Interview with Russian TV Protester Marina Ovsyannikova “I’m Enemy No. 1 Here Now”

Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova protested Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine live on the primetime news of state broacaster Channel One. In an interview, she explains how that moment changed her life and her fears of what might come next.
Interview Conducted By Christina Hebel in Moscow
TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova outside a courtroom in Moscow: "It was a deep blow."

TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova outside a courtroom in Moscow: "It was a deep blow."

Foto: Mikhail Japaridze / action press

When Marina Ovsyannikova calls on the phone, she quickly starts talking. The 43-year-old says she’s been able to rest for a few hours after almost two days with no sleep. She seems a bit scattered – a second phone keeps ringing in the background, calls that she rejects. "One second, it's just a lot right now."

On Monday, Ovsyannikova protested against Putin’s operation in Ukraine – and not just anywhere, but live during the primetime evening news in the studio of Channel One. The state broadcaster is one of the most viewed in the country. Ovsyannikova has been an editor at the station since 2003. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, she talks about her work for the state propaganda apparatus, the years of lies, the suppression – and her fears of what will come next.

DER SPIEGEL: How are you doing?

Ovsyannikova: More or less well. I am with friends, hiding. I feel a huge amount of stress, and that’s not going to go away. My life has changed forever, and I’m just beginning to realize that. I can’t go back to my old life. (Exhales deeply) I’m really worried about my children now, my son, who is 17, and my daughter, 11. I take tranquilizers. They aren’t with me here – they’re in Moscow in safety. We will stay in Russia and continue living here.

DER SPIEGEL: French President Emmanuel Macron has offered you asylum. Are you thinking about leaving?

Ovsyannikova: No, I don't want to leave our country. I am a patriot, and my son is an even greater one. We definitely don’t want to leave or emigrate anywhere.

DER SPIEGEL: What did your family say about your protest action?

Ovsyannikova: It was a deep blow for them. My mother is still in shock, she’s completely exhausted. My son has been very affected by all this – he’s going through a difficult phase at his age, anyway. He accused me of destroying all our lives.

DER SPIEGEL: How are you dealing with that?

Ovsyannikova: We're still talking to each other, but it is very difficult for me psychologically. I’m between the fronts. My family isn’t really supporting me. On top of that is the official public opinion, which is against me and a growing confrontation in society, which is divided between those who support the war and those who oppose it.

DER SPIEGEL: You speak of "war." The word is banned here in Russia – Putin just tightened the laws, and his operation in Ukraine must now be called a "special military operation." Are you afraid of the consequences?

Ovsyannikova: Of course I’m afraid, very afraid even. I’m a human being, after all. Anything could happen – a car accident, anything they want. I’m aware of that. But that is my position as a citizen: What we are dealing with here is war. Make no mistake, I have already passed the point of no return. I can now speak openly and publicly like this.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, there is a law on the books against supposed fake news that says: Anyone who published false information about the Russian armed forces and their actions faces heavy fines and, in the worst case, several years in prison. The Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency that reports directly to Putin, has already opened an investigation into you. Are you expecting severe punishment?

Ovsyannikova: No criminal proceedings have been initiated against me yet – they are reviewing whether there are grounds for them. Of course, I have heard that high-ranking representatives of the leadership have demanded that criminal proceedings be initiated against me. At the moment, I have been issued with a fine of 30,000 rubles (Eds: the equivalent of around 265 euros). If I didn’t have children to take care of, I would certainly have received 15 days of detention, and I would be sitting in a cell like many others. I don’t know how this will develop.

DER SPIEGEL: You’ve worked for Channel One for years. Why did you only take action now?

Ovsyannikova: I am not very political, I've never gone to protests. Call it a cognitive dissonance that I have long repressed. You know, my dissatisfaction has been building up over all these years. The screws were gradually tightened further and further here: First, we could no longer freely elect the governors (Eds: the leaders of the various regions of Russia, similar to governors in Germany or the United States) as used to be the case. Then came all the events in Ukraine in 2014, the instability, the proclamation of the "Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics" and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. At the same time, the authorities began gradually shutting down or blocking the independent media. The beginning of the war against Ukraine was the point of no return for me. No one – neither me, nor my friends or family – expected it. We thought Russia, the United States and NATO were rattling sabers. That the diplomats would talk, defuse everything and the situation would calm down. When I woke up the morning of Feb. 24 and heard that Putin had started a war against Ukraine, one that was not just limited to the "People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk," but one in which the Russian army is advancing towards Kyiv, it was really a shock. It was terrible. Every normal thinking person in Russia was aware that they could not go on living the way they used to.

"I wanted to show that Russians are also against this war, which many people in the West don’t realize. The majority of smart and educated people here oppose the war."

DER SPIEGEL: You were born in Odessa. Do you still have relatives in Ukraine? Was that a reason for your protest?

Ovsyannikova: This is a war against a brother nation! No sane person can accept that. My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian. It is true that I was born in Odessa back in Soviet times. When I was one, we left for Russia and I have lived here ever since. My father died in Odessa, his grave is there. I still have relatives, an aunt, cousins, but I have little contact with them. For me, the protest was first and foremost a pacifist action – it is in the interest of Russia and the world to end this as soon as possible. I wanted to show that Russians are also against this war, which many people in the West don’t realize. The majority of smart and educated people here oppose the war.

DER SPIEGEL: There are people who believe that your protest was planned, that it was staged by others.

Ovsyannikova: (laughs out loud) I’ve read that, but here I am, a real person. There is no fake, this was not a montage. I was in the studio at Channel One, the station has confirmed the incident, and there are colleagues who can do the same. The protest was my idea alone. I can see now that all possible versions are being spread, that all the forces of propaganda are being directed against me in order to slander me.

