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‘I want to serve my country.’ Known for her colorful anti-Kremlin activism, Maria Baronova explains why she just took a job with ‘Russia Today’

Source: Meduza
Tairo Lutter / Postimees / Scanpix / LETA

Maria Baronova, known for her past activism as an anti-Kremlin oppositionist, has accepted a new job at RT, the state media outlet formerly known as Russia Today. Baronova, who previously served as an aide to State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev and supervised former-oil-tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s human rights movement “Open Russia,” is now a managing editor at RT’s Russian-language edition, where she will head up a new charity project, the name of which borrows from a famous Soviet rock song that translates roughly to “We’ll Take It From Here.” RT says the initiative will exist on social media and messenger platforms. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke to Baronova to learn more about her plans at RT, and to find out how one of the most visible activists of Moscow’s 2011–2012 street protests came to work at a state propaganda outlet. Zhegulev also asked if Baronova has changed her views on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Putin.

The project has an interesting name! I remember one of the rallies at Bolotnaya Square ending with this song by Viktor Tsoi: “We’ll Take It From Here.

I wasn’t the one who came up with it. There was a team of guys before me who created the project with this name.

So you’ve joined a project that already existed?

It’s just a team of journalists. There are periodically stories in which people immerse themselves, because they want to help people, not just report a story. Then they decided to start helping, not by collecting [money] at RT’s expense, but by transferring money to their bank accounts, when journalists were already looking into people and their stories. And then they called and asked me to suggest some ideas.

I’m a human rights activist. I help people. This team is doing just that. They turned to me, we discussed it, and I decided to join them. Now I’ll conduct an audit [of the project], and see what’s going on, and where we’re at. Then I’ll offer my own ideas, and we’ll develop the project together. It’s not like I’ve come to take over the project. I’ve joined a project that already existed, coming with my own ideas and useful thoughts.

Managing editor. It’s journalism work. But clearly I’m a manager — I’ve been a manager my whole life. I’m a project manager.

What kind of projects?

Within the framework of RT’s Russian-language Internet broadcasting, I’ll be working on charity and human-rights projects — generally speaking, the human-rights and charity story of the Russian Federation. The true human rights story. Filing criminal charges against people doesn’t stop [the abuses] if the cases are illegal.

Did it contradict your personal views when you went over to this television station that independent journalists generally despise? What’s your view of RT?

I’ve spent my whole life doing one thing: helping the people around me, and working on projects to make the world around us just a little bit better. I haven’t done and I’m not now doing anything new that goes against my life principles. As for “Russian propaganda,” I won’t comment, and I’m not authorized to comment, so what’s the point in expecting something from me?

But you used to be a stalwart, maybe you could even say aggressive, oppositionist. What changed?

I’m someone who believes there are many injustices in Russia and that Russia should become a better state. And there’s a lot of work to be done, to achieve this. That’s the work I’m doing. Am I one of Alexey Navalny’s personal friends? No, I am not. Based on all the lies he’s spread about me, I’m his enemy. And if he’s the only leader our opposition has to offer, without any alternatives, then count me out. I’ve never stood with these people, given everything they’ve said about me.

And what about Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Obviously, I’m not going to say anything bad about Khodorkovsky, and I will never do anything bad to him.

Doesn’t it go against your moral principles that RT will air segments that clearly say negative things about Khodorkovsky?

What goes against my moral principles is when a lot of people insist long and hard that they’re good but at the same time they do evil things. This really gets under my skin. As for people who everyone says are horrible monsters, but in fact are doing good — I take a positive view. There’s a lot that’s been said about me that isn’t true.

How did they end up coming to you and asking you to join the team? You yourself have said you were blacklisted and couldn’t find work anywhere.

It’s not that I’ve been blacklisted, per se. I’ve become pretty toxic for any corporation — especially Western businesses. It’s worse for Western companies because of my ties to the opposition and Khodorkovsky. It's a big part of what makes me an outcast. Generally speaking, in any country, anyone with a long track record becomes unemployable. It’s universal. As for the fact that [RT] took me, well, I’m right for the job.

It seems to me that many people in Russia deprive themselves of the right to positive self-realization. Many think it’s bad if they do a good deed without acting like it’s “none of their concern.” It’s been my good fortune that all my life I’ve had the right to positive self-realization. I’ll remember and bear in mind that RT gave me the right to positive self-realization, when I form my opinion about this television network.

Have they made you swear thrice never to attend a protest and shout that Putin is evil, and so on?

Yeah and they forced me to boil a beaver head and eat it. Before I signed the contract, it was required.

But if we’re being serious, then no, there was nothing like that. Obviously, my accounts on social networks are my own little media outlet. When I was with Khodorkovsky, I demonstrated maximum independence. My social network accounts are my own. And my opinions are my own. There are reasonable people working at RT, and they don’t expect anything to change in this regard. But I will stop swearing and offending people.

And what about Putin? Can you offend him?

I’ll refrain from answering that question.

Do you believe that Russia is a police state with political prisoners and Putin is to blame?

I think I’ve already said enough on this issue. I can’t say anything new, because I’ve already said everything. I’d like to hear some new theses from myself.

Such as?

Let’s work together to make our country better. And then it will be free, inviting, pleasant, and democratic.

Did you inform Khodorkovsky about your move to RT?

I tried to find the time to write to several people who are important to me, before this leaked to the news, so they didn’t learn about it from Facebook. Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of these people. Mr. Khodorkovsky and I have had plenty of opportunities for a falling out. Let our relationship remain between the two of us.

At RT, who's your direct supervisor?

Can I answer that later? I’ve only just arrived. It’s my first day on the job.

Were you interviewed by RT’s chief editor, Margarita Simonyan?

There was no interview with Simonyan.

Do you consider RT to be propaganda? Do you support the TV network’s mission?

I support what they’re doing specifically in the field in which I’m employed there. As for the rest, I’m a patriot of Russia, I love my homeland, and I think everyone knew about my active pro-Russian position. You’ve studied it all over the years. This position has irritated a great many people. Many people’s active anti-Russian position has been a big problem for me, but I want to change Russia for the better. To do this, I have to love my country sincerely and the people who live here.

I want to serve my country for the good of my country. This has always been the main motivation for my work. I’ve always articulated this very clearly. I sincerely love Russia. What’s most interesting is that I love putting together smart projects, where everything works. At the same time, I’ve also been honest and vocal about everything I don’t like in Russia.

Interview by Ilya Zhegulev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock