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Sergey Dorenko, the journalist who trashed Putin’s rivals before sacrificing his career to criticize him, has died

Source: Meduza
Sergey Dorenko, Moscow, March 1, 2018
Sergey Dorenko, Moscow, March 1, 2018
Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

On May 9, television and radio journalist Sergey Dorenko suffered an aortic rupture while riding a motorcycle and fell to his death. He was 59 years old. In recent years, Dorenko had several radio programs and blogged on Twitter and YouTube, but he’s best remembered as one of Russia's most important TV anchors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, first as the host of the show “Vremya,” and then as the face of his own news program on ORT. Dorenko is considered one of the central figures in Russia’s “media wars” of the late 90s, and in 2000 his show helped secure the first election of President Vladimir Putin, who at that time enjoyed the support of ORT owner Boris Berezovsky. Later that year, however, Dorenko was fired from the network, after a now famous broadcast about the sailors killed in the Kursk submarine disaster and the shortcomings of President Putin’s reaction. Meduza looks back at Sergey Dorenko’s life and legacy.

A bookworm, a Far Easterner, and the son of an awesome pilot

Sergey Dorenko didn’t serve long in the army — just a year after college — but he was clearly a man of military stock. He had a straightforward charisma and booming commander eloquence, but his view of life gave him a soldier's presence most of all.

Dorenko was born in 1959 into a military family. His father was a pilot who worked his way up to the rank of major general, but Sergey didn’t look much like a general’s son. He was plain-spoken about his father, calling him “an awesome pilot.” Dorenko clearly appreciated the ability to be an “awesome pilot” not only in his father, but in people generally, including himself. Perhaps he saw the privilege of military expertise as discipline, on the one hand, and on the other hand as the freedom to remain independent, given that all the risks and decisions made in a cockpit belong to the pilot.

In his author’s profile at the website Snob, Dorenko recalled: “Pilots did this crazy thing: they couldn’t eject until it was obvious that they’d done absolutely everything possible to save the aircraft. You had to do it so that none of your colleagues had even the shadow of a doubt that you’d chicken out and ditched your ride. That’s how it was with my father, too. He fell from an altitude of 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] to about 1.5 kilometers [0.9 miles], trying to restart the engine. At 1.5 kilometers, he could have ejected easily, but it wasn’t necessary. His instruments came back to life and he returned the fighter jet to base. I wasn’t told about this incident for several years, because the deaths and dangers that threatened pilots weighed heavily on their sons.”

In another interview, Dorenko once said he views death as “the young, tough men who just yesterday were his classmates’ fathers and their moms’ husbands, and now it’s just their photos left on closed red coffins.”

A full picture of the childhood that shaped Dorenko’s personality also relies on his proud identity as a Far Easterner from Russia’s Primorsky Krai. In other words, the harshness of Mother Nature complemented the severity of the military that employed his father and animated his family life.

Even many years later, Dorenko would say with his trademark categoricalness: “It always feels dark to me here in Moscow. It’s like someone threw a rotten sack over this city. It’s perpetual darkness. But over there [in the Far East] there’s sunshine, crazy sunshine. It’s another world there. The frost, the snow, the rolling hills — it’s all bathed in sunlight and blue sky! There’s blistering cold and scorching sunshine. There are open spaces amid an explosion of nature.”

Of course, Dorenko wasn’t always so poetic about the places he lived with his parents. “I lived at military posts, in real backwater towns, in Omsk, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, and in a village on the Ussuri River. For me, Yekaterinburg was something close to Paris,” he told one interviewer.

To visit places more interesting than his immediate surroundings, Dorenko relied on books. He said all the libraries in town recognized him when he walked in, not because his mother was a librarian, but because he used to check out five books at once, and devour them all over the holidays. Thanks to his appetite for books, he even finished elementary school a year early.

Dorenko’s successes at school helped him put together a decent career even before the USSR collapsed. A valedictorian in high school, he matriculated at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in Moscow. In 1982, after studying in the History and Philology Department, he earned a degree in three fields: teaching Russian as a foreign language, translating from Portuguese, and translating from Spanish. Before he was drafted into the army, he worked as an interpreter in Angola. After he was discharged in 1985, Dorenko found a job as an editor at the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting (Gosteleradio). In 1991, he started working on the air.

A change of pace at Gosteleradio, and Vladimr Putin’s loyal critic

Sergey Dorenko established his broadcast persona immediately as a news anchor, commentator, columnist, and author with trenchant and uncompromising views. His television celebrity started in the early 1990s when he joined Vesti. Dorenko personalized his news broadcasts on the channel (which a decade later would transform into the most toothless of all the federal networks). Here was someone on screen who didn’t hide their opinions, which separated his work from the “Vremya” evening newscast and everything else on Soviet television.

Dorenko later changed jobs several times, even managing to work as a correspondent for CNN’s Spanish-language service, but he spent most of the 1990s at Channel One, including as host of “Vremya.” His television career peaked with the weekly program he hosted at ORT, which at that time was controlled by Boris Berezovsky. Viewers remember the show for its aggressive opening credits and the seriousness of its gloomy host, who didn’t smile and spoke slowly and carefully.

Dorenko opened his show on October 24, 1999, by arguing that “Russia’s prime minister has succeeded in finding a peaceful solution to a conflict that threatened to escalate into a new war in the North Caucasus” (referring to Vladimir Putin and the protests that followed Vladimir Semyonov’s election as president of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic). Later in the broadcast, Dorenko explained the joint-replacement surgery awaiting former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was then almost 70. At this point in time, Putin was nobody’s successor — he was just one of the many men tapped to serve as prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s late presidency. Primakov, on the other hand, was considered the strongest candidate to take over after Yeltsin, and he enjoyed the support of Moscow’s influential mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Dorenko’s report included gory details about the operation to implant Primakov’s titanium prosthesis (in fact, the segment warned voters that Russia’s next president could turn out to be someone just as old and unhealthy as the current unpopular head of state). This broadcast and other negative coverage clearly benefited Vladimir Putin, whose political career was just beginning. Within just a few months, Putin was elected president.

One of Sergey Dorenko’s shows about Yevgeny Primakov (from October 24, 1999)
Socio-Political Channel / RVISION

This is when Dorenko became known as a “telekiller” — a title that seems to unite the two most influential forces of the era. Almost immediately following Russia’s 2000 presidential election, Boris Berezovsky suddenly became one of Putin’s enemies, and soon (but not without resistance) he sold his shares in ORT to a businessman more loyal to the Kremlin, Roman Abramovich.

The last episode of Dorenko’s program on ORT aired in September 2000. The entire hour-long show was devoted to coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster, which occurred that August. At the end of the broadcast, Dorenko accused the defense minister and president of lying, and said, “The main conclusion is that the authorities don’t respect any of us, and that’s why they lie. And the main thing here is that the authorities treat us like this only because we let them.”

Seventeen years later, in an interview with the popular YouTuber Yury Dud, Dorenko said he knew perfectly well that this final show would get him fired. The night before the broadcast, he says he had a nervous fever of 39.5 degrees Celsius (103.1 degrees Fahrenheit). “People in this state charge at tanks,” Dorenko explained. “I decided: yes or yes, and come what will.”

The September 2000 show marked the last time Dorenko worked at a federal TV network. He migrated to radio, first at Ekho Moskvy and then at Govorit Moskva, which he founded. Dorenko made attempts to return to television through the Internet, but he never made it as a videoblogger. He spoke well of Vladimir Putin, often saying that Boris Yeltsin was “a guy who wanted to screw over” the country, while his successor became a defender and “brother-soldier” to Russia.

Dorenko repeated these words in his interview with Dud. After recording the conversation, but before it was published on YouTube, he complained on Twitter that Dud “couldn’t stop stirring up shit about the 1990s.” “I was afraid I’d sprain my jaw from all the yawning,” he tweeted. Despite the almost two decades that had passed since he left television, however, the most interesting moments in Dorenko’s life were still from the 1990s. Afterwards, he led a largely private life, shifting to debates about family issues and how to raise children. He leaves behind five.

Vladislav Gorin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock