Vladimir Solovyov, 59, has come to be the embodiment of Russian propaganda. He is on air for hours and hours every single day—on TV, on the radio, and on YouTube, justifying Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, praising Vladimir Putin’s actions, threatening the West with a nuclear Armageddon, and calling for the dissidents to be jailed. Today he is by far the most active and hard-working personality of the Russian state propaganda landscape. And, according to a survey conducted three years ago by independent pollster Levada Center, he is also the most trusted anchor in Russia. In 2022, Putin decorated Solovyov with the For Merit to the Fatherland order. Meanwhile, some twenty years ago Solovyov worked on the NTV channel together with journalists that were later ousted for criticizing the authorities. Back then, Solovyov used to invite independent politicians to his show, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky even offered him to head an opposition party. Holod’s special correspondent Olesya Ostapchuk has read Solovyov’s books and talked to his friends and colleagues to tell the story of a man who once traded disco equipment, then became infatuated with live broadcasting and is now encouraging war crimes.
In mid-December 2003, a business jet from Russia landed near London, where its only passenger, TV host Vladimir Solovyov, was greeted by Boris Berezovsky. Within just several years, Berezovsky had turned from an all-powerful Russian oligarch who personally facilitated Vladimir Putin’s rise to power into an exiled Kremlin critic in opposition to his former protégé. Berezovsky fully paid for the trip and, according to Solovyov’s later recollections, picked a team of good-looking air hostesses for entertainment during the flight. Onboard, Berezovsky got straight down to business—he offered Solovyov to become Russia’s next president.
At the time, Solovyov didn’t have many reasons to love the incumbent authorities. In the early 2000s, he worked at the TV-6 channel on Yevgeny Kiselyov’s team that had left the NTV channel following its acquisition by Gazprom Media and a conflict with the new owner. Like many then, Solovyov believed that the takeover of NTV, which had been criticizing Vladimir Putin, was ordered by the Kremlin. He actively supported his colleagues, calling the situation surrounding NTV a litmus test showing the crisis in the country, and its employees people of “a new breed”.
On the TV-6 channel Solovyov started a show about Russian chanson titled Solovyinaya Noch, a Nightingale Night, which was a reference to his last name. However, in early 2002 the channels’ license was revoked under the pretext of unpaid debts. The last thing that went on air was an episode of Solovyov’s show featuring singer Mikhail Krug. In his farewell remarks to the audience, Solovyov said, “the authorities have done their absolutely dark deed. That’s the time that we’re living in.”
Berezovsky invited Solovyov to London right after the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) elections. The United Russia party won with three times more votes than the Communist Party of Russia, which came second, and, for the first time, none of the liberal parties made it into the parliament. The businessman and the TV host had to talk onboard the plane because Solovyov didn’t have a British visa. Sitting at a table laden with expensive cheese and fine wines, Berezovsky laid down his plan: he proposed that Solovyov and two other popular journalists, Viktor Shenderovich and Yulia Latynina, head up the Liberal Russia political party.
Berezovsky had been funding this party for several years. By the time he met with Solovyov the party clearly needed renovation: the Liberal Russia’s leader Sergei Yushenkov was murdered in April 2003, and at the Duma elections the bloc that the party joined got less than 1% of the vote.
“Since the television was over, Berezovsky wanted to further invest our energy and the popularity of our names and faces this way,” says Viktor Shenderovich. “But at that moment I was driven by my instinct of self-preservation coupled with squeamishness. I frankly told Solovyov that there won’t be me wherever there’s Berezovsky, because I understood the ambiguity of this figure all too well.” Media manager Demyan Kudryavtsev, who worked with Berezovsky during those years, confirmed that the tycoon discussed with Solovyov a possible political career, but declined to go into details. Yulia Latynina called this story “absolute nonsense” in a comment to Holod. The Late Berezovsky himself claimed that Solovyov had visited him to demand extra compensation for his work at TV-6, as the ex-oligarch was among the channel’s investors.
As Solovyov later told Italian newspaper La Stampa (he hasn’t responded to Holod’s messages or calls), Berezovsky promised him everything under the sun and assured him that he was a genius. The TV host refused—in his own recollection, he told businessman that it was a “ludicrous and wrong idea.” “If I, journalist Solovyov, were to interview a presidential candidate Solovyov, I would roast him,” he said.
Solovyov feared that presidential job would put restraints on him. “You pretty much can’t spend time with your friends, or do your favorite sport, you can’t hang out in a restaurant, can’t do anything stupid, can’t get wasted with a bunch of friends bawling songs with the Mashina Vremeni band all night through,” he speculated on the prospect in one of his numerous books. “You can’t just pull up stakes and go abroad, can’t go away on holiday, can’t walk into a bookstore and buy a book on a whim, can’t go strolling around in the night if you’re feeling blue all of a sudden.”
Although Vladimir Solovyov never became president, he firmly tied his professional life to the very man which Berezovsky had wanted him to compete against. In 2005, Solovyov featured himself in his own novel—as a person that breaks the news of Christ’s second coming to President Vladimir Putin. In 2008, he authored a book titled Putin: A Guide For Those Who Are Not Indifferent. In 2015, Solovyov produced The President documentary. By the time Putin unleashed the war against Ukraine, no one was enjoying more presence in Russian television broadcasts than Vladimir Solovyov—he had turned into a living symbol of state propaganda. In 2022, Putin gave him the For Merit to the Fatherland order and a personal television channel. The channel called Solovyov.Live now occupies the same frequency where Euronews previously broadcast.
Proud to be Russian
“What would your counsel to your past-self be?” TV host Boris Korchevnikov asked Solovyov, who was in his mid-twenties during Perestroika, in 2019.
“Have no illusions about either Gorbachev or Yeltsin,” Solovyov replied. “Do what you’re doing, you’re doing it right.”
Solovyov was born into a family of a fine arts expert and a political economy teacher, who had boxing as a hobby and once even won the Moscow Championship. The mother and father divorced in the late 1960s, before Vladimir even went to elementary school. Nevertheless, the future TV anchor’s childhood was almost troubleless. On weekdays he attended an elite school with a focus on English and often spent weekends in Peredelkino, a cottage settlement outside Moscow built by the authorities for prominent Soviet writers and poets. Solovyov was friends with the grandchildren of poet Lev Oshanin, whose summer house in Peredelkino was frequented by many big names of Soviet intelligentsia, such as poets Bella Akhmadulina and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Despite having a completely humanities-focused high school background, Solovyov went to study metallurgical engineering at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys (MISiS). In his own words, he was rejected at the more prestigious Moscow State University and Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI) because of his Jewish ancestry. At MISiS Solovyov got to know Vladislav Surkov, the future first deputy chief of presidential administration, and future founder of Alfa-Bank, Mikhail Fridman. They had joined the institute a year earlier. Fridman recalled that at the time “people rejected by the country’s best colleges” ended up studying in MISiS. Solovyov’s generation was graduating from college and entering the adult life at the same moment as the USSR was entering the period of change. “In those years people of my generation could have made any version of this country a reality,” Solovyov complained afterwards. “It could have been a most just, a most developed, a most secure, and a most democratic [Russia]. Instead, these guys chose to sweep through the country like it was a snack bar.”
However, at the time Solovyov was enthusiastic about the processes taking place in the country, “a pleasant feeling of liberality,” as he put it himself, recalling how he once spent a whole night telling political jokes at one of his Leningrad friends’ kitchen. Once out of college, Solovyov decided to get another education: in the late 1980s the career of an economist looked much more promising than that of an engineer. He became a postgraduate student at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, where he got his PhD in “economy of capitalist countries.”
While studying, Solovyov also taught physics and astronomy at the school on Kutuzovsky Avenue which he once attended. However, that brought little money, so, as he would recount later, he also changed jobs of a bricklayer, a street cleaner, a karate instructor, a billposter, and a car deliverer. Working as an interpreter at the Committee of the Soviet Youth Organizations turned out to be the most life-changing of all his part-time jobs.
In 1990, while accompanying a foreign delegation, he met American millionaire John Hathaway, who ran a real estate business in Alabama. Hathaway liked Solovyov and invited him to the University of Alabama in Huntsville, United States. It’s not clear how the businessman was connected to the university; Solovyov himself claims that he taught economics there. In 2017, university staff members recalled that some “Russian economist” actually visited the university in those years, but found no evidence of him teaching a course there.
During his stay in the United States, Solovyov helped Hathaway in his political activities: the businessman was an active Republican Party donor and personally knew the family of President George H.W. Bush. In Solovyov’s words, his American friend got him involved in preparations for Bush’s election campaign; he also accompanied Hathaway collecting signatures in support of American soldiers during the Gulf War. (Hathaway once was a state senator in his native Maine, and in 1996, he intended to run for the US Senate, but lost the Republican primary. During that campaign he faced allegations of having sex with his children’s 12-year-old babysitter in Alabama in 1990.)
Soon, Solovyov was out of job: after the first term the university terminated his contract (Holod has been unable to find out for what reasons). He was 27 at the time and living in the US with his pregnant wife. As Solovyov himself would tell years later, he took whatever jobs he could: gave karate lessons, mowed lawns, and sold fire extinguishers. Eventually, Hathaway helped him out: he made Solovyov a vice president at his real estate developer company, Wild Boys Land and Cattle Company. Solovyov started consulting US construction companies.
Solovyov enjoyed running a business, and soon he decided to exploit the opportunities that were opening up back in Russia. In 1991, shortly after the August Coup, he brought to Moscow his new friend Colin Hammond, a British-American businessman. They met at Solovyov’s lecture about Perestroika at the Huntsville Rotary Club. At first, their plan was just to set up a discotheque equipment manufacturing company: Hammond already owned one in the US. At some point Hammond noticed that they were only looking for employees via personal connections. Hammond asked Solovyov why he wouldn’t go to a recruiting agency. Solovyov replied that they didn’t have any recruitment agencies in the Soviet Union. “Well, we do now,” Hammond said.
Just like that, Vladimir Solovyov became the CEO of one of the first Russian recruiting firms, Meteor Personnel. “In Solovyov’s opinion, Meteor owes its success to ‘attentive—contrary to the Soviet practice—and hardworking employees, whom the customer may beat and scold while they keep smiling,’” the Kommersant newspaper wrote in 1992. Ex-Vice President of Recruiting Consultants Association Valery Polyakov recalls that Meteor Personnel was innovative in its own way: while the established global practice for such companies was to only charge employers, Solovyov’s company also collected money from the job seekers.
Hammond says their business was a huge success: one small classified ad in the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper brought them 3,247 replies. He adds, though, that it took his partner six weeks to place the ad before Solovyov found “the right person to bribe.” Sales of the disco equipment were also high. Within several years, Solovyov registered several more firms producing nightclub lighting and other equipment. Hammond and Solovyov moved into a big building on Pyatnitskaya Street in central Moscow; Solovyov drove around the city in the Chevy with US plates that he got from Hammond. As Hammond recalls, the world of politics seemed distant and uninteresting to both of them.
Valery Polyakov, who knew Solovyov during those years, says that he left the impression of an energetic, enterprising and confident man, who was extremely hungry for life. Solovyov claimed later that at the time he would often have to deal with gangs, meet with crime bosses and sleep with an assault rifle under the bed and a handgun under the pillow. At the same time, he said he and his partners were proud to be exporting discotheque lighting rather than oil, gas, and weapons, contrary to stereotypes about Russia. Solovyov recalled that they would attend international trade fairs wearing black T-shirts with the words “Proud to be Russian”.
In the late 1990s, Hammond and Solovyov fell out with each other. According to Hammond, Solovyov engineered the takeover of his business in Russia. He didn’t pin much hope on suing Solovyov in a Russian court, so he just let it go, leaving Solovyov with all their business assets. (Solovyov later described this story as “a common end of many mutual undertakings of that period.”) Years later Hammond recalled that Solovyov told him many things about the Russian mindset, two of which really stuck in his head. The first one was: “Never trust a Russian, not even me.” The second was: “You take (steal) whatever you can take, but you will only keep what you can defend”.
