On 14 March, just over two weeks into the war against Ukraine, the Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova smuggled a home-made poster denouncing the conflict into the newsroom of the state-run television network Channel One, where she worked as a senior producer. She hid the rolled-up poster in the sleeve of her jacket and waited. When she saw that the security guard outside the live broadcast studio was distracted, she seized her chance.
Ovsyannikova ran on to the set of Russia’s most-watched evening news show, Vremya, shouting, “Stop the war, no to war, stop the war!” She held up her poster, which said, “No war” and “Russians against war” in English. In Russian, she had written, “Don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.” For a few brief seconds, the channel unwittingly broadcast the truth. Then the camera cut away and the security guards tackled her. She was taken to a police station and interrogated for the next 14 hours. She was prepared for this. She had recorded a video statement explaining her actions, which was released by the Russian human rights group OVD-Info after her protest. “Only we have the power to stop all this madness,” she urged. “They can’t imprison us all.”
At first, the official response was lenient. So much so that rumours began to circulate that Ovsyannikova, who is 44 and had worked at the channel for 19 years, was a Kremlin stooge. Given that spreading “false news” about the war had just been made punishable by up to 15 years in prison, some wondered how else she could have escaped with a 30,000 rouble (around £215 at the time) fine shortly after her protest. Asked about this directly by a Politico reporter, she said that she thought the Kremlin was deliberately trying to discredit her, hoping that her case would soon fade from the headlines and that she would take the hint and move abroad.
Ovsyannikova, who was born in Ukraine, did briefly move to Germany, but she returned to Russia in July after her ex-husband, who works for the Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT (Russia Today), filed for custody of their two children. She staged another protest soon afterwards on 15 July, holding a poster near the Kremlin that said, “Putin is a murderer, his soldiers are fascists… How many more children must die before you stop?” For this, she has been charged with spreading false information about the Russian military and could face up to ten years in prison. Her home has been raided by the police and she has been placed under house arrest, where she is forbidden to speak to anyone but her family and her lawyer. During a brief court appearance in Moscow on 11 August, however, she was defiant. From the defendant’s cage, she held up another handwritten sign that said, “May the dead children haunt your dreams.”
Ovsyannikova’s actions are extraordinary. And yet, hers is just one example of the courage of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have protested against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine since it began in February, despite the tremendous personal risk this involves. Some are well-known opposition politicians, such as Ilya Yashin, 39, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is 40 and has already survived being poisoned twice. Both men are in custody, charged with the same offence as Ovsyannikova – spreading false information about the military – and face prison sentences of up to ten and 16 years, respectively.
There are other, less familiar figures whose bravery is no less remarkable. Alexei Gorinov, a 60-year-old city councillor from Moscow, was sentenced to seven years in prison on 8 July for criticising the war during a council meeting and suggesting a minute of silence for the victims. Aleksandra Skolichenko, a 31-year-old artist from St Petersburg who goes by the name of Sasha, could be jailed for up to ten years for replacing five price tags in a local supermarket with descriptions of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. According to OVD-Info, more than 16,000 people have so far been detained for protesting against the war. Each now faces consequences that range from losing their jobs, or getting expelled from university, to serving time in a prison system notorious for torture and sexual abuse.
It is true that these protesters are a small minority in Russia. In July, the latest poll by the Levada Centre, an independent research group, found that 68 per cent of respondents said the country was moving in the right direction. This was up from 50 per cent in January. Putin’s approval rating also increased from 69 per cent in January to 83 per cent in July, although the current political conditions make it increasingly difficult to know what people really think.
But the best way to ensure that Putin’s critics remain in the minority would be to do as Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested, and what several European countries are now considering, and ban Russians citizens from travelling to the West. Ukraine is fighting for its survival and Zelensky’s plea is understandable. Yet such a ban will only serve to cut Russians off from information that could challenge Kremlin propaganda and reinforce Putin’s message that there is no alternative to his rule.
Ovsyannikova has credited her own political awakening to her immersion in Western news feeds at Channel One, where her job involved monitoring outlets such as the BBC and the New York Times. In the process, she told one interviewer, she came to understand the growing chasm between what was really happening in the world and what Russian networks such as hers told their viewers. It is worth remembering that during the Cold War it was the East German regime that built the Berlin Wall in 1961 in order to keep its citizens in and foreign information out. The West should not help Putin to do the same.
[See also: Russia is still underestimating Ukraine]
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World