‘The cognitive dissonance became unbearable’ Meduza’s interview with former state TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova
On March 14, during a live broadcast on Russian state television network Channel One, a station employee named Marina Ovsyannikova ran out on stage behind the news anchor, unfurled an antiwar sign, and shouted antiwar slogans. After the broadcast, Ovsyannikova was immediately arrested; she was later convicted of participating in an unauthorized protest and fined 30 thousand rubles (about $250). The authorities are now conducting a preliminary inquiry into Ovsyannikova. Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter spoke with Ovsyannikova about her start at Channel One in the 2000s — and why this war was her breaking point.
— After reading our interview with [former Channel One art director] Dmitry Likin, you wrote me the following:
And you said I could use that as your comment. Have many of your former colleagues at Channel One reached out to you with words of support?
— Colleagues from Channel One? Only one. Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have been writing to me from all over the world, but only one person from Channel One has. I'm not allowed to enter the office anymore, and when I went to get my car from the studio’s parking lot [after the trial] — which my lawyer had to sign a whole stack of papers for — I found all of my tires flat. I think it was a tiny act of revenge from law enforcement.
— Earlier today, you turned on your computer and looked at social media for the first time since the protest. What did you find?
— When I decided to look at my Facebook account, I saw that both it and my Instagram had been hacked. I don’t