BERLIN – “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They lie to you here.”
Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russia’s Channel One, the largest TV channel in the country, staged a sensational interruption of the evening news on 14 March with a protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine. For about six seconds, millions of viewers of Russia’s premier propaganda channel were treated to Ovsyannikova standing behind the newsreader, holding an anti-war banner and shouting “no to war, stop the war”.
In a video released by the Russian human rights group OVD Info following the protest, Ovsyannikova expressed her shame at helping Channel One to spread “Kremlin propaganda” in recent years, from the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 to covering up the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020. Ovsyannikova, who is half Ukrainian and half Russian, added that the power to stop the “fratricidal” war lies with the “thinking and clever” Russian people.
“What is happening in Ukraine is a crime and Russia is the aggressor country,” she said. “Only we have the power to stop all this madness. Go to the protests. Don’t be afraid. They can’t arrest us all.”
The police can, though, arrest one person. Ovsyannikova was promptly detained. She was fined 30,000 roubles (£215) for calling for unauthorised political rallies and released. The lenient penalty — some commentators had expected the state to push for her to spend years in prison — may be an attempt to avoid turning her into a martyr. Alternatively, more cynical speculation holds, the whole event may have been staged as an attempt to distract from the war itself. Ovsyannikova could still face further charges, however.
Ovsyannikova’s protest appears to be one of the highest-profile examples of dissent within the regime apparatus. Yet she is certainly not alone among state employees in appearing deeply uncomfortable with the war on Ukraine, a former employee at RT, the Russian state media outlet, told the New Statesman.
“Employees of Russian state media organisations have a wide range of opinions and political viewpoints, and I am certain that many of them do not support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Jonny Tickle, who resigned from RT on 24 February, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. “However, while some may privately express discontent to colleagues, we shouldn’t expect others to copy Ovsyannikova’s lead. With Russia’s new ‘fake news’ laws, these employees have far much more to worry about than just losing their job — they could be sentenced to over a decade in prison.”
Russia’s censorship laws are so strict because the regime knows the brutal war on Ukraine — a country with which tens of millions of Russians have personal connections through family, work or travel — would not be acceptable to its people were its full extent public knowledge. Instead, Russians are told by state TV that their army is fighting a “special military operation” in the Donbas in the east of Ukraine, with the specific aim of “denazifying” the country.
The Kremlin’s crackdown on the free media ensures that Russians have little access to information which diverges from the government’s line on the war — limited exceptions such as those brief seconds on 14 March excepted. As the war grinds on, public dissatisfaction with it, including from within the regime, will grow. Another Marina Ovsyannikova may not burst out behind a Channel One newsreader again, but the sentiment she channelled is not likely to disappear.