DER SPIEGEL: Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has accused you of …

Ovsyannikova: ... yes, I know what he said (Eds: Peskov called the protest "hooliganism"). I’m enemy No. 1 here now.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you expect these consequences?

Ovsyannikova: I was so charged, angry, and I wanted to express that with my protest. At that moment, I didn’t think of such far-reaching consequences. I am now becoming aware of them. More and more each day.

"The beginning of the war against Ukraine was the point of no return for me. No one – neither me, nor my friends or family – expected it."

DER SPIEGEL: When did you make the decision? It looked like your protest had been long planned.

Ovsyannikova: We work at the station on an alternating weekly basis, one week of work, one week off. I was off until Sunday. That day, I bought paper and pens, prepared the poster in my kitchen and recorded the video, which I posted on Facebook after the action. I didn’t tell anyone in my family nor any of my friends or colleagues about my plan. Nobody knew about it – otherwise it probably would have gone wrong. A few knew that I was against the war, but nothing more.

DER SPIEGEL: What happened at the station on Monday.

Ovsyannikova: I started my workday as usual, watching in the studio where exactly the cameras were standing, how they were moving, where I could stand. I was very afraid that, in the end, it would all be for nothing if no one got to see me. Then I quickly ran into the studio, past the policeman who is always on duty with us and keeps watch. By then, he could no longer do anything – I had unrolled the poster in my hands and stood behind the presenter. After that, I quickly went back to my desk and waited. Then my bosses came to me, all asking: "Was it you?" No one really wanted to believe it. After that, long conversations began and police officers came. It took hours.

DER SPIEGEL: What were those conversations like?

Ovsyannikova: Friendly, the deputy news chief wanted me to quit. I didn’t do that, I was just too emotional. I will write an email today submitting my resignation. The police officers took my mobile phone and spoke to me very politely about the political situation in Russia. I was also interviewed by the deputy head of the Department for Countering Extremism. He was constantly fielding calls by some boss or the other.

For a long time, the officials didn’t want to believe that I decided on my own to protest. They kept asking me how I was connected to the West and who had influenced me. But I was only expressing my view as a citizen.

I must have asked for a lawyer 20 times. They always said, "You can call one in a minute,” but I wasn’t allowed to. I also wasn’t allowed to contact my family for more than 18 hours. They took me to a court, and I didn’t have a lawyer there, either, until one of the lawyers who had been looking for me all night and all day finally found me.

"Of course there are guidelines from the Kremlin about what you can and cannot say."

DER SPIEGEL: What did your job entail as an editor at Channel One?

Ovsyannikova: I worked in the field of foreign news and was in contact with the international agencies like Reuters and Eurovision. I followed the Western news, did reporting, recorded interviews with politicians and experts from abroad and produced contributions for our broadcasts.

DER SPIEGEL: That means you constantly saw a different reality – one that you yourself were not showing on Channel One.

Ovsyannikova: Yes, I did. I understand that every country fights for its interests – we are in an information war. But in our country, state propaganda had already taken on terrible forms even before the war in Ukraine. Now that the war has started, it is impossible to bear the propaganda. When I started in journalism 25 years ago, I wanted to fight for justice, for good and not to be involved in such deception of the people.

In general, I think the truth is usually somewhere in between – you have to look at all the sources, Russian, Ukrainian and international. In my work, I have seen the whole picture – the Ukrainian refugees who are now in Poland and elsewhere. I have seen the Ukrainians who have lost everything because of the war, their destroyed homes, all the injured and the dead. The footage from the international agencies was constantly streaming on our screens. But we didn’t show those images on Channel One. Not even of our own dead.

DER SPIEGEL: You worked for state propaganda for a long time. How were you able to bear it?

Ovsyannikova: The work became a heavy burden. Most people who work for state television understand very well what is going on. They know all too well that they are doing something wrong. It’s not that they are staunch propagandists – often they are anything but. They are constantly wrestling inside between work and their own moral compass. They know that Channel One lies, that many of the state channels lie. For the most part, there is simply no objective reporting. But colleagues have to feed their families and they know that they won’t find another job in the current political climate.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you issued instructions on how you were supposed to conduct your work and what could or could not be broadcast?

Ovsyannikova: Of course there are guidelines from the Kremlin about what you can and cannot say. Of course everything is clearly regulated. The instructions are passed on from broadcast management to the normal employees. What we can call by its name, with what formulations, which experts we were allowed to invite and which ones we were not. It was mostly only representatives of the pro-Russian side in Ukraine.

"They are our future. For our country, this means that it will sink into darkness."

DER SPIEGEL: There are reporters from independent media outlets who have tried to practice quality journalism here for many years despite all the political pressure and repression. Many of them have had to flee abroad.

Ovsyannikova: I regret that deeply. Many intelligent and competent people have been driven out. They are our future. For our country, this means that it will sink into darkness.

DER SPIEGEL: You’ve had a good life so far. You’ve traveled a lot, also to Western Europe, as one can see on your Facebook page.

Ovsyannikova: Yes, my life was good, I could not complain, it was the life of the Moscow middle class.

DER SPIEGEL: That is likely over now. What are your plans?

Ovsyannikova: My life will be totally different. I don’t know what is going to happen. Who knows in war time? No one can plan anymore, anyway. The war has destroyed all plans and it is causing so much suffering, especially in Ukraine. I am happy to be reading now that, one by one, other colleagues at state broadcasters are quitting.