasn't recording in the precinct, but at some point, she and Aleksandra get moved to a narrow room with four small tables, so she ended up on Aleksandra's recording.

She said she wasn't afraid of her intake officer. He seemed OK-- conversational, even. Unlike Aleksandra, Sofia was pretty compliant and agreeable. When an officer asked for her passport, she gave it.

Where Sofia pushed back-- the police wanted to take her picture, and she knew that was illegal. Besides, they had her passport with her picture in it. So she said no to having her picture taken.

Sofia

Yeah, of course! I know my rights! I live in Russia, yeah, but I know my rights.

Robyn Semien

Sofia told me she was assaulted, too-- by a different officer, in a small room down a hallway, where there were a few other police in plainclothes. One, dressed in all black, dumped water on her and hit her.

Sofia

They were beating me on my head, and also, they choked me.

Robyn Semien

Choked you?

Sofia

Yeah, with a bag, with a plastic bag.

Robyn Semien

Over your head? Like, they put a plastic bag over your head?

Sofia

Yeah, over my head.

Robyn Semien

Oh, no. I'm sorry.

Sofia

Yeah, I know. It's scary to hear. I know. I understand.

Robyn Semien

Again, this was news, even to the journalists at Novaya Gazeta-- that women protesters, college students at that, would be treated this way. By the end of her recording, Aleksandra had been hit so often, she'd begun crying.

[ALEKSANDRA CRYING ON RECORDING]

Sofia was resigned in a different way. She'd become more compliant, more agreeable, telling them--

Sofia

Where I am studying, and where I'm living, and also my phone number-- I gave them only my phone numbers, so they stopped.

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

I will be very well-behaved, she says. And then--

Sofia

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Do you want me to tell you my name again? Or no? Only one of the seven protesters in the Novaya Gazeta series wasn't assaulted. There's a morbid quality to how they're treated, no matter how they acted. Take Aleksandra. She's stoic, recording like a technician, collecting evidence.

Sofia killed them with kindness. It didn't help. I want to play one last recording. It's my favorite, if you can have such a thing. Because the protester is crazy-daring. She does not care. It's the subtext of her entire exchange.

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Marina Morozova is a grad student studying neuroscience. She did not have two phones. She just had one phone, which she expected the police to take.

Marina Morozova

For some reason, they didn't do that. I don't know why, and nobody knows why. Just because maybe they were just fearless and stupid.

Robyn Semien

Marina's recording is particularly jarring, because she's as bubbly and unconcerned about being in police custody as she is being interviewed. She called the police "stupid" and "not very clever" a lot, talking to me, which surprised me, because I figured, it just doesn't seem safe to be badmouthing any Russian authority right now.

Robyn Semien

When the police officer's searching through your phone and you know that you're recording, are you nervous?

Marina Morozova

I was smiling a lot, and it was very-- it made them very uncomfortable, because they saw me smiling, and they didn't understand why. And I didn't-- I cannot say to them why I am smiling when they ask me.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

The officer asks, what are you smiling about?

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

What's so funny? Should we take you to the crazy house? Are you sick or something?

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

A woman officer says, you are the one who looks stupid right now, not us.

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Marina says, well, that's what you think.

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

She provokes them, dodges their questions. How did you hear about the rally? A female officer asks. What rally? I don't know what rally you're talking about, Marina says.

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

A male officer asks, you're trying to play dumb now. You were just walking around the center of Moscow for no reason? Another officer says, we've never once detained a person for nothing before.

We always have a reason. We have never not had a reason. Everybody gets nabbed for something, and then they are always yelling and screaming about it.

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Yes, yes, I know, Marina shoots back. The police are doing a great job.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

You're really antagonizing them.

Marina Morozova

Actually, I wasn't antagonizing, I think. I just said, like, double messages. [CHUCKLES] It was just double message. I think maybe they just-- they even didn't understand this joke.

Robyn Semien

The joke being, the police are doing a great job. Marina knew about people being beaten. She was in a group chat with other protesters who had been interrogated ahead of her.

Robyn Semien

And your mentality is, I know what's going to happen, so I feel prepared. That's what you're thinking?

Marina Morozova

Actually, I thought that I'm more prepared than I actually was.

Robyn Semien

We listened to her recording together. And the moment where Marina realizes she may be in over her head comes on the heels of yet another dig at police.

Marina Morozova

I like this moment a lot, and my friends like this moment.

Robyn Semien

Which moment? Which moment?

Marina Morozova

6 minutes 42 seconds--

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Female officer asks, what college? Hurry up and tell us. Marina-- why do you need to know?

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Female Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Are you actually surprised? The male officer asks. The female officer says, I want to apply there. Marina says, I don't think you'll get in.

