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‘Everyone knows they’re lying’  How Marina Ovsyannikova rebelled against Russian state television 

Source: Meduza

During a live broadcast on Monday evening, March 14, on Channel One Russian state television, a station employee named Marina Ovsyannikova ran out on stage behind the news anchor, unfurled an antiwar sign, and shouted antiwar slogans. Ovsyannikova managed just a few seconds on the air before the transmission cut away to another segment. She was later arrested, held overnight, convicted the following evening of the misdemeanor offense of inciting unpermitted protests in a prerecorded statement that circulated on social media, fined 30,000 rubles (roughly $250), and released. Federal investigators are still reviewing her televised protest and might press separate, possibly felony charges. Meduza spoke to Ovsyannikova’s colleagues and pieced together her story. Though she alone has even dared such a disruption of Russian broadcast television, Ovsyannikova’s personal opposition to the war against Ukraine is not uncommon among those who work for Russian state TV, Meduza learned. 

College days 

According to a source at the news agency TASS, Marina Ovsyannikova was born in 1978 in Odesa. Before she married, her surname was Tkachuk. As she mentioned in her prerecorded statement, her father is an ethnic Ukrainian, and her mother is an ethnic Russian. Ovsyannikova is an accomplished swimmer, having swam across both the Volga River and the Bosporus Strait.   

In 1997, Ovsyannikova became a student in Kuban State University’s journalism department. Before long, she was involved with a local public television news station. She’d later describe this period of her life as an exhausting but exciting moment: “Back then, we were still very young, ambitious students ready to work in regional television, day and night, whether it was the weekend or a holiday, just living and breathing the work.”  

Fellow alum Takhir Kholikbergdiev told Meduza that Ovsyannikova took at least one class with future Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who denies that they were classmates but simultaneously acknowledges that she and Ovsyannikova once competed for airtime on television. “She was nearly the all-powerful favorite of the almost all-powerful Kuban All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company station director, [Vladimir] Runov. And it was because of her that he fiercely resisted my appointment as a correspondent on regional state television because he was holding the position for her,” Simonyan wrote on social media. Another source in the Kuban local media confirmed to Meduza that Ovsyannikova was Runov’s protégé.  

Vladimir Runov, who managed Kuban TV from 1993 to 2002, told Meduza that Simonyan is mistaken, and he denies interfering in her professional rise. “I never worked with her. Moreover, she had other champions along with her. She was a prominent figure even back then.”  

Runov calls Ovsyannikova a “sensible young woman” who was “hard to stop” and always wanted to stand out, but he nevertheless disapproves of her recent protest on television. “I see no heroism or courage in what she did,” he told Meduza. “If you ask me, it was more stupid than anything. You should be doing journalism, writing and filming, not going out just asking for it.”  

From 2001 to 2005, Ovsyannikova continued her education in journalism at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, thanks in part to a recommendation letter from Runov.  

They never saw it coming 

A source with ties to Channel One told Meduza that Ovsyannikova’s husband Igor helped get her a job at the station as an editor in the early 2000s, leveraging the fact that his mother already worked there. (The couple has two children together.) “I don’t know what prompted her to do that,” the source said when asked about Ovsyannikova’s protest on live television.  

After Ovsyannikova ran onto the stage and interrupted the news broadcast, no one prevented her from leaving the recording studio, a source told Meduza, but the guards sprang to action when she tried to exit the building. Spokespeople for Channel One did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the justification for detaining Ovsyannikova as she tried to leave the building. It’s unknown how long she was held in custody like this. She did not reemerge publicly until the following evening in court. 

Journalist Igor Riskin, who used to work with Ovsyannikova, told Meduza that he received a message from her just after 11 p.m., Moscow time, on Monday. He’d written to her earlier that evening, offering his help, the moment he saw her on television. Ovsyannikova told him that she was being held at the Ostankino Tower, but she didn’t write to him again after that. 

Riskin worked at Channel One from 2002 to 2009, including a year-long stint in 2006 as a Washington correspondent. Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 — particularly the way his colleagues at Channel One covered it — deeply disillusioned Riskin. “And I was responsible for it, too, even though I wasn’t participating directly,” he told Meduza. Unlike Marina Ovsyannikova, he didn’t stage any protests when he resigned in 2009. “I just left,” he says. 

