Marina Ovsyannikova, a Russian state television Channel One employee, was detained on Monday after interrupting a live news broadcast on Monday with an anti-war message. She appeared in court later, where she was fined 30,000 roubles (£215) for breaking protest laws and could still face other charges. But in a way she has already won a great battle against propaganda in Russia.
With her action, a long silence has been broken. I have heard that at least two important correspondents, one from Channel One and one from NTV – Zhanna Agalakova and Vadim Glusker – have handed in their notice. A source I know at VGTRK, the state media holding company, has said that many others at the main news programme were considering resigning, and the mood among remaining employees was nasty. They said: “If we didn’t have our mortgages, we would quit too.”
Another friend who worked at one of the state TV channels told me that “a red line has been crossed”. The story is enormous on social media. This is a new feeling for people who work in these strict, pro-government places. I believe it was a revolutionary development for TV in Russia – akin to the first live images of war from the Persian gulf in 1991. Ovsyannikova’s performance will probably go down in the history books, like Pussy Riot’s radical action in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012.
The programme she protested on, Vremya, is a legacy of the former USSR. It is perhaps the most prestigious news show on Russian TV. For millions, it is part of a daily habit for years, even decades, to watch the big evening news at 9pm.
Fitting for its Soviet beginnings, it has been an ideological weapon for decades, shoring up the government with strict pro-regime coverage. It is not subtle. The hosts look like robots, or Soviet or North Korean broadcasters. Just watch when Ovsyannikova makes her shocking move. The host Ekaterina Andreeva doesn’t even bat an eyelid. It doesn’t compute. I’m not sure she even sees herself as a propagandist, just a person with a social mission. This didn’t fit into it, and she – along with all the others – had no response.
There has been a lot of talk that that this could have been a staged performance. Managed dissent, or somehow allowed. In my opinion this is a ridiculous assumption, itself rooted in Kremlin propaganda – in this case the idea that anything out of the ordinary that happens they must control. It will only benefit them for us to think this is a setup and that they control everything. It is important for them that we not believe that one woman can go against a huge machine, that she can break away from the system and defy it. But she did.
Just three seconds on air can inspire people and give them strength. The consequences will be very unpleasant for the Kremlin people who control the media in Russia. Many of them are saying nothing happened, as if Ovsyannikova never existed. In his new novel, Doctor Garin, the great Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin portrays Putin as a character who constantly says “it’s not me”, denying everything. That lie is the central pillar of the regime. Nothing bad is their fault. And nothing like this – contradicting them – is supposed to happen. Especially on these channels they’re supposed to control.
But of course they lie about everything. About the war, about the civilian casualties that resulted from the bombings in Ukraine, about their own losses. Many Russians believed in these lies, and because they believed in them it made them true as far as the government was concerned. State TV was a huge part of that. But the situation has started changing, the system cracked and crashed for a moment, and we say it could be disenchanted and even destroyed. Thanks to Marina Ovsyannikova.