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A new star on a new stage How Irina Shikhman made a popular, liberal YouTube talk show on the Moscow government's dime

Source: Meduza
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

At the end of December 2017, the YouTube channel Let’s Talk (or, in Russian, A pogovorit?) posted its very first video, an interview with the blogger Nikolay Sobolev that has accrued almost 670,000 views. Since then, the channel’s host, Irina Shikhman, has spoken with journalist Tina Kandelaki, bestselling author Boris Akunin, rock star Andrey Makarevich, actress Chulpan Khamatova, comedian Yekaterina Varnava, and a range of other major celebrities in the Russian-speaking world. In the fall of 2018, Shikhman released her first documentary: It followed the students and mentees of Kirill Serebrennikov, a celebrated film and theater director who is among the defendants in a drawn-out embezzlement case his supporters say is politically motivated. That documentary was followed by a two-part film on the Russian prison system whose sources included Oleg Navalny (the brother of opposition leader Alexey), renowned prisoners’ rights advocate Olga Romanova, and Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina. In August, Let’s Talk released yet another documentary, this time on the wildfires sweeping Siberia. Despite the notable disparity between Shikhman’s subject matter and that of traditional Russian state media channels, she and her colleagues have made no effort to hide the fact that their work is financed by Moscow Media, a conglomerate run on Moscow government money. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with the people behind Let’s Talk and asked what purpose the unexpectedly independent YouTube channel serves for Moscow City Hall.

The YouTube show Let’s Talk is typically filmed in clusters. Ideally, three interviews should be able to fit in a single day of shooting. If that number is any smaller, production costs per episode shoot up. If a guest drops out unexpectedly, that’s even worse: The makeup artists, hair stylists, camera operators, and sound engineers have to be paid regardless.

Those kinds of incidents have been rare in recent months, but the journalist Irina Shikhman, who hosts Let’s Talk, still gets nervous by force of habit. Today’s guest is the designer and entrepreneur Artemy Lebedev, but until the very last minute, it seems that Shikhman doesn’t believe he’ll really arrive at the show’s studio loft in eastern Moscow.

An hour before shooting begins, with ‘costuming’ and makeup out of the way, Ira diligently rereads her questions. Her hair has been blown out into voluminous waves, and she is sporting a classic black blazer and slacks. She and her team decided to invite Lebedev onto the show after he posted a video announcing that he had left Russia forever. While that wasn’t true, the video fooled many a journalist and scandalized many a reader.

Shikhman takes advantage of a brief pre-shooting interlude to discuss her questions with the show’s director, Nikita Loyk. “Sometimes, the two of us fight,” the journalist says. “I mean, we’re two different creative units, so we can talk shit at each other for a long time. When that happens, he typically brings me over to the side of the room and tells me I have no right to yell at him in front of the crew because he’s the boss around here. Then I say, ‘I listen and obey,’ and we make up and keep working.”

The team manages to record a quick advertising segment before their guest’s arrival. Loyk, who is wearing a tracksuit and a baseball cap embroidered with the word “Svoboda” — Freedom — gives Shikhman occasional hints on what to say and how to sit within the camera’s frame. From time to time, he steps out to fix her hair.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” he says suddenly, interrupting another take.

“Am I looking away from the camera?” Shikhman asks by way of clarification.

“No. Don’t slouch — let’s do it again.”

Lebedev arrives exactly on time. Irina greets him and almost immediately offers to switch from the formal Russian form of address, “vy,” to the informal “ty.” Later on, she tells me that’s a strategy to “let out his ego”: “It’s pure psychology, plus it helps initiate a relationship with the guest,” she says. “Very often, after we’re done shooting, my guests will even reach out to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye. It’s as though we’re old friends even if we hadn’t known each other at all before.” Lebedev is no exception to that rule. Despite Shikhman’s inconvenient questions about the designer’s contracts with Moscow City Hall and his relationships with recent protest movements or Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Lebedev leaves the studio looking satisfied.

Irina Shikhman and Artemy Lebedev.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

An imaginary TV station

Irina Shikhman was born in Tomsk to a pharmacist and an energy engineer. The two divorced when Ira was 11, but she also remembers that period as the time her father started finding new friends, including a well-known local journalist. It was that reporter who listened to 13-year-old Ira enthusiastically describing one of her friends, a fan of the boy band Ivanushki International, and saw potential in the teenager’s abilities. She offered the young Shikhman a chance to record a segment for a children’s radio show.

Irina’s on-air conversation with her friend (whose fandom had inspired her to found her very own pop band called The Stars) was the very first interview in a long journalistic career. Shikhman recalled that she taped the piece on an enormous recording system she had received as a gift from her father. Soon enough, Ira became the permanent host of the radio show her father’s friend had recommended, and a few years later, she advanced to a job at the youth division of Tomsk’s government-run radio station, where she recorded stories on the problems faced by the city’s young people.

While in college at Tomsk State University’s journalism department, Shikhman found work at a non-state-owned television channel called STS-Open-TV. Within three years, she started taking all her classes from home because she had landed a job as a host and special correspondent for the news and entertainment program Circumstances (Obstoyatelstva).

“What we were making wasn’t news in the traditional sense of the word,” Shikhman later explained. “For example, when there was a mayoral election going on in the city, we didn’t just report on the candidates. Instead, we nominated our own — one of our hosts. We collected signatures for his candidacy petition outside the university and asked the mayor at the time, Alexander Makarov, for his advice on how to run a good campaign. In other words, we uncovered all the system’s flaws from the inside. Can you imagine if somebody tried to do that in Moscow today?”

The channel also produced a show called Our People in the Big City that featured subjects who were born in Tomsk but found success in Moscow. Another mainstay was a satirical cartoon for adult audiences with vocabulary to match.

In the mid-aughts, when Ira turned 21, she moved to St. Petersburg — “for love,” she said — and lived there for two years. Now, she calls that period “the most horrible time of my life.” Despite the budding journalist’s imposing portfolio, local branches of NTV, Channel Five, and STS said that, at best, they would hire her to make coffee. “And the thing is you could say I left Tomsk a celebrity: Our pictures were posted on billboards, and people would ask for our autographs,” Shikhman said. “But there, everybody basically shoved me face-first onto the asphalt: ‘You’re nobody; you’re nothing.’ For half a year, I bawled every night. For me, the scariest thing is to be out of demand.”

Soon, the celebrated anchor accustomed to seeing her face onscreen had to accept a gig as a radio production editor, working shifts to write reports for other journalists to read. Partially out of boredom and partially out of fear that she was losing her form, Shikhman began using a small home video camera to shoot segments for a nonexistent TV channel, Siberia, that she herself had made up. She sent the edited segments off to various Tomsk-based TV stations for free.

The Stories in the Details

In 2006, STS began producing a St. Petersburg-based version of the then-popular show format The Stories in the Details. Shikhman got an interview with the production team, then an offer to make a trial episode. That episode ended up on national television, and Ira finally got her dream job. “I always had two idols I dreamed of working for: [Stories in the Details host Sergey] Mayorov and [journalist Leonid] Parfyonov. And there was one of them, Seryozha, calling me all of a sudden and inviting me to work with him in Moscow. It was definitely a dream come true — just something that felt unbearably good,” Shikhman recalled.

Ira spent the next seven years on Mayorov’s team. Her memories of that time carry mixed feelings: “Seryozha is a complicated person, but I consider him my mentor. He never told me how to conduct an interview — he just had insanely high standards and unpredictable reactions to just about everything. One day, he would tell you you’re shit, and the next, he’d be extolling you.”

What most frustrated Irina was when her boss would say things like, “You and the human brain are two entirely incompatible things! Get out of this profession!” She explained, “[YouTube] comments that say I’m a fat ugly Jewish lady don’t get to me, but as soon as I see somebody criticizing the questions I’m asking my guests in the comments section, I start shaking. As a perfectionist, I’m always afraid of not knowing something or asking a stupid question. All of those complexes are from there — from The Stories in the Details.”

Sergey Mayorov himself said in an interview with Meduza that his opinions of Irina Shikhman are “complicated”: He described “putting a lot of time and effort” into Shikhman’s professional development. Nonetheless, Mayorov said he was proud of his mentee’s accomplishments and considered her to be “undoubtedly talented, beautiful, expressive, and hardworking” but also “capable of much, much more.” “She has this kind of flirtation with her audience. In part, it’s vanity, which happens, I suppose, when someone hits upon a certain level of popularity. I think that in her current situation, criticism will be very useful for her. The question is whose opinion she actually listens to. Right now, there are too many people in her circles who just sing about how exceptional, how brilliant, how talented she is.”

Mayorov believes that some of the guests who appear on Let’s Talk come on the show not because the host is interested in them but rather “for the shock factor, for PR.” “It’s very clear when people do things because they have to and when they do things they’re truly interested in. That’s why [Ira’s] episodes turn out very different from one another, but she does successfully balance consumer society and everyday people who are interested in meaning.”

Mayorov told me that he doesn’t watch Let’s Talk on a regular basis, but his and Ira’s mutual acquaintances occasionally send him episodes in which she “gives [him] a little shout-out.” He explained, “She often uses this technique in her show where she adds a little ‘human touch’: She opens herself up to talk about what a monstrous, despotic tyrant Mayorov was. But I just stay quiet and bear it. I won’t respond to those attacks,” the producer said. “I think Ira understands perfectly that things weren’t that unambiguous. Ira really wants her audience to like her. She wants to prove to everyone, perhaps including me, that she’s worth something. It makes me want to tell her, ‘Ira, you don’t have to prove anything to me! I know that you’re worth very, very much. Just let that situation go already. Don’t give me these shout-outs every time you interview a young woman and tell her about what a despot I was.”

In 2008, a 22-year-old philology grad from Barnaul named Nikita Loyk got a job editing for The Stories in the Details. He would later become the director and co-creator of Let’s Talk. Like Irina Shikhman, Nikita had long been a fan of The Stories in the Details, and he knew the faces of almost all its correspondents. “The first time I saw Ira was on the metro. She had her hair in an enormous red pile and a tight-fitting dress on — just a Hollywood diva,” Loyk recalled.

Over the course of seven years at The Stories in the Details, Irina and Nikita became friends. “Of course, we have our moments,” Nikita said. “We’re both perfectionists, and we’re both extremely results-oriented, but over the years, we’ve learned how to resolve our conflicts.”

Loyk adds no caveats before calling his years working for Sergey Mayorov “awful”: “A lot of people say he gave them something, but I believe that in all that time, I gave him no less.” The director said only the most determined careerists could tolerate Mayorov’s insults and humiliation. Everybody else left. “Once, he threw a ballpoint pen at Ira’s eye. Not everybody’s prepared for that kind of thing, but when journalism is your goal, you can take it.” In response, Mayorov said one shouldn’t “confuse unique personality traits with professionalism.” “When you’re responsible for the team, for the project, for the ratings, when people around you are falling in love, falling into hysterics, quitting their jobs, going insane, starting to use drugs — you realize that people are capable of anything, and you have no right to be weak,” he said.

Nikita Loyk.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

In 2014, at the height of Russia’s economic crisis, Mayorov’s production company lost practically all of its contracts with TV stations and stopped paying its employees’ salaries. It took one more major fight for Ira and a number of her colleagues to quit. Shikhman recalls the situation as something like a family feud. Now, she told me, she and Mayorov are almost never in touch. “I would be happy to, but he doesn’t know how to let people go,” the journalist explained. “A few years ago, I wished him a happy birthday, and then I stopped writing altogether.”

On national TV

After her firing, Shikhman found a job at the TV channel Moskva-24 reporting the evening news. “I had a mortgage to pay — I mean, I had to work somewhere. The problem was that I’m not good at news reporting, and I don’t like it either.”

Soon enough, to avoid being sent on too many business trips filming “wildfires and landfills,” as Irina put it, the unwilling newscaster created her own recurring segment. Just People was a series of three-minute monologues given by ordinary Muscovites. “After 48-minute documentaries, of course, it was a step backward,” the journalist admitted. “But if it weren’t for [Moskva-24 host and lead evening news editor Alexey] Vershinin, who supported me and let me make my own series, I wouldn’t have been able to hold out there for long.”

In 2015, Vershinin became Moskva-24’s general producer, and he offered Shikhman the chance to make her own program. She started with a celebrity talk show called Ponayekhali (a pun that modifies the exclamation “let’s go!” in Russian to read more like “let’s go arrive in a large swarm at a place where we aren’t wanted!”). Soon enough, two more regular shows appeared with Irina at their helm as screenwriter, host, and director. “I came up with the concepts for all of those projects and brought them to Lyosha [Alexey] myself. Nobody gave them to me as some kind of reward,” she said.

In 2016, Shikhman was offered a job at NTV, a privately-owned channel known for exhibiting pro-government leanings. There, she became the writer and host of two Saturday and Sunday morning entertainment shows: Dvoinye Standarty (Double Standards) and a subsequent spinoff.

Shikhman told me that she joined NTV for the chance to be on national television. “It was a calculated move: I wanted to be well known throughout the country. I wanted people to recognize me. I didn’t want my segments to reach 20,000 people like they did at Moskva-24 — I wanted 20 million.” The fact that her show on the channel was followed immediately by political news and highly controversial anti-opposition documentaries like Anatomy of a Protest didn’t bother her.

“I stayed in the entertainment division. I never even went to the floor where all that Anatomy of a Protest stuff was happening,” Shikhman explained. “But I knew that if you don’t get on a national channel, nobody’s going to give you the chance to have your own interview show on Channel One instead of [the highly popular journalist Vladimir] Pozner — and that’s what I’d been dreaming about for my entire life. So I was prepared to take a job at any national channel.”

After a year, Shikhman’s project on NTV was shut down. A few months later, she got a call from Vershinin, who asked whether she had any new ideas for Moskva-24. The editor liked one of Irina’s proposals, and after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t “throw us all away” once again, he started digging for funds for the new project.

“By the fall of 2017, [journalist Yury] Dud’s videos [on YouTube] had attracted a larger cumulative viewership than the one that watches Moskva-24 in a single day,” Alexey Vershinin said. “Our babushkas have always been there for us, and they’ll always be with us going forward, but we were losing more active viewers fast — the audience of decision-makers that was leaking out of TV and into the Internet before our very eyes.”

Moskva-24’s executives ultimately decided to debut several YouTube channels simultaneously: an interview program, a humor show, an economics channel, an entertainment channel, and a travel show. “We tentatively divided the online audience into various segments and tried to give each one its own show," Vershinin explained.

Irina Shikhman.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

“A triple punch of feminine beauty”

The interview program was the channel Alexey Vershinin offered up as Irina Shikhman’s domain. It had grown out of a show called Oy, Vsyo (Oh Man, That’s It), a program Shikhman had co-hosted before she left Moskva-24 for NTV. Because a YouTube channel called Oy, Vsyo already existed, Moskva-24 had to adopt a new name to take its place. Vershinin described the old program’s concept as follows: “It’s a show by three beautiful women who take a bunch of guys and expose them.” Irina added, “The dumb blonde would say something stupid, the feminist brunette would drown everybody in citations, and I would ask these super rude, terrible questions.” She explained, “All of our guests were guys, and we would take them apart on late night. We did a good job of taking them apart, too — we had some good episodes.”

Vershinin said Moskva-24 ultimately had to shut down Oy, Vsyo because the show’s ratings were extremely low, but he still enjoyed the format. “When they were facing a triple punch of unbelievable feminine beauty, the guests would reveal things they never would have said in a serious interview.”

Before she agreed to take the new YouTube job, Shikhman asked Vershinin whether any censorship would be applied to the online show. When he answered in the negative, she went on to clarify what kinds of topics she could address with her guests. “Lyosha asked me what I wanted to talk with them about,” Shikhman recalled. “In response, I said, ‘Could I talk about [prominent opposition politician Alexey] Navalny?’ He said, ‘Yes, you could.’ ‘Could I invite Navalny onto the show?’ ‘Yes.’” Irina said Vershinin promised her right then that there would be nobody checking all of her questions in advance or handing down orders to invite certain interviewees.

According to Vershinin, Moskva-24’s branding “isn’t promoted, but it’s also not shoved under the rug” in the new program: “After all, we decided we were going to catch people on YouTube who had gone away from TV. If we said word for word that this is a program produced by Moskva-24, that would have caused a mild allergic reaction for an online audience.”

The first episode of Let’s Talk, which featured Russian YouTuber Nikolay Sobolev, was posted on December 21, 2017. Like Oy, Vsyo, it had three co-hosts: One of them, Instagram blogger Yelena Sazhina, was let go immediately; the second, another Instagram blogger named Maria Viskunova, worked alongside Shikhman for about four months.

Shikhman told me that Viskunova had almost never heard of the guests the pair ended up interviewing for the show and didn’t prepare for their recording sessions. Shikhman ultimately wrote all of Viskunova’s questions for her. Over the course of those first four months, Irina said she tried to “justify the presence of two hosts on the screen” but gave up when she asked her co-host, “Masha, are you for Putin or Navalny?” and the latter responded in classic beauty blogger fashion, “I’m for concealer.”