A haughty sybarite and businessman
On a June morning in 1998, founder of the Silver Rain radio Dmitry Savitsky was driving to work. The day before, the host of the English With a Smile program had called in sick and now they were hastily looking for a replacement. He turned on the radio to hear the guest they invited. “I was speechless with wonder, when I heard what a first-rate guest we had in the studio. His voice sounded awesome. He was absolutely at ease, speaking without any tension. One could feel that the audience likes him,” Savitsky recounts. “I listened to the broadcast for 40 minutes during my trip to work. And when I was driving up to the office, I knew that I was going to make him a [business] proposal.”
Savitsky was startled to see in the studio a man whose appearance was completely at odds with the image he had in his head. The owner of that rich voice was a rather short, sturdy, bull-necked 120-kg man with a short haircut; he had a gold chain around his neck and a manbag in his hand. “Solovyov was waddling down the corridor and smiling so charmingly,” the Silver Rain founder goes on. “I told him: ‘we can’t pay much, just 600 dollars per month, but we could, maybe, find a way to collaborate?’ He agreed right away: ‘I don’t need any money, I have my own business, it’s alright.’ He had just gotten infection of being on air”.
Solovyov was invited to the Silver Rain by a radio employee who had previously worked in his recruiting agency and remembered that he was fluent in English. But it soon became evident that while speaking Russian the new host was just as appealing to the audience. Soon, the Silver Rain launched his personal show, the Nightingale Trills (also a reference to his last name). At first, Solovyov combined his radio job with running a business and in some cases would go on air via phone from the Philippines, where his disco equipment factory had moved due to problems he had with the tax authority.
“I’m not a professional journalist and have never considered myself as such. I had a business, a fairly successful one, and I felt fine. I just had a feeling that the world around me was going crazy,” Solovyov reminisced later, reflecting on what led him to become a showman. “I would turn on the radio or watch TV, and I wouldn't understand what these people were talking about.” He felt that, just like him, many active people sensed loneliness and information vacuum. “And I understood that I don’t want to go on living like that. There are certain things I want to say and there are certain people I want to hear,” he explained. “There’s always a cup of evil and a cup of good in the world. And everyone must contribute something. And when that contribution is made, it fills either one cup or the other. When you don’t give it much thought, you usually add to the evil one.”
Savitsky remembers Solovyov as a charming and refined radio host that enchanted his audience. “He’s an absolute workaholic”—Savitsky says—“I don’t know anyone like him. I could count on one hand all the times when he missed his show over fifteen years. And even those for technical reasons: say, his flight was delayed. Other than that, he would go on air at any time of the day, in any condition. No matter if it’s the New Year, or he’s sick, or he’s abroad and there’s a big time difference, or he has to get up for work at four in the morning.”
The Silver Rain positioned itself as a non-political radio station, but the host of the Nightingale’s Trills discussed with listeners everything that he cared about, from cars and cooking to elections and social problems. At times his speeches bordered on activism. Once, when a would be news editor Nikolai Pivnenko was refused job at the Silver Rain after a trial period, Solovyov, who barely knew him, brought Pivnenko on the show and praised him to the audience; after that Pivnenko got his job and made friends with Solovyov. On another occasion, Solovyov prompted the Silver Rain to launch the White Ribbons campaign in protest against the misuse of flashing lights in Moscow (long before such ribbons became a symbol of opposition protests).
Solovyov appealed to his audience with the very same thing that annoyed his colleagues: he wasn’t very scrupulous about journalism ethics and tended to make flashy statements that weren’t substantiated by anything. For instance, he once made an allegation that Kommersant observer Arina Borodina, “who considers herself an honest journalist,” was practicing brown envelope journalism. In response, the Kommersant’s editor-in-chief Andrey Vasilyev ordered the team to add “Vladimir Solovyov, who considers himself an honest presenter/[journalist],” whenever he was mentioned in the newspaper. After such mentions started appearing in the newspaper, Solovyov apologized to Borodina.
Solovyov soon became one of the Silver Rain’s key voices. His only serious competitor was Alexander Gordon, another morning show host. Natalya Sindeyeva, who was then the general producer of the station, later recalled that the two hosts were natural antagonists: Solovyov’s upbeat and positive personality was an embodiment of “the image of a haughty sybarite, a successful businessman with liberal views,” whereas gloomy intellectual Gordon “was pushing the ‘little man’s’ agenda.”
Solovyov and Gordon soon sensed that antagonism, too, and started bickering in their broadcasts, which only benefited the radio station. “There would be an exchange of caustic remarks now and then,” Savitsky says. “Listeners would call and ask: ‘Vladimir Rudolfovich (Solovyov’s patronymic—ed. Holod), did you hear Gordon saying something about you yesterday?’ Solovyov would yell: ‘I don’t care, he’s a nonentity.’ But when they met, they would give each other a hug and there were no problems. It’s acting. Solovyov, for sure, is an actor. And if he’s given a role, he plays it flawlessly.”
The duo was so successful that it migrated from the radio to the television. In 1999, Solovyov became Gordon’s co-host in a political talk show the Process airing on Public Russian Television, which is now Channel One. “There were some amusing moments during our conversation with Ernst (Public Russian Television General Producer Konstantin Lvovich Ernst—ed.Holod). Konstantin Lvovich expounded how to go on with our lives, how to trust people. And I kept asking: ‘How much are you going to pay?” Solovyov recounted his employment process. “Konstantin Lvovich would say: ‘You don’t understand, I’m talking about creativity.’ And I kept asking: ‘How much money?’ And there was Sasha (diminutive for Alexander—ed.Holod) Gordon’s quiet voice: ‘I want to be paid no less than Solovyov.’”
The Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper ironically called the Process “a duel between the fat and the thin.” “My goal is to create an anti-television program, where the mechanism of duping, that is the influence of an often farfetched position on the audience will be self-evident,” Gordon reasoned. The essence of the show was that Gordon and Solovyov together with invited guests would defend opposing viewpoints on topical issues of the day, such as whether Russia would win the FIFA World Cup (Solovyov insisted that it would), or whether terminally ill HIV patients should be isolated from the society (Solovyov took up the position that they should). The position that got the most of viewers’ votes won; however, the hosts emphasized that it was “a game for the sake of a game.”
“Instead of bringing to the screen common people who sincerely believe that Chechnya should be turned into scorched earth (or that it should be let go), the channel’s administration assigned the defense of either viewpoint to two polemicists on a payroll set to prove that a professional journalist changes opinion upon his boss’s first request,” writer Dmitry Bykov ranted in his review of the show in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “Of course, the common man won’t actually be burying Lenin or doing anything about Chechnya. But it’s necessary to let the steam off. People must talk and think about politics, otherwise their lives may degenerate completely, turning into a quest for survival.”
A couple of years later the two opponents finally fell out in real life as well. According to Gordon, in the early 2000s Solovyov “considered pursuing a career in politics,” and due to that was only eager to defend the points of view which he actually supported. His co-host viewed that as unfair. “I feel guilty before the whole multi-million Russian television audience, because it was me who had the gall to bring Solovyov on TV,” Gordon would add. In response to that Solovyov would say that Gordon’s views are ”perverse” and point out that he was actually brought to the television by producer Alexander Levin (both Levin and Gordon declined to talk to Holod).
Either way, falling out with Gordon didn’t affect Solovyov’s further TV career. At first he was offered to host the Passion of Solovyov show on TNT, where he interviewed people from all walks of life, ranging from Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov to singer Philipp Kirkorov. Former Union of Right Forces MP, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin, who got to know Solovyov in the early 2000s, says that by that time Solovyov “had not yet undergone his astounding evolution and was actually a journalist that didn’t try to push his political stance but honestly and impartially asked questions to the show’s guests, let the opponents speak and didn’t mentor anyone.”
In a short while, Alexander Levin, who had become the general producer at TV-6, invited Solovyov to his channel. He set one condition, though: Solovyov had to lose weight.
Solovyov Vs. Solovyov
The story of struggle against his own body is one of the most important life themes for Solovyov, to which he dedicated a whole book. By the late 1990s his weight ranged up to 160 kilos—combining jobs in different countries and the habit of eating the stress away were taking their toll. In Solovyov’s own words, food had become a “surrogate happiness” for him. Before, Solovyov’s corpulence complimented his public image: it provided the contrast with Gordon and gave him the appearance of a mobster (he even played one in the National Security Agent TV-series). Now it posed a threat to his favorite job.
Losing weight wasn’t easy. In Solovyov’s words, he tried everything: he had needles inserted into his ears to suppress the appetite, had micro doses of Norditropin growth hormone injected to his belly button area, “devoured diuretics by the handful,” and nearly destroyed his kidneys with substances like Herbalife and Xenical. He says that he ultimately achieved the desired result with proper nutrition and exercise.
As time went by, Solovyov got more and more screen time. On TV-6 he simultaneously hosted two shows, the Breakfast with Solovyov (in roughly the same format as the Passion) and the Nightingale Night about Russian Chanson. When TV-6 got closed, Alexander Levin, Yevgeny Kiselyov, and their companions moved to the new TVS channel. There Solovyov hosted as many as three different shows, among them the Duel, which was organized as televised debates and became a blueprint for many of his future shows. However, Solovyov didn’t really fit in the old NTV team. “I sensed that he wasn’t of one blood with us,” ex-head of NTV, TV-6, and TVS Yevgeny Kiselyov recounts. He says that Solovyov’s ubiquity annoyed him, but Levin insisted that such an energetic and charismatic host would help them reach a larger audience.
It was important for Kiselyov that the content of NTV and the channels that came after was produced by people who believed in human rights and freedoms, Russia’s democratic choice, and a state based on liberal values. “I don’t know what Solovyov was, but I felt that he didn’t have strong inner convictions, that he was a conformist,” Kiselyov says. “My perception is that he doesn’t have any principles or values, the only things that he loves are fame and money. His shows didn’t have the intonation that the old NTV had. He lacked genuine refinement, which most other journalists had.”
TVS existed for slightly over a year: it soon developed financial problems, and in June of 2003, heavily indebted network’s broadcasts were halted. Solovyov immediately landed at the NTV channel, from which Kiselyov’s team had just been expelled. Kiselyov was offended by that: “It had an ugly overtone,” he recalls, saying that Solovyov then made a statement in which he expressed effusive gratitude to the NTV management for their offer.
NTV was changing rapidly at the time. Shortly before Solovyov joined the team, the network got a new CEO, Nikolay Senkevich, whom NTV employees soon accused of applying political censorship. A year later, NTV’s long-time anchor Leonid Parfyonov got fired after trying to air an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
Senkevich said that he personally invited Solovyov, because he was “energetic and hungry for work, capable of running ten projects at a time.” Indeed, soon his projects on the channel began to sprout up. At first, he hosted the Orange Juice program, arranged in a familiar format of interviews with celebrities. Then, To The Barrier, yet another remake of the Process, this time with Solovyov as a moderator. Next, a weekly show Sunday Evening, which was launched as a replacement to Parfyonov’s program.
As early as 2006, Solovyov himself, as well as his colleagues, started noticing that there was too much of him on TV screens. At about the same time his shows were first criticized over excessive squabbling that replaced genuine discussion. A vivid illustration of that point was that politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, well known for his eccentric behavior, took part in as many as fifteen To The Barrier episodes. Meanwhile, the host himself was increasingly taking a pro-government stance on the debated issues. For example, in the wake of the Beslan school hostage crisis in the fall of 2004, Solovyov accused Yukos Oil Company, whose founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky by then had been in detention for nearly a year, of financing terrorism. And although liberal opposition figures, such as Nemtsov and human rights activist Valeriya Novodvorskaya would still be invited, they were now intended to serve as pushovers for guests loyal to Kremlin, who would attack them with Solovyov’s tacit permission.
TV critic Alexander Melman, who knows Solovyov, points out that when Solovyov was asked to sign a petition denouncing Khodorkovsky, he refused. “And he deserved respect for that,” Melman says. “[Several years later] he didn’t become Vladimir Putin’s authorized representative [at the election], as many did, I discussed it with him at the time. But now he’s willing to commit any villainy.”
Boris Nadezhdin, who had attended Solovyov’s shows starting back in the TVS times, calls NTV an interim stage in his career. “Solovyov of 2003, when I started joining his programs, was a journalist who let different sides speak; Solovyov of today is a propagandist that conveys only one point of view, while declaring all the other ones hostile,” Nadezhdin explains. “The NTV [period] was [his] intermediate version: he allowed the participants to voice their opinions, but his position was becoming ever more apparent.”
The man in all his glory
In 2005, a journalist Sergey Parkhomenko received a book manuscript from a popular TV host Vladimir Solovyov. There was nothing unusual in that: at the time Parkhomenko headed a small trendy publishing house CoLibri, which published such things as Maxim Kononenko’s political jokes about Vladimir Putin or novels of Yuly Dubov, a businessman and Boris Berezovsky’s associate.
The manuscript was titled Solovyov’s Gospel. “It was such a mythical fiction exploiting the Old Testament themes, flavored with various philosophical and political ideas Solovyov had at the time,” Parkhomenko recalls. One of the main characters of this book, which told the story of Christ’s second coming into the world of today with its Internet, television, PR, terrorist attacks, political and religious crises, was Solovyov himself. In the book’s universe divine miracles were televised and countries’ presidents facilitated the arrival of the doomsday. Solovyov gave considerable attention to the figure of Vladimir Putin, while depicting himself as a narcissistic and arrogant, if self-critical, personality who is all about money, fame, and power.
“What attracted me was that it was his own work,” Parkhomenko recalls now. “It seemed to me that this text is very characteristic of its author: of his ambitions and deviances. It was such a self-exposure. You want to know what Solovyov is? That’s what he is. He passionately loves Putin. And he poses as some sort of a Biblicist or Cabalist. Here’s the man in all his glory. It’s a valuable situation for a publisher, when a prominent figure makes such a representation of himself.”
The prominent figure allowed 50,000 Gospels to be sold, but critics did not appreciate the book. Galina Yuzefovich in her review of the novel for Russian Newsweek described it as “grotesque in its worthlessness.” As Parkhomenko recalls, Solovyov “was totally furious.” “He demanded that I give him Yuzefovich’s contacts,” the publisher says. Solovyov was blustering about “meeting her, showing her, making it hot for her, destroying her.” (Solovyov wrote in a book of his that fits of anger were a side effect of some of his medications for losing weight).
Parkhomenko was able to resolve that situation peacefully, but he made his conclusions about Solovyov, whom he now viewed as a megalomaniac that “treats everyone around him with extreme disdain.” Shortly thereafter, Solovyov brought the publisher another book, which looked to Parkhomenko like a paid-for promotion of a weight loss medication. He refused to publish it. Solovyov took offense but got the point. Soon he was back with a book on Russian politics titled Russian Roulette.
“I read it and threw up,” Parkhomenko recalls. He says in that book Solovyov “pulled out his shit-flinging machine” and fired it at the reformers of the 1990s: Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubays, and other people who by then had long been out of power. “By then such outpouring of rage against those people was odd,” Parkhomenko says. “Especially, given that the shit-flinging machine made two pauses. Two persons, Surkov and Sechin, were exempt from criticism and written about with reverence.” At the time, Vladislav Surkov was the presidential administration official in charge of domestic policy; Igor Sechin had a post in the presidential administration, too, while also chairing the board of directors at the Rosneft oil company. Parkhomenko points out that the author called Gaidar by a mocking diminutive ‘Yegorka’, while always respectfully referring to Sechin by first name and patronymic.
Parkhomenko suggested that Solovyov further improve his book: “if you’re set to lambaste everyone, you should also include those who are ruling Russia now.” Parkhomenko says Solovyov “became completely enraged,” called the publisher’s condition ‘censorship’ and rejected the proposal out of hand. Parkhomenko then refused to publish the Russian Roulette. He says Solovyov was astonished and reminded him about ‘the good money’ Parkhomenko had made off the previous book. “Well, then I’ll lose money [on this one],” Parkhomenko retorted. He hasn’t talked to Solovyov since that argument.
In the end, Russian Roulette was published by Eksmo, a major Russian publishing house. It also published Solovyov’s subsequent books (there are 25 of them now). In these books he went on dressing down Russian liberals, but also criticized the system that has come to exist in present-day Russia: the domineering role of security and law-enforcement agencies, the lack of social lifts and dysfunctional institutions. However, Solovyov invariably brings his reader to the conclusion that Russia needs an authoritarian leader that could take full responsibility when choosing “between different levels of evil.” Slightly mangling philosopher Berdyaev’s words, he writes that “the task of the sovereign and the state is not creating paradise on Earth, but preventing hell.”
In Sergey Parkhomenko’s opinion, it was in the mid-2000s when Solovyov “went through the metamorphosis” and adjusted his views. Striving for success and popular acclaim, he bet on the most popular man in the country: now his position was defined first and foremost by loyalty to Vladimir Putin.
Feeling that power
In the early hours of December 10, 2002, Vladimir Solovyov was sleepless. Lying awake in his bed he was thinking: “What if he doesn’t like me?”
It was the day he was to meet Vladimir Putin personally for the first time. Not long before that, head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission Ella Pamfilova invited Solovyov to join the commission. Now the commission members were invited to the Kremlin on the occasion of Human Rights Day. It was a cold morning. Chilled to the bone after the outdoor inspections, Solovyov and other committee members entered the Hall of the Order of St. George in the Grand Kremlin Palace. Once they took seats around a huge round table, each against a personalized place card, the doors swung open and Vladimir Putin walked into the hall, accompanied by Vladislav Surkov. As Solovyov later wrote, the president had a tired face and “sky-blue eyes.”
Solovyov has always been vocal that he “enjoys being close to power, feeling that power, loving it, receiving tokens of gratitude from it.” Boris Nadezhdin thinks that Solovyov was quick to see which way the wind blew: “All the successful careers made in the times of Putin, including his, are careers of people who saw that staying close to the boss and not objecting to him was key.”
However, Solovyov didn’t start receiving tokens of gratitude from the Kremlin right away. The first meeting stuck in his memory as an “exercise for the ego,” because responding to his speech Putin addressed him as “colleague,” which, as Solovyov later learnt from a friend, was the word that Putin used whenever he forgot the speaker’s name. Solovyov didn’t have an opportunity for a more intimate talk with Putin at that meeting, but the president made an impression on him. “Putin radiates the feeling of candidness, you want to believe him even if you disagree with him, because even in that case you have good feelings towards him,” Solovyov wrote in one of his books.
Solovyov says that the breakthrough in his relationship with the president happened in 2007. At the time he used to criticize Russia’s judicial system, often raising relevant issues on his blog: he mocked the kangaroo court trials, said that there were no independent courts in Russia, pointed out the corruption in the system, spoke in Khodorkovsky’s defense, attended trials, and invited liberal politician Nikita Belykh and United Russia MP Alexander Khinshtein to his debate show to discuss trial by jury.
As part of that activity, Solovyov came into bitter conflict with a Moscow arbitration court judge, Lyudmila Maykova. He accused her of corruption, namely that several years before that the judge had asked Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to provide her family with a better home. A spectacular scandal broke out. Simultaneously, Solovyov became the target of a smear campaign: LiveJournal, which was the most popular blogging platform in Russia at the time, was filled with banners featuring him advertising intragastric balloon for weight loss. Solovyov linked the campaign to his feud with Maykova.
While this scandal was still at its height, NTV head Vladimir Kulistikov sent his most popular anchor to take part in Putin’s meeting with journalists at the Bocharov Ruchey residence in Sochi. According to Solovyov, ahead of the meeting Putin’s press-secretary Alexei Gromov specifically asked him “not to raise judiciary-related issues.” He claims to have gone against Gromov’s advice. In one of his books Solovyov provides a detailed account of how Putin invited him to the balcony for a face-to-face, where he told the president that “people from his administration run the courts like they were their private businesses.” However, Solovyov immediately added a caveat that if “the investigation may inadvertently lead to negative consequences for the stability of the state,” he was ready to stop.
Putin allegedly replied, “Don’t stop, go all the way through.”
“And who should I report to?” Solovyov asked.
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy to do, we don’t have regular contacts.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Putin promised.
Solovyov says that after this conversation he “felt the president’s assistance and protection” on more than one occasion (Holod was unable to confirm this whole episode). In an illustration of this claim Solovyov would tell that in the fall of 2007 “different sources gave him identical information” that his “influential enemies had approached Putin asking permission to tear him to pieces and get him off the screen,” but the president had stood up for him each time. Solovyov also emerged the winner in his row with Maykova: one and a half years later the Higher Judges' Qualifications Board removed her from office.
With time Solovyov turned into an interpreter of Putin’s words. For instance, several times he explained in detail Putin’s attitude towards journalists. According to Solovyov’s interpretation, back when Putin was working in the Saint Petersburg administration, he realized that the media was just a mechanism, and journalists always relayed the viewpoint of whoever paid the money. “I had many conversations with the president, and he would often say, ‘Well, we know that political journalists are corrupt to the core,’” Solovyov claimed. “And when you told him, wait a second, many politicians are corrupt, but that doesn’t mean that politics as a whole is putrid with greed, he would smile that half-smile, which basically means something like: ‘well, we both understand that one can’t really get by on such a salary.’” In his books Solovyov speculates on why Putin surrounded himself with old friends, what values he abides by, how he is terrified of becoming another Yeltsin, why he is resentful at Berezovsky, why he reacted to the Kursk submarine disaster the way he did and so on.
Boris Nadezhdin says that eventually Solovyov “simply got the bug of the worldview manifested by Putin and blended into that worldview.” He also thinks that Solovyov and Putin have undergone a similar transformation. “When someone remains in power for a very long time, at some point he gradually loses rational perception of the world, because he is surrounded by people who only tell him what he likes,” Nadezhdin explains. “The same misfortune befell Solovyov: little by little people like me dropped off his show. Only those who share his way of thinking have remained.”
Holod was unable to find out how close, if at all, Solovyov is to Putin. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that at the very least he has become closer to the president than many other media figures. Since 2015, Solovyov has produced three documentaries, each of which featured a lengthy interview with Putin. In 2018, he launched the Moscow.Kremlin.Putin show, in one episode of which he admired the way Putin caught a pencil. In 2022, Putin himself told the story of how Russian special services prevented Solovyov’s murder and later gave him the For Merit to the Fatherland order.
In his book Putin: A Guide For Those Who Are Not Indifferent, Solovyov described himself as follows: “And who am I? I am merely a journalist, whose existence is only made possible by the fact that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin gets his kicks from what I do.” He later claimed to have based those words on what he heard personally from Putin, but Holod has been unable to verify whether Putin made such remarks.
Either way, the last time Vladimir Solovyov had career problems was when Putin was out of the presidential office.
Master of the discussion
In May 2009, NTV shut down the To The Barrier show and fired Vladimir Solovyov, although he had a high rating. His colleagues mentioned ‘corporate reasons,’ and Solovyov himself kept silent on the topic. Journalist Ksenia Sobchak later recounted that being off the screen made Solovyov completely desperate: “That was an awful tragedy for him, he was going around knocking on every door.” In one interview he gave at the time Solovyov lamented that broadcasting in Russia ‘now turned into propaganda’.
He didn’t have to go knocking on doors for too long. Although in November 2009 Solovyov complained about being “tacitly banned” from exercising his profession, just a year later he breathed new life into the Duel show, which he once hosted on TVS. This time on the main state channel, Rossiya-1.