Marina Morozova

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Things escalate from there. Marina says the officer kicked her, then unholstered his gun. He waved it at her head.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Marina Morozova

Ouch!

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

It didn't look like he had the safety on, or you were worried that he didn't have the safety.

Marina Morozova

I wasn't sure that gun was on safe, and I wasn't sure that there could not be some accident. And it was really scary for me. The moment with the gun-- I was prepared to be beaten, but I wasn't prepared for the gun. Because he could just make a mistake, and it was scary.

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Marina Morozova

(CRYING) [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Marina's saying, you're not even a man, you know that?

Officer

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Robyn Semien

Yeah, I'm a fucking beast, he says. And you're not a fucking woman. You're just an imbecile. I ought to blow your brains out, you piece of shit. You're fucking scum.

Within weeks of that afternoon at the precinct, Vladimir Putin gave a speech classifying Russians into two categories-- true patriots, and pro-West scum and traders, who should be spit out like gnats, he said, cleansed from society. Marina said she heard it, especially the part about scum and traitors. And she knew he was talking about her, and she felt bad. Things are getting worse, she said, for all Russians.

So this story in Novaya Gazeta became a model for other stories for how to talk about the war without getting shut down. They talked to mothers whose sons were captured in Ukraine, and covered funerals of fallen soldiers from small Russian towns. One of their more daring attempts-- Nikita calls it "the golden one"-- was to send one of their star reporters to the front lines.

Nikita said, they thought since everything the reporter described she'd seen herself with her own eyes, the report couldn't be considered false information. But it didn't work. They had to take that one down. I talked to Nikita about this in mid-March.

Robyn Semien

Have there been moments when you thought that your paper-- that Novaya Gazeta might be shut down? How often are you having that thought?

Nikita Kondratiev

Once a month. Once a month, our editor-in-chief, Mr. Muratov, approaches us and says, I think it's time to close the paper. But it never happens.

Like, it exists thirty years already. And every month, someone threatens us, someone tries to kill us, and we are still working. I think that's a miracle.

Robyn Semien

Why do you think you haven't been forced to close yet?

Nikita Kondratiev

We do not know why the government haven't shut us down yet. We have no freaking idea why this is not happening. Every morning, we wake up, and we check our website.

And every morning, we are wondering. We have no idea. Maybe it's the Nobel Prize. Maybe Mr. Putin reads us in the evenings, I hope, and he just did not want to lose his favorite newspaper. [CHUCKLES] I don't know. Really, we have no idea.

Robyn Semien

The procedure for shutting down a media outlet in Russia is this-- a federal agency, a media watchdog, sends you a warning in writing. If you get two or more of these in a year, you can lose your reporting license. Novaya Gazeta got two warnings within days-- for not properly identifying a foreign non-profit organization in their reporting.

The warnings, Nikita said, were something exceptional, in the sense that normally, they'd just be fined for a small mistake like that. These warnings didn't even bother to say which article got it wrong. The first warning was on March 22, the same day editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov announced he'd be auctioning his Nobel Prize and giving the proceeds to Ukraine.

The theory is, Putin's people didn't like that. But please remember, Nikita tells me, it's just a theory. On Monday, March 28, the paper stopped publishing news stories. "We are suspending work," they posted online-- and in smaller writing, a promise to readers-- to continue reporting after the end of the, quote, "special operation" on the territory in Ukraine.

Ira Glass

Robyn Semien is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "RAGE" BY THE JERKS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Diane Wu. The people who put together today's program include Chris Benderev, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Aviva DeKornfeld, Seth Lind, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Will Peischel, Robyn Semien, Alyssa Shipp, Laura Starcheski, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman, our senior editor is David Kestenbaum, our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Our field producer in Hungary, Mate Halmos; Hungarian interpretation and translation by Anna Klaniczay, Ezster Farkas, and Vera Bakonyi-Tánczos; Russian interpretation and translation by Bela Shayevich.

Thanks also today to Mark Krotov at N+1, Calum Nicholson, Danielle Elliot, Andrej [INAUDIBLE], Zoltan Fleck, Andras Lederer, Rita Bolla, Marton Gyongyosi, Balint Ruff, Zoltan Feher, Anita Komuves, Ábel Bojár, Agnes Urban, Adam Gyurcsik, Zoltan Kovacs, Sandar Lederer, Kelefa Sanneh, Kim Scheppele, Katalin Rózsa, Zoltán Rácz, András Máhr, and Nora Schultz.

Our website-- ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos, there's lists of favorite shows, if you're looking for something to listen to. There's tons of other stuff there. Again-- ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who told me this piece of gossip this week. I don't know if you've heard this one. He told me the word, equality, has taken a lover of the same sex.

Zoe Chace

The word, equality, is a little bit gay.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "RAGE" BY THE JERKS]