“I said, ‘Let me go it alone. He responded, ‘Who would be interested in you?’” Shikhman recalled, describing Alexey Vershinin’s determination to include Instagram influencers among her co-hosts. She said that whenever the possibility arose of hiring a host with a style closer to Irina’s, he pronounced them “not doable.”

Vershinin himself told Meduza that he was operating solely based on “cynical calculations.” “In our early stages, the girls who already had their own online audience gave us a strong start in terms of view counts because of their followers,” he explained. “When the task of attracting attention from viewers was complete, we decided to let the girls go.”

Maria Viskunova told Meduza that she had “nothing to say” about her brief stint at Let’s Talk.

The trailer for the first episode of Let’s Talk. Warning: Includes uncensored profanity in Russian.
Let’s Talk

Into the “kitty paws”

Alexey Vershinin’s explanation for the show’s initial choice of guests goes back to the same old calculated cynicism. “There was only one criterion: Who would get us as many views as possible,” he said. “Our initial approach to this channel was a classic producer’s approach.”

“At some point, Ira said, ‘Why not invite some writers?’ expecting by force of habit that somebody would say she wasn’t allowed. But nobody could,” the director continued. He said Shikhman began inviting highly culturally significant guests rather than show-business celebrities alone “as soon as the first little vent opened up and it became possible for her to dig deeper, not broader.”

Vershinin added that he doesn’t participate at all in the process of selecting guests for Let’s Talk, and he no longer demands that the team pursue clicks for clicks’ sake: “Ira’s interviews turn out best when she’s talking to people who interest her. It just so happens that those are people who deal with politics to some degree or other — people who have a political position, whether she’s in solidarity with that position or not.”

Among the first guests to appear on Let’s Talk, back when Shikhman and Viskunova were still running the show together, was Andrey Makarevich, the founder of the superstar Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni (The Time Machine). Makarevich’s interview went online in February 2018 and has attracted more than four million views since, making it the show’s most popular episode to date. In a conversation with Meduza, Makarevich confessed that the program left “no impression whatsoever” in his memory: “The second lady who was with Ira and who disappeared later on, thank God, didn’t match my standards of what journalism should be at all. Plus, the shoot itself was pretty trashy — I always had to be checking everything myself.”

After Makarevich, ‘political guests’ started appearing on Let’s Talk more and more often. “Nikita [Loyk] said to me once, ‘Aren’t you fed up yourself with asking about divorces and abortions all the time?’” Irina Shikhman said. “You have to do something current — people on the Internet like that. Go compete with Dud.” Since founding his own YouTube interview show in 2017, Yury Dud (pronounced like “dude”) has become one of the very best-known media figures in Russia, with his channel boasting 6.36 million subscribers as of November 2019.

Irina admitted that she has always been interested in political news but never felt she knew how to argue about serious questions well. At 35 years old, she said, “I had to rediscover my profession for myself from the ground up.” To avoid “looking like a total idiot,” she hired tutors in history and political science.

“Irina Shikhman has an ability that is really rare these days to listen, to have a conversation based on the situation and not on prewritten questions,” television host Tatiana Lazareva said of her own experience being interviewed on Let’s Talk. “In terms of professionalism, it was very enjoyable to talk to her. Ira is growing, and her growth is visible.”

Vershinin believes Irina Shikhman’s “breakthrough” interview was a conversation with Zakhar Prilepin, a journalist and fiction writer who has fought with separatist troops in eastern Ukraine and acted as an advisor to the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. “When somebody falls into the grasp of Irina’s soft kitty paws, they lose their vigilance. They become defenseless without noticing it,” the producer said.

In an interview with Meduza, Prilepin called the Let’s Talk crew “good, well-intentioned folks” and Shikhman “a lively, original host who has certain entirely understandable [liberal] views but nonetheless tries to have original, interesting conversations without trying to crowd out the person she’s talking to.” Prilepin said his interview with Shikhman came off as a contentious one even though some portions of it were edited out — the sections where, in the writer’s view, Shikhman wasn’t as persuasive. “But that’s their prerogative. Overall, everything was done properly. Ira was a very professional host,” the writer acknowledged, adding that Shikhman’s team had managed to “do something Dud-like” for a “Meduza-like, pro-Ukraine” audience.

Sergey Minayev, the editor-in-chief of Esquire’s Russian edition, also appeared on Let’s Talk but found Irina’s attempts to “spice up” the conversation unsuccessful and “slightly strained.” “Ira tried to have a discussion with me as a political opponent, and she tried to take up an extremely opposition-oriented agenda. But, evidently, she doesn’t actually believe in that agenda fully, and she’s not very well-immersed in it. I could tell that she wanted to make our conversation more contentious for the cameras, so I even tried to play into her hands a little bit.”

Paying for the mayor’s sins

In April 2019, Alexey Vershinin was sitting in his office at Moskva-24 looking through the footage for a new Let’s Talk episode featuring sports journalist Vasily Utkin. The episode included a clip from a protest in Moscow that showed Utkin yelling, “We’re fucking tired of Putin!” “In that moment, I suffered a terrible bout of self-censorship,” Vershinin admitted. “I felt an insurmountable urge to cut that out immediately. I poured myself about 50 grams of whiskey, sat down, thought for a bit, and restrained myself.”

In the summer of 2019, Vershinin left Moscow Media — he now works as the creative director of a development company called Capital Group. However, he still curates some of the Moscow-government-funded media conglomerate’s YouTube projects. Vershinin told me that his motivation to leave stemmed from a desire for change and the financial attraction of his new position. However, he admitted that he’s had an easier time sleeping at night since he left the state-funded TV channel.

Vershinin said he never did get any “calls from above” — not after the Utkin incident, and not at any other time. There was one guest who called the producer just after her interview was recorded. Vershinin declined to give the guest’s name but said she raised her voice and argued that Shikhman had been unprofessional and unprepared for their conversation. It all ended with an apology letter printed on Moskva-24’s official letterhead, but the guest’s complaint had no effect on how the interview was actually aired.

“Before, when we would put new interviews up on the channel, I would keep looking at my phone waiting for a call. Now, I do that much less often,” Vershinin said. His confidence rose along with the show’s subscriber count: “When more than 600,000 people are subscribed to you, you don’t have to worry that somebody might call you and ask you to take down your latest episode,” the producer reasoned. “That would make a whole lot more noise. The channel is already so big that closing it down would be more damaging to [the company’s] reputation.”

A source close to Moscow City Hall assured Meduza that the mayoral staff is either entirely “unaware” of the ties between Let’s Talk and the Moscow Media conglomerate that Sergey Sobyanin initiated or they have a measure of loyalty toward Shikhman’s work — after all, she doesn’t criticize the Moscow mayor’s policies directly.

Another source said the local officials in charge of City Hall’s online projects see Let’s Talk as something like a system of Catholic-style indulgences that counterbalances the other, more politically oriented media projects financed by the city. The show was also presented to some department heads in the city government as a way to “insinuate ourselves into being trusted by the [liberal] crowd to make some kind of [political] move possible down the line should the need arise.” However, the source noted, after Let’s Talk started to rake in a steady income, its creators had to justify its existence less and less frequently.

Vershinin said it’s not uncommon for him to come across conspiracy theories about the ties between Let’s Talk and Moscow City Hall. Some claim that Sobyanin uses Shikhman’s YouTube channel and her guests to “lash out against some other tower in the Kremlin” by “buying off” allies or “pissing off” enemies. Vershinin said those theories are unfounded: “I assure you, Sobyanin doesn’t even know our channel exists.”

Irina Shikhman and Nikita Loyk.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

The Dud phenomenon

Now, Let’s Talk has almost 700,000 subscribers. That’s more than TV host Leonid Parfyonov’s Parthenon, which has acquired 650,000 subscribers since launching in February 2018, and significantly more than Nikolai Solodnikov’s Yeshchyonepozner (Still Not [Vladimir] Pozner), which boasts 170,000 and began in October 2018. Nonetheless, the undisputed leader remains Yury Dud’s channel vDud with its more than six million subscribers.

Ilya Ovcharenko, the producer for Parthenon, told Meduza that the audience for Let’s Talk has primarily grown organically, and the channel owes that growth to the well-known guests that have appeared in its episodes from the very beginning. At the same time, the producer noted that almost nobody can make it on YouTube without investing some amount in promotion fees with very rare exceptions.

Ovcharenko didn’t go so far as to name a specific sum of money he believes the Let’s Talk team may have had to spend, but he suggested that its budget exceeded a million rubles ($15,630). “On average, to make sure a video gets about 100,000 views, you have to put about 60,000 rubles ($938) into promotion — ad buys on YouTube and on the Internet.” Now, Ovcharenko hypothesized, the show’s producers probably only have to sink a small sum into promoting each of their videos — if they feel the need to buy ads for the channel at all.

Lena Samoilova, the YouTube producer for a creative agency called Zebra Hour, said the success of Let’s Talk stemmed in part from Yury Dud’s success. “Before him, people didn’t watch journalistic content that was 40 – 60 minutes long, but when vDud came onto the scene, habits started changing.”

In Samoilova’s opinion, Let’s Talk is stirring up the entire field, expanding its borders and attracting an entirely new kind of audience. “The channel recently came out with an interview of [Latvian actress, singer, and director] Laima Vaikule that got more than 900,000 views,” the producer pointed out. “On one hand, why [the interview] happened isn’t entirely clear because Laima hasn’t really done anything surprising recently, but on the other hand, the video brought her fans onto YouTube, and that audience hadn’t been watching videos on YouTube before.”

Samoilova argued that Let’s Talk shot to success so quickly thanks to the fact that its creators had immediate “access to the stars”: “Usually, YouTube interviewers who are just starting out make their first few episodes with lesser-known people and small-time celebrities, and then the real celebrities only start coming to them later. With Irina, even though she was a new name for YouTube, stars started coming to her right away, plus they were famous to a wide range of audiences: She’s had everyone from [journalist] Tina Kandelaki to [video blogger] Nikolai Sobolev to [TV host] Tatiana Lazareva.”

She suggested that certain Let’s Talk episodes have been backed up by funded promotion campaigns. “The videos probably get 250,000 – 300,000 views organically, and then some of the videos get additional exposure, or maybe other video bloggers talk about them,” Samoilova speculated. “Maybe this channel is a kind of ‘social valve’: All kinds of perspectives are represented [on the same sets of issues], from Andrey Makarevich to [actor] Andrey Danilko, and then there was the episode on Kirill Serebrennikov [the respected director accused of embezzlement] and the interview with [official Foreign Affairs Ministry representative] Maria Zakharova.”

Ilya Borodin, who directs external partnerships for the company Yoola, believes that production quality has played a key role in the success of Irina Shikhman’s channel: “You can pour as much money as you want into marketing, but if the product isn’t relevant or interesting to the audience, nobody’s going to watch it, plain and simple.”

Recipes for success

Let’s Talk is produced for Moscow Media by a company called EMG. Both Irina Shikhman and Nikita Loyk have annual contracts with the production company, and EMG pays them a fixed salary. Shikhamn also earns a commission from the show’s advertising revenue.

According to Alexey Vershinin, the income Let’s Talk earns from advertising still isn’t enough to cover production costs. Every interview is taped on five different cameras, and there are about 10 people in the room for every shoot: “Lights, sound, director, complex postproduction work — it’s all expensive; it’s a lot.” One source told Meduza that each episode of Let’s Talk costs Moscow Media about 700,000 or 750,000 rubles (more than $11,000), while each ad integration goes for about 300,000 rubles (about $4,680).

Irina Shikhman with her team.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

One of the conglomerate’s partners, Kedoo Entertainment Russia, is responsible for the distribution of Let’s Talk on YouTube. As the company’s vice president for content, Konstantin Kobzev, told Meduza, Kedoo takes care of the show’s development, promotion, and monetization. That includes collaboration with advertisers: “We negotiate and confirm the format of [the program’s] ad integrations as well as its budget. That means we’re the ones who control and develop all of the monetization that happens on this channel.” The distributor is compensated by Moscow Media in a monthly fixed sum that Kobzev declined to name. The company also receives a dividend from the deals it makes with advertisers and from the ads YouTube integrates into Let’s Talk videos on its own.

A source close to Moscow Media estimated in a conversation with Meduza that the conglomerate spends about 300 million rubles ($4.7 million) annually to produce and promote new online products. That’s within an overall operating budget of three billion rubles ($46.9 million).

Konstantin Kobzev said that Let’s Talk is one of Moscow Media’s most financially successful YouTube channels, though it trails some of its counterparts in terms of viewership and subscriber counts. “The costs of producing an interview show in this format are relatively high, but this format also entails long viewing times,” the Kedoo executive explained. “Revenue on YouTube increases linearly with viewing times, not the number of views: A channel with hour-long videos makes five or six times as much per view as a channel that posts short five- or 10-minute videos.”

Kobzev acknowledged that in the first few months after Shikhman’s channel debuted, additional funds were budgeted for its promotion. “I’m in no position to name any specific figures, but in the context of the channel’s current revenue or its production costs, these weren’t large amounts.” Now, he said, Let’s Talk expands its audience organically: “When most people know about the channel, it’s content work that plays the biggest role in promoting it more so than additional investments aimed at hitting some kind of target number.”

The distributor said Let’s Talk was promoted through advertisements on YouTube, social media platforms, and more traditional media as well as cross-promotional efforts through Moscow Media’s other channels and Kedoo’s other partners. Moscow Media’s PR division also played a role in the promotional effort, as did algorithm optimization efforts. “We work to make each video on the channel pull the next one up after it and start trending in the process.”

With and without City Hall

Irina Shikhman told me that if Let’s Talk were produced without help from contractors like Kedoo and EMG, the channel would have paid for itself and started making a profit a long time ago, but the team isn’t changing its strategy just yet. First of all, all the contracts are already in place, and second of all, it would feel a bit scary to leave. “If I leave, nobody’s going to give me the YouTube channel, and it’s hard to get an audience together again from scratch,” Shikhman explained. “Again, advertisers only come once you have at least 100,000 subscribers. Basically, it’s a risk, and I have a mortgage to pay, plus I don’t have a second job — like Yury Dud, for example” (Dud is a deputy CEO at Sports.ru).

Nikita Loyk said that Shikhman’s team has gotten multiple offers from investors hoping to buy Let’s Talk from Moscow Media, but they’ve always turned those offers down. “Financially, we’re able to run this thing ourselves at this point, but that’s not really fair right now to the channel because they let us work freely,” Loyk reasoned. He added that the team’s main goal is for Irina Shikhman’s name to become a recognizable brand independently from the channel itself. That would allow all of them to be more independent and confident in their future.

Shikhman and Loyk named only one situation in which they would unexpectedly cut ties with the government-funded conglomerate: If they felt that Moscow Media was applying pressure or censorship to their work.

Irina Shikhman.
Ivan Kleimanov for Meduza

On August 8, 2019, Let’s Talk came back from a summer break to open its new season with an episode on the forest fires raging in Siberia. When asked why, given the two most widely covered stories of the summer — the fires and Moscow’s election protests — her team chose the former, Shikhman responded, “I’m from Siberia. It’s my homeland. \I don’t know what we could have filmed about the protests — it’s the news that covers those.”

Irina said she did “have an idea” to invite Lyubov Sobol onto her program. Sobol, who works closely with opposition leader Alexey Navalny, was among the independent Moscow City Duma candidates that local election commissions refused to register in summer 2019. That invitation never happened, once again because Irina “didn’t know what to talk to her about.” “Listen, I admit to my professional ineptitude here,” Shikhman said. “At this point, I don’t know what to ask Lyuba apart from what she’s already told [the independent TV channel] Dozhd.”

“If you had wanted to shoot something about the Moscow protests, could the folks from City Hall have exerted enough influence to prevent it from airing?” I asked in response.

“I don’t know. We haven’t had any situations where Alexey would call me and say ‘We won’t be posting this one.’”

“How do you explain the fact that, on a YouTube channel that’s practically financed through Moscow’s city budget, there are videos about Russian prisons and Alexey Navalny’s brother, and people ask uncomfortable questions about Sobyanin?”

“I’ve never thought about that. Maybe they don’t watch [our channel] over there. I’m lucky to have Lyosha Vershinin as a boss—he trusts me and gives me a carte blanche. Why would the Moscow Media conglomerate want all this? I don’t know. I don’t know why they would want a person as complicated as me who’s going to ask whatever she wants.”

“Has your lifelong dream of having your own interview show come true?”

“Nobody would ever have given me my own interview show on a federal TV channel. In that sense, of course, the answer is yes.”

“So you still want your own interview show on a federal channel?”

“In our current situation, the current political regime, the censorship and propaganda on TV — no. But if the television of the 1990s were to come back to us tomorrow or something would just change on a qualitative level, it’s possible I would say TV is better than the Internet.”

“When did you first feel that the magic of the television no longer had the same pull on you?”

“I’m going through that right now. Just last week, I got a good offer for a TV job. I didn’t even listen all the way to the end — I just said, ‘TV? Nope.’ You know, I still have a mortgage, but that’s still not about to make me work for the Rossiya [state-run] channel.”

Story by Sasha Sulim

Editing by Konstantin Benyumov

Translation by Hilah Kohen