Vienna, March 11, 2023
Harrowing personal story of Russian journalist who broke ranks with Kremlin
Marina Ovsyannikova challenged the Kremlin with a spectacular protest against the Ukraine war on the main Russian tv news. The photo went around the world.
A year later she spoke to the Wiener Zeitung about her dramatic escape from Russia.
Then a 42-year-old editor with the First Channel of Russian state television, Marina held an anti-war placard to the camera during a live news broadcast. In October, she fled to France with her daughter, but leaving behind her son. She has just published her book in Germany Between Good and Evil. How I Finally Confronted Kremlin Propaganda.
Wiener Zeitung: You were under house arrest in Moscow in the autumn, awaiting trial. How could you escape?
Marina Ovsyannikova: I succeeded thanks to the help of the Reporters Without Borders organisation. My lawyer told me that the only way to escape prison was to flee. Fortunately, I had my then eleven-year-old daughter with me, for whom a court later withdrew custody after we were already out of the country. Without her, I would never have left Russia.
We chose Friday night, when the security forces go into the weekend. In fact, I was not put on the wanted list until Monday. But at the very moment when it was supposed to go off, my mother came – she was watching me better than the police. She had seen the car in front of my house and sensed that something was wrong.
Eventually, I was able to get rid of her. I cut off my electronic anklet later in the car with special wire cutters and threw it out the window. In total, we changed vehicles seven times. Just before the border, it got stuck in the mud. We had to continue on foot through fields and could only orient ourselves by the stars. It was adventurous, but we made it.
WZ: How did you experience the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine?
It was an emotional shock. No one at the station knew beforehand. I could never have imagined a war between Russians and Ukrainians. Both peoples are very close to each other. It’s like taking a rifle and killing my two cousins who live in Ukraine. My father was Ukrainian, but he died when I was five months old.
As a child, I had to flee Grozny with my mother after Russian troops destroyed our apartment. That is why I am very touched by the fate of Ukrainian women and children who are now also losing their homes.
WZ: You launched your campaign on Russian state television exactly a year ago. How did you come up with this idea?
I was so angry that I couldn’t keep silent. At first I wanted to protest in the centre of Moscow. Everything was prepared, but my son prevented me by taking away my car keys. Then I decided to make a sign at the First Channel, which is part of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine.
WZ: You were part of that machine yourself for years.
Yes, I started there in 2003. At the beginning it was a normal channel with real news, but step by step Putin rebuilt it for his purposes. For 20 years he destroyed all independent media in Russia. The only ones that remained were those loyal to the regime, which spread fake news.
WZ: But even later on you didn’t want to leave this propaganda job?
I kept thinking about it, but I didn’t know what else to do. There were hardly any opposition media left. Personally, I had a difficult time with a divorce, two children, an unfinished house. Today I feel ashamed, because I knew all along that the Kremlin was lying and spreading conspiracy theories. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but I worked behind the screen without showing my face.
WZ: In spring 2022, you allowed yourself to be hired by Die Welt as a reporter in Ukraine. You were heavily criticised for this. Do you understand why?
Yes, that was my mistake. Ukrainians don’t want to see people with Russian passports while Russian troops are destroying their country. My goal was to show Russians what is really happening there. But the Ukrainians called me a spy. At the same time, they called me a traitor in Russia.
WZ: But you initially went back to Moscow last summer.
Yes, because otherwise I wouldn’t have seen my daughter for years and my ex-husband, who is loyal to the regime, would have influenced her. Of course I was afraid that they would put me in prison.
But Putin was afraid that I would then become a heroine. They found another way to ruin my life. Conspiracy theories about me circulated on the internet. My behaviour surprised the Kremlin. It didn’t fit into their system, which is built on lies and corruption. They didn’t understand how a person’s conscience can awaken to such an extent that they are willing to lose everything just to finally tell the truth.
Since they did not prosecute me, I continued to protest. I was playing Russian roulette. Because every word against the war spoken on Russian territory is priceless. Finally, I was sentenced to house arrest for a video message on Facebook, but not for the poster during the TV broadcast.
WZ: What is your view of the current war?
This war will end the day Putin dies. It is the war of one man. His regime must be destroyed, he is a war criminal who belongs before the International Criminal Court. There is no good way out. Putin has destroyed the future of our country. Ukraine must win. That is why it needs strong support and weapons from the West.
WZ: You havejust been in Germany and appeared as a guest on a programme there alongside Sahra Wagenknecht. What do you think of her call for peace negotiations?
Sahra Wagenknecht is Putin’s favourite propagandist. Even during the annexation of Crimea, Russian television liked to show people like her or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: “Look, European politicians support Putin’s policies”. The calls for negotiations are unbelievable.
Should we talk to a war criminal and murderer? Putin must be isolated by Western politicians. Unfortunately, he still has supporters in Europe and the Middle East, where there is anti-American sentiment.
WZ: Some wish above all that the war and bloodshed would end.
That is impossible with Putin. If an agreement were made along the lines of the Minsk agreements, it would only be a pause for him. He would rebuild the forces and attack again – also Moldova, Poland, Latvia and others. Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union.
You wrote a book about your experiences. What are your next plans?
In my book Between Good and Evil I wanted to describe from the inside how Russian television became a propaganda machine. In the future, I plan to do projects with Reporters Without Borders to advocate for peace, to support political prisoners in Russia and especially women.
I want to speak out publicly against Putin’s regime. My former colleagues follow me on social media and I try to change their minds. Many have resigned because they know: if they protest, he will destroy their lives. You are Putin’s hostages.
WZ: Have you lost many friends in Russia?
Yes, some called me a rat, a traitor, on the news. My mother and my 18-year-old son have also broken off contact because they support Putin – his brainwashing even works on them. But I continue to send them a lot of news, especially about what is happening in Ukraine. Real news, not propaganda.
My fear is not to come back to Russia and not to be able to hold my mother in my arms before she gets sick and dies one day.
WZ: Do you regret your action today?
No, because everyone should revolt against the war. Those who remain silent support Putin’s war crimes. Those who carry out propaganda for him sign a contract with the Devil.
- 09/03/23 Wiener Zeitung interview (DE)
- 09/03/23 Der Spiegel, Hamburg: Prof Tim Snyder interview: “ratio of talk to tanks is very high”
- 09/03/23 Times Radio (London): Wagner Group running out of ammunition? Video interview with ex-US ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering. critique
- CSIS, USA: One year on – what next? Longish expert discussion (video)
- 10/02/23 BBC: interview with Marina