Sergei Dorenko, Maverick Russian Broadcast Journalist, Dies at 59

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/15/obituaries/sergei-dorenko-dead.html

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Sergei L. Dorenko, a maverick broadcast journalist who became known as the “TV killer” for helping to clear rivals from Vladimir V. Putin’s path to power but who then fell out of official favor and was thrown off the air, died on Thursday in Moscow. He was 59.

Mr. Dorenko was on his motorcycle when he suffered a ruptured aorta and crashed into a traffic barrier, according to Govorit Moskva, a radio station he founded in 2014, citing a coroners’ report.

The crash occurred shortly before a Victory Day fireworks display was to be held in Moscow to commemorate Russia’s defeat of Germany in World War II.

The timing of the crash raised questions in some quarters about whether he had been targeted by the authorities. Recent deaths of Russian media and political figures connected to the politics of the 1990s have prompted similar speculation that they were killed, possibly because of secrets they may have held.

As a broadcast commentator in the 1990s, Mr. Dorenko had supported Mr. Putin and pilloried his opponents so effectively that he earned the “TV killer” nickname.

But when he later challenged the Russian government’s stumbling response to the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, in which 118 servicemen died, he lost his job.

On the day he died, Mr. Dorenko, who had reinvented himself on radio as a commentator and talk show host, posted a barbed comment on social media referring to the Victory Day parade.

“I find a lot of symbolism in the fact that the police and gendarmerie are especially conspicuous at the parade,” he wrote. The post recorded more than 200,000 page views.

Sergei Leonidovich Dorenko was born on Oct. 18, 1959, in Kerch, Crimea, to a Soviet military pilot and a librarian. He graduated from Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow with a specialty in translating Spanish and Portuguese. From 1982 to 1984 he worked as a translator in Angola, according to a biography on the website of Tass, the Russian news agency.

After military service, Mr. Dorenko joined state-run Soviet Central Television in 1985, just before censorship policies were being relaxed under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s glasnost program.

But as the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1991, Mr. Dorenko was nevertheless fired for his unvarnished reports on Soviet crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia after they had declared independence.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union later that year, he returned to the air on newly established Russian television channels, including ORT, where he became known as an acerbic commentator. But again he was fired, this time in 1995, after broadcasting a report on President Boris N. Yeltsin’s shaky health as concerns grew about his electability in the 1996 presidential election. (Mr. Yeltsin won re-election anyway.)

Mr. Dorenko was not gone for long, however. In 1996 he returned to ORT, a television station created and controlled by the billionaire Boris Berezovsky. In 2013, Mr. Berezovsky was found dead under mysterious circumstances in London, where he had been based after a falling out with President Putin.

It was at ORT that Mr. Dorenko, as host of a weekly current affairs program, played a role in the rise of Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent who became prime minister under Mr. Yeltsin and ultimately succeeded him when Mr. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999.

Mr. Dorenko reliably attacked Mr. Putin’s most viable opponents, including Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s powerful mayor at the time, and Yevgeny Primakov, who had been prime minister, foreign minister and foreign intelligence chief under Mr. Yeltsin.

In one report, Mr. Dorenko portrayed Mr. Primakov as a stooge of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and said that NATO’s goal was “for Putin to resign and to bring Primakov to power.”

By August 2000, however, it was Mr. Putin’s turn to be on the receiving end of Mr. Dorenko’s frank commentary. In a report on the Kursk submarine disaster, in which the vessel sank in the Barents Sea after an explosion, Mr. Dorenko played footage of Mr. Putin trying to explain away the response of Russian officials, who had lied about the incident for days.

After reporting on one misleading official account, a stone-faced Mr. Dorenko — he almost never smiled on the air — told viewers point blank, “That’s not how it happened.”

“The main conclusion is that the authorities do not respect any of us,” he said. “That’s why they lie.” It was his last nationwide television broadcast.

In the 2011 interview, he said that after the Kursk report he was told “that I had gone mad, lost it and was a traitor.”

“Everyone recoiled from me as if I was sick,” he said. “It was a frightening period.”

By 2005, however, he had bounced back again, this time as a radio journalist, for Govorit Moskva, where he was the editor in chief and hosted a morning show.

His death brought tributes from many liberal Russians but also a rebuke from Viktor Shenderovich, a satirist whose puppet show had been pulled off the air after it mocked Mr. Putin. He said of Mr. Dorenko on Facebook, “Scoundrels can be charismatic, there is nothing new in that.”

Mr. Dorenko’s survivors include his second wife, Yulia; their two daughters, Varvara and Vera; and two daughters, Yekaterina and Ksenia, and a son, Prokhor, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.