- In mid-March, Marina Owsjannikova became known around the world with her poster campaign on Russian state television.
- In an interview, she tells what happened afterwards and why she doesn’t get any support from her family.
With her poster campaign in the main news program “Vremja” on Russian state television on March 14, Marina Ovsyannikova became a globally celebrated icon for freedom of the press and freedom of expression overnight. It was six seconds that would forever change the life of the 43-year-old TV editor.
Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke to Owsjannikova about the reasons for her disruptive action, the minutes that followed and how her family reacted.
Ms. Ovsjannikova, overnight you became a global icon for freedom of the press and freedom of expression – a mainstay of democracy: What do democracy and democratic values mean to you personally?
Marina Ovsyannikova: For me, democracy means being able to live as a free person. Recently, however, my home country of Russia has turned into a totalitarian state – a state – that is increasingly cut off from the outside world. This also applies to communication. Virtually all independent media outlets have been blocked or classified as “foreign agents” – most social media outlets are down. The people in Russia thus have almost exclusively access to state-controlled information propaganda.
The result: an information vacuum that we – however – have to overcome. I have always enjoyed traveling and speaking to many different people. Therefore, democratic values are not just empty phrases for me. Quite the contrary: They express that the people of Russia can exchange ideas with the whole world and express their point of view instead of living as obedient slaves in a totalitarian country!
Marina Ovsyannikova: “The protest has matured in me for many years”
Let’s talk about your poster campaign in the live broadcast of March 14 on Russian state television. How exactly did this happen? What happened in the minutes immediately afterwards? How did your colleagues react?
The protest has matured in me for many years. I didn’t agree with the policy of the “Perwy kanal” channel, as well as with some other things that happened and still happen in our country. I was seething, but for personal reasons I couldn’t resign immediately. However, that changed abruptly with the beginning of the war. It was clear to me that I couldn’t work a day longer for “Perwy kanal”. As a spontaneous reaction, I wanted to go to “Manezhnaya Square” to protest there, but my son stopped me at the last moment.
I had the idea for the poster campaign the following weekend. I went to the stationery store around the corner and bought a highlighter and some paper. I drew the poster at home. And already on Monday I knew: If so, then it has to happen today. My original plan was to position myself more to the back of the television studio. But at the last moment I felt a strong “emotional impulse”. I decided to run into the studio, go through a security barrier and stand directly behind the presenter.
Everything went lightning fast. The security guard – a nice girl – didn’t have time to get her bearings, let alone understand what just happened. Nothing like this has ever happened in the 50-year history of Vremya.
After a few seconds I calmly left the studio, walked down the central corridor and the entire management team of “Perwy kanal” was already coming towards me. I had to make a written statement at the deputy director’s office. Then the police who had been called escorted me to my office. There was an unreal atmosphere. All the colleagues present just stood there and looked at me with completely surprised eyes. You didn’t understand what happened. They didn’t understand how something like this could even happen.
“My friends, neighbors and acquaintances support me as much as possible”
On the German talk show Markus Lanz, you said you wanted to shake up the people of Russia who were being turned into “zombies” by Russian propaganda. Do you think you succeeded?
Measured against the fact that most of the people around me think the same way as I do, it is difficult to judge how successful the campaign was in the end. My friends, neighbors and acquaintances support me as best they can. Many people write to me or comment on my action on social media. But when I ask people why they don’t take to the streets, why they don’t take action, the answer is usually: “We’re afraid. It’s better not to get involved in politics!”
Since March 4, prison sentences of up to 15 years have been threatened for unwelcome reporting. What does this mean for journalism? Is shaking people up enough if they don’t dare to demonstrate?
No, of course that’s not enough! People make up their own minds, but state propaganda in Russia is very well developed. 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 survey result is true and if this data can be trusted. It is my perception that more than half of Russians do not support this war. Protests took place again in Moscow and many other cities in Russia on Saturday. Several dozen people were arrested. But the masses remain silent. People are really scared. Yet there are some – albeit few – people in Russia who are willing to risk everything: their lives and the lives of their families – all for active protest.
“I feel like I’m being watched every step of the way”
You said you are surprised that you have not yet been convicted for the poster campaign. Do you think Vladimir Putin uses your media publicity to present himself as an advocate of the rule of law?
After the poster campaign, those responsible for “Perwy kanal” remained silent for a week. They didn’t know how to react. They checked me out from all available sources. And not just me – my relatives too. It wasn’t until a week later that my line manager, Kirill Kleimyonov, went public with a report claiming I was a British spy. Completely absurd! Since then, I have had the feeling that my every step is being watched.
Many people ask me one question: “Why aren’t you in jail?” I think that to a certain extent, Russian propaganda is fine with me communicating with Western media. My notoriety is probably – at least for the moment – an advantage for the Kremlin. I cannot say what our country’s leading FSB forces think. But there are active calls to put me behind bars. A new administrative procedure was initiated – but withdrawn two days later. Now my lawyers are waiting to see what charges will be brought. We wait to see what happens next.
Relations between Russia and the West have hit rock bottom since the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the latest. Do you think a “normalization” of relations under Vladimir Putin is realistic?
No! Under Vladimir Putin, these relations are impossible to normalize. Russia has engaged in aggressive propaganda against the West and all Western values for the past decade. For ten years people in this country have been told that the West is trying to destroy Russia. That America and Britain are our enemies, as is the western media. This propaganda is repeated in the “insane” shows on TV – there are shows in which Ukrainians are consistently labeled nationalists and fascists.
If they repeat ten times that “black” is actually “white,” then eventually people will believe it. We were very aggressive on television over the years, and there was state informational propaganda in all the media, which was specifically aimed at the West. A whole generation grew up with Putin’s propaganda. Just awful! I don’t think anything will change under Vladimir Putin. That will only be possible if a new generation of politicians is elected – a generation that does not think in terms of the Cold War. Only then can we “repair” our battered relations with the West.
“My mother listens to government propaganda from morning to night”
Ms. Ovsyannikova, our seventh question is always a personal one: How did your family and those around you 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 Solovyov. So it’s impossible to talk to her or convince her otherwise. I often tried to establish some kind of dialogue with her: “Mom, I’m working. I know how to do it, listen to me …” No, she doesn’t understand anything, she answers with phrases learned by heart from TV or radio. That the West is our enemy, that everyone wants to destroy our country.
That’s why I can’t talk to my mother for more than five minutes. We have completely opposite values. When we start talking about political issues, it always ends up in an argument. So I don’t even try to talk to her about it.
My son doesn’t support me either. He says I ruined the family’s life. Also because I got divorced. In addition, his father – that is, my ex-husband – works for another government propaganda channel – for “RT”. So we are on two opposite sides of the information war. He fully supports Kremlin propaganda. I, on the other hand, have more liberal views. As a result, my ex-husband teaches our children his values, while I try to teach them a different perspective.
Luckily my daughter is still small. She doesn’t understand the political context. But she senses what is happening in and with our family.
Thank you for the interview, Ms. Ovsjannikova!
Because of her protest against the Ukraine war on Russian television, she was celebrated as a heroine. Now the journalist Marina Ovsyannikova fears for her life. One thing is clear, says the mother of two: “My life has changed forever.” (Teaser picture: Social Media/dpa)