For six seconds, Marina Ovsyannikova held up a poster on “Vremya”, the main news program on Russian state television, and became an icon for freedom of speech and the press overnight. Those six seconds on live television would change her life forever. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke with the 43-year-old editor about what motivated her to take such a courageous move with concrete repercussions, the minutes that followed, and how her family reacted.
Ms. Ovsyannikova, in a matter of minutes, you became a global icon for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, a champion of democracy. What do democracy and democratic values mean to you personally?
For me, democracy means being able to live as a free person. However, my home country, Russia, has recently turned into a totalitarian state that is increasingly closing itself off from the outside world. Communication has been affected as well. Virtually all independent media outlets are blocked or classified as “foreign agents” and most social media platforms are no longer accessible. State-directed information propaganda is now almost the only news sources for the Russian people, leading to an information vacuum - which we have to overcome.
I have always enjoyed traveling and talking to many different people. Therefore, democratic values are not empty phrases for me. On the contrary, these values mean that people in Russia can exchange their views with the whole world and express their point of view instead of living as obedient slaves in a totalitarian country!
Let’s talk about the sign you held up on March 14th during a live broadcast on Russian state television. How exactly did it come about? What happened immediately afterwards? How did your colleagues react?
My desire to protest had been growing for many years. I disagreed with the policy of the channel “Perwy kanal,” as well as with some other developments that occurred and still occur in our country. The wish to speak out was simmering inside me, but for personal reasons I could not quit immediately. However, that changed abruptly with the start of the war. It was clear to me that I could not work for “Perwy kanal” one day longer. In the heat of the moment, I considered going to “Maneshnaya Square” to protest, but at the last moment, my son stopped me.
I had the idea for holding up a poster the following weekend. I went to the stationery store around the corner, bought a highlighter and some paper. At home, I drew the poster. And by Monday, I knew: it was now or never. My original plan was to place myself more in the background of the TV studio. However, at the last moment I felt a strong “emotional impulse.” I decided to run into the studio, cross a security barrier and stand directly behind the presenter.
Everything happened in a flash. The security guard - a nice girl - had no time to get her bearings, let alone understand what had just happened. Nothing had anything like this happened in the 50-year history of “Vremya”.
After a few seconds, I left the studio, looking calm on the outside, and walked down the central corridor. The entire management team of “Perwy kanal” was already coming towards me. I had to make a written statement in the office of the deputy director. Then the police, who had been called in, escorted me to my office. The atmosphere was unreal. All the employees present just stood there looking at me, completely dazed. They didn’t understand what had happened. They didn’t understand how something like this could happen at all.
On the German talk show “Markus Lanz,” you said you wanted to wake up Russians who had been turned into “zombies” by Russian propaganda. Do you think you succeeded in doing that?
Judging by the fact that most people around me think the same way I do, it’s hard to judge how successful the campaign was in the end. My friends, neighbors and acquaintances support me as much as they can. Many people have written me or commented on my statement in social media. But when I ask people why they don’t take to the streets, why they don’t take action themselves, the answer is usually: “We’re afraid. It’s better not to get involved in politics!”
Since March 4th, Russia has issued prison sentences of up to 15 years for unpopular reporting. What does this mean for journalism? Is it enough to wake people up if they don’t dare to demonstrate?
No, of course, that’s not enough! People form their opinions, but state propaganda in Russia is very advanced. Just today I read in a recent poll that 81 percent of people in Russia support Putin’s “actions.” I don’t know if this poll result is true and if this data can be trusted. My perception is that more than half of Russians do not support this war.
On Saturday, protests again took place in Moscow and many other cities in Russia. Several dozen people were arrested, but the masses are keeping quiet. People are really afraid.
Nevertheless, there are some - albeit few - people in Russia who are willing to put everything on the line: their lives, as well as the lives of their families, all in the name of active protest!
You said you are surprised that you have not yet been convicted for the poster you held. Do you think Vladimir Putin is using your media publicity to portray himself as a champion of the rule of law?
After my protest moment, the leaders of “Perwy kanal” kept silent for a week. They did not know how to react. They screened me on the basis of all available sources. And not only me, but my relatives as well. Only a week later my direct superior Kirill Kleimyonov went public with a report claiming that I was a British spy, which is totally absurd! Since then, I have had the feeling that I am being watched at every turn.
Many people ask me the one question, “Why aren’t you in prison?” I think that to some extent Russian propaganda is fine with me communicating with Western media. It may be that my notoriety - at least at the moment - serves the Kremlin’s interests. I cannot say what the leading FSB forces of our country think. But there are active calls to put me behind bars. A new administrative procedure was initiated, but two days later it was withdrawn. Now my lawyers are waiting to see what charges will be brought. We are waiting to see what will happen next.
Relations between Russia and the West have reached a low point since the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the latest: Do you think a “normalization” of relations under Vladimir Putin is realistic?
Absolutely not. Under Vladimir Putin, normal relations are impossible. Russia has been engaged in aggressive propaganda against the West and all Western values for the last ten years. During that entire time, people in this country have been led to believe that the West is trying to destroy Russia, that America and Britain are our enemies, and so is the Western media. This propaganda is repeated in the “insane” shows on TV: there are shows where Ukrainians are consistently labeled as nationalists and fascists.
If they continually repeat that “black” is actually “white,” people will eventually believe it. We have been very aggressive on television all these years; in fact, there was state information propaganda in all the media, directed specifically against the West. A whole generation has grown up with Putin’s propaganda. It is simply terrible. I think that nothing will change under Vladimir Putin. It will only be possible if a new generation of leaders is elected, a generation that does not think within the patterns of the Cold War. Only then will we be able to “patch up” our battered relations with the West.
Ms. Ovsyannikova, our seventh question is always a personal one: How did your family and close friends react to your protest action on Russian television? Were there people who advised against it?
The situation is very difficult. My son, my mother and I have completely opposite political views. My mother belongs to the older generation. She listens to state propaganda from morning to night, listens to Vladimir Soloviev. Therefore, it is impossible to talk to her or to convince her of anything else. I have often tried to establish a kind of dialogue with her: “Mom, I’m working. I know how to do it, listen to me...” But she doesn’t understand anything, she answers using recited phrases from TV or radio. Such as that the West is our enemy, that everyone wants to destroy our country.
This is why I can’t talk to my mother for more than five minutes. We have completely contradictory sets of values. When we start talking about political issues, we always end up arguing. So, I don’t even try to talk to her about it.
Even my son does not support me. He says I ruined the family’s life - also because I got a divorce. In addition, his father - that is, my ex-husband - works for another government propaganda channel, “RT.” So we are on two opposite sides of the information war. He fully supports the Kremlin propaganda. I, on the other hand, have more liberal views. Accordingly, my ex-husband teaches our children his values, while I try to give them a different perspective.
Fortunately, my daughter is still small. She does not understand the political connections. But she senses what is happening right now in and with our family.
This interview was created by the Faces of Democracy Initiative and we thank them for allowing us to publish it