Solovyov was invited to the channel by Oleg Dobrodeyev, head of the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, VGTRK, who headed the old NTV team before joining the state media back at the dawn of the Putin era. Yevgeny Kiselyov, another ex-chief of the old NTV, describes Dobrodeyev as a puppet master heading the TV-theater of propaganda and manipulating stooges like Solovyov. Meanwhile, Solovyov insisted at the time that his new job did not involve any partisanship and that “no word was uttered about any stop lists or a requirement to be servile” at his negotiations with Dobrodeyev. “To the contrary, it was said that there was a need for a tough and uncompromising show, a social, political one that would be interesting to the viewer,” he said.
Once on state television, Solovyov changed his image. He left his role of a businessman versed in gang culture in the past and started wearing coats reminiscent of military uniform and the Stalin tunic. He would still invite guests with liberal views, such as writers Dmitry Bykov and Viktor Yerofeyev, or politicians Sergey Mitrokhin and Dmitry Gudkov. However, now he positioned himself not as an equal to his guests, but as a master of the discussion. “He actively directs the conversation, while skillfully manipulating its participants. Due to that, the host’s opinion prevails over the invited guests’ viewpoints,” Ural Federal University professor Olga Mikhailova and graduate student Yuliya Kharitonova write in their study. They also indicated that Solovyov’s screen image was in line with the patriarchal stereotype of a Russian man: dominant, aggressive, independent, active, and tough.
Solovyov was ever more often caught contradicting himself. In November of 2013, he said that there was no legal basis for ‘returning Crimea’, and four months later, on the day of the peninsula’s annexation, he said on air: “We hastened this day as best we could,” in a reference to a popular song about the May 1945 V-day. In 2016, he wrote that a military solution to the Donbass situation may result in Russian and Ukrainian peoples going extinct, and in 2022, he endorsed Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.
One thing has always remained constant: Solovyov’s tendency to fill all the space that he is allowed to. As the terms of his contract with VGTRK prohibited him from taking any other jobs, he left the Silver Rain. However, he immediately launched a show on Vesti FM radio, which is a part of the VGTRK group. Soon he also started hosting a three-hour-long political show, Sunday Evening.
Since then, Solovyov’s presence on TV and the radio has only grown. On October 21, 2019, he set a Guinness World Record for most hours of live television presented by a host in one week: 25 hours 53 minutes 57 seconds. As of early 2023, he runs a 24-hour personal channel Solovyov.Live, which is also aired on social media, the Tonight with Vladimir Solovyov show on Russia-1, and the Full Contact program on Vesti FM radio.
All this activity brings Solovyov good money. In 2020, The Insider put Solovyov’s official yearly income at 52.6 mln rubles (some $730,000) after studying a database of the Federal Tax Service. Solovyov described the report as ‘nonsense’.
Throughout his whole career in the media, Solovyov has faced accusations of promoting interests of certain businessmen, companies, and politicians for money. He has regularly passionately attacked the most unexpected people for the most unapparent reasons. One example of that is Solovyov’s feud with a Moscow judge, another is his attack on Novosibirsk region governor, whom he accused of illegal allocation of land.
When Solovyov got fired from NTV, journalists linked that to his attacks on Valeriya Adamova, an arbitration court presiding judge hopeful, whom he accused of corruption; she also happened to be the wife of an NTV top manager, as well as a college mate of Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, who had just taken office.
Nobody has ever managed to prove Solovyov’s engagement in hit-job journalism, and he has always denied getting money from anyone. In 2008, voice records appeared on the Internet, allegedly featuring Solovyov and some ‘partner Ilya,’ purportedly his business partner Ilya Levitov. Generously interspersing the conversation with coarse words, the men on the recording were discussing lobbying Yelena Baturina’s interests. (Baturina was Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s wife and founder of the Inteco investment and construction company. In June of 2004, Luzhkov personally approved the sale of a four-room apartment to Solovyov’s family in downtown Moscow for just 2.5 million rubles, an equivalent of $87,000).
Solovyov’s alleged conversation with his partner also mentioned Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, with which Solovyov has a long-standing relationship. Solovyov began praising its CEO Herman Gref almost as soon as the latter assumed his office and was still doing it a decade later. In the winter of 2009, Moscow subway riders saw the bank’s ads featuring Solovyov boasting to have made two million dollars using Sberbank. At the time Solovyov said he had nothing to do with the campaign, but in the 2010s companies owned by Solovyov received over 300 million rubles from Sberbank for consulting services, and his son Alexander Solovyov regularly gets contracts with Sberbank as a director of commercials. Journalist Alexey Kovalyov links this to the fact that Solovyov’s presumed son-in-law Nikolay Bogaty works at Sberbank’s distressed assets department.
“[In the Silver Rain broadcasts Solovyov] played both the political and the commercial games. He always had his own interest,” Natalya Sindeyeva recalled. “We couldn’t do anything about it, and it affected our reputation badly. I would come up to Dima [Savitsky] and say: “Listen, we need to shut Solovyov down.” But he was a commercial success, he gave us good profit.”
When Solovyov was leaving the Silver Rain two years later, he claimed that for some years he had been unable to freely speak his mind on air: “I was demanded not to talk about politics and not to touch upon anything sensitive.” The founder of the station, Dmitry Savitsky, tells a slightly different story. “We regularly had to make something up to sort out the conflicts resulting from what Solovyov had said on air,” he explains. “We regularly asked him not to get us into problems, but Volodya [Solovyov] wasn’t very successful in that: he had his own relationship with people and companies.”
Many years later, in 2020, when Solovyov had long been working on state TV, the Dossier Center investigation project published the list of prices that Solovyov and the media affiliated with him (such asYouTube and Telegram channels), charged for “the native integration of topics and senses.” One example of such an “integration” was the “topic of coronavirus:” in January of 2020, Solovyov was preparing an episode of his show which promoted an assertion that the panic surrounding the infection was being created “out of thin air.” According to a document available to the Dossier Center, the price of an hour-long ‘integration’ started at 400,000 rubles (around $5,500), while placement of a “text authored by an expert” would cost 20,000 rubles (some $280) or more. Solovyov denied the authenticity of this document. A year later newspaper Sobesednik found out that the companies owned by Solovyov’s producer Margarita Zhitnitskaya (she also owns the Solovyov.Live trademark) were given Moscow city government contracts without competition and received hundreds of millions of rubles “for licensing, production of television programs and storage services.”
One way or another, Solovyov’s media career has been as financially successful as his business enterprises. In 2007, he sold out the businesses that he started in the 1990s, invested a million dollars in the Fashion Continent company, and, three years later, unloaded the stock at about three times the initial cost, according to his own words. Instead of factories and agencies he now owns two companies bearing his name, which specialize in advertising, consulting, and “performance arts services.”
By the early 2010s Solovyov owned one villa at Lake Como and had an Italian permanent residence permit. Apart from that, he had three apartments in a luxury building in Dolgorukovskaya street in Moscow and a summer cottage in Peredelkino. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Italian authorities confiscated Solovyov’s properties in Como.
The Existential crisis
“Because I live [on air],” Solovyov said after setting the Guinness World Record. “People have the feeling that, even if they turn on an iron, it will start broadcasting my voice, and if they open the fridge, there will be me with a terrible face telling them: ‘No gorging.’” Solovyov says that workaholism is natural for him and is in many ways hereditary: his dad and grandad also spent most of their time at work. Solovyov’s former co-hosts Yekaterina Shevtsova and Anna Shafran, at whom Solovyov yelled in many broadcasts, also characterized him as a workaholic and perfectionist (they declined to comment).
Solovyov’s former colleague from the Silver Rain, Nikolay Pivnenko, also says that Solovyov virtually lived in the studio and really loved his job. “I think there’s so much of him on air because he can’t live without it,” Pivnenko says. ”It’s not about money. It’s like with Kobzon. There was such an anecdote about him: Kobzon arrives in a city and asks what time the concert’s scheduled for. He’s told it’s in the evening. Kobzon replies: ‘Oh, we’ve still got ten hours. Let’s go to some other city and give a concert there’. Vova [Solovyov] is of the same kind.”
Viktor Shenderovich thinks that Solovyov’s restless activity can be explained by his love of fame. “He tried to become a cultural figure, he wrote a novel, he read lectures at the Moscow Art Theatre”—Shenderovich says —“he gets energy from the audience, he’s a man of the crowd, he needs that on a biological level. I think that if he is ever convicted, he should be sentenced to solitude, so that no one looks at him, not even the prison guard. That will be the most terrible punishment for Solovyov, because in solitude he does not exist.” In Shenderovich’s words, Solovyov’s key talent is not one of a journalist, but one of an actor. “Solovyov doesn’t have beliefs, unlike Gaidar, Dugin, or Hitler,” he says. “He has the actor’s vibe, and a role that he has settled into and that brings him money. When a poor actor lies, you don’t believe them, while a good actor justifies his character’s behavior for themselves, and you believe them. Now, Solovyov is a brilliant actor, and he has a deep connection with this character, this coat, this vocabulary.”
Following the outbreak of the full-scale war, Tonight With Vladimir Solovyov went on air every weekday, engaging the audience for roughly three hours each time. Journalist Arina Borodina has calculated that during the first 90 days of the war there were 72 days when Solovyov appeared on Russia-1, spending a total of almost 218 hours on air. Since the beginning of the invasion, Solovyov has said that: the Pentagon had tested an anti-HIV drug on Ukrainian soldiers; Russia wouldn’t stop at the war in Ukraine and would go further; the Russian army should advance to as far as Paris; soon Lithuania would be no more; it was necessary to nuke European capitals, including London, where one of his sons, Alexander, had studied.
“He covers a broad audience of people of very different intellectual levels,” an old acquaintance of Solovyov says reflecting on his success. “When someone is capable of using both valuation and insight to enchant a large number of different people, they get such a success. Minus the conscience and the honor, and you get Solovyov.”
A former TV Rain journalist Maria Borzunova, who spent a lot of time deconstructing Solovyov’s shows on her show called Fake News, explains his success, saying that for the audience “this is a man who shares your anguish over what’s happening.” His task is not to distort facts but to program emotions. “Imagine you’re a TV viewer who expects the Russian army’s successes in ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. It’s understood what kind of emotion you might have”—Borzunova explains—“you’re devastated and disappointed: ‘That’s just not possible!’ You turn on the TV, and there’s a similar man hollering: ‘They must be punished!’”
Borzunova thinks that Solovyov has never even needed any of the guidelines which the presidential administration uses to instruct media on how to cover various events. “I think he is well aware of what he says and how he does it. And I guess he is likely to be sincere,” she says. “He is one of those people who consider themselves to be on the frontline. He is not dabbling in ‘special operation.’ For him it is a war, and he is at war.”
“Nobody writes guidelines for a man of Solovyov’s scale,” Boris Nadezhdin agrees. ”He is perfectly aware of what Putin thinks, what he wants to hear and what he, Solovyov, must be doing. Moreover, when one is engaged in such things for a long time, he starts to actually share that worldview.”
However, Nadezhdin thinks that despite all the bravado he puts up, Solovyov is actually going through hard times now. “Owing to hard work and incredible luck he has reached his career heights. He sees his life as a successful one, and he has things to be proud of: he has many children, he is convinced that he has fulfilled his potential,” Nadezhdin says. “And yet something tells me that the price he has paid is very high. All of sudden, both Margo Simonyan’s (Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT channel and Rossiya Segodnya media group—ed.Holod) and his [speeches] have started to do with death. Red lines, which previously existed, have faded. They can earnestly say that death is good. They are going through a major existential crisis.”
At the 2013 televised New Year’s Eve party smiling Solovyov made a toast wishing that politicians finally remembered that they are “servants of the people” and danced to the tune of a song sung by Russian and Ukrainian comedians Maxim Galkin and Volodymyr Zelensky. In 2022, Galkin spoke against the war and is now effectively exiled from Russia. As for Solovyov, at the latest similar New Year’s TV show he shared his table with Russian soldiers back from the war against Ukraine and Zelensky as its president.