On social media, Internet users have circulated conspiracy theories claiming that Channel One itself staged Ovsyannikova’s protest. Riskin told Meduza that the people who believe this and who argue that security guards never would have allowed such an unplanned incident “have never been to the Ostankino Television Center studio.” “It’s a former concert studio,” he said, explaining that the video editors work in the same space as the recording room itself. There aren’t security guards beyond the entrance to the building, Riskin told Meduza. “The editors work in shifts for weeks, and the guards learn people’s faces. Everybody knows each other, and bringing in a poster folded up four times and then unfolding it and standing behind the news anchor isn’t rocket science. I assume there was nobody even in the studio to detain her. The control room above the studio probably signaled the security guards and had Marina detained at the exit,” said Riskin. 

Another source told Meduza that Channel One does have a security guard in the studio now. In fact, the guard is stationed near the news anchor’s desk, but he failed to react quickly enough to stop Ovsyannikova’s protest on Monday. Nothing like it had ever happened before, and the guard simply wasn’t ready for it, the source told Meduza. 

Asked about Marina Ovsyannikova’s temperament, Igor Riskin described her as “calm by television standards.” “She didn’t get emotional,” he told Meduza.  

Zhanna Agalakova, a former Channel One special correspondent based in Paris (whose resignation from the network became public news on Tuesday), says Marina Ovsyannikova was a “sensible and pleasant” colleague, but the two interacted only rarely as Agalakova was a foreign correspondent and Ovsyannikova was a news editor who worked primarily with regional correspondents.  

Agalakova says she doesn’t know what the current mood is at Channel One. She told Meduza that she handed in her notice on March 3 and her last day on the job is this Friday. “My freedom comes on Friday,” she said. “I can’t wait.” Asked why she decided to resign, Agalakova told Meduza, “I think the answer is obvious.” 

Down in the dumps 

From 2006 until 2021, Elena Afanasyeva managed Channel One’s Creative Planning Department. She told Meduza that loyalty to the Kremlin’s official narrative varies among the people who work at the station. Many employees are genuine believers, while others merely can’t find jobs anywhere else thanks to Russia’s shrinking media industry. Numerous people at Channel One oppose the war in Ukraine, Afanasyeva told Meduza, “but they can’t leave or are afraid to leave because they’ve got kids or parents to look after, they’ve got mortgages, their savings are decimated, or they fear unemployment and being blacklisted.”  

From the very beginning of the war, “all the staff at Channel One have been on edge,” says a source with close ties to the television network. “Everyone, without exception, knows that they’re lying. Right there in the studio, they’ve got monitors showing reports from Reuters and AP, while they’re getting guidelines and scripted stories from higher up that are utterly divorced from reality,” the source told Meduza, saying that employees at all levels have started panicking and asking themselves why they’re broadcasting lies. Senior management says life will return to normal once Zelensky is out of the picture, but the Ukrainian president’s staying power has frayed the nerves of anyone with “brains and access to real information.” “Ovsyannikova has brains, and she has information access, since she worked in one of the important bureaus, the ‘Cities Service,’ where they collect stories from around the world and work with different correspondents,” explained the source, adding that he expects her to face a show trial eventually. The authorities will make an example of her, he said.  

A source with ties to one of Russia’s other major state media outlets, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), told Meduza that several journalists there, too, are unhappy on the job. “They’re forced to talk about the ‘peacekeeping special operation’ while many also have close relatives of draft age whom they’re trying to get out of the country by any means necessary,” the source told Meduza, arguing that the duplicity required to report the government’s falsehoods inflicts “huge psychological trauma” on the journalists themselves. 

Following Ovsyannikova’s protest on Monday evening, Channel One launched an “internal review,” referring to her in official statements as “the outsider in shot” without mentioning her name or position at the network. Channel One’s press secretary, Larisa Krymova, did not respond to Meduza’s questions. 

Two sources at Channel One told Meduza that nothing has changed at the studio since Ovsyannikova interrupted Monday evening’s news broadcast. “People are working, and they have been no new instructions from above. They’re working, you know, like factory workers — quietly and without questions,” said one of the sources. “The thunder hasn’t hit yet and maybe it never will,” said Meduza’s other source.  

In late February, shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, late-night talk-show host Ivan Urgant and his show’s head writer Alexander Gudkov shared anti-war messages on social media. Channel One immediately removed the program from the air, stating publicly that Urgant’s show was on hiatus in light of “important socio-political events.” Urgant declined to speak to Meduza for this story. 

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Story by Sasha Sivtsova, Svetlana Reiter, and Semyon Bashkirov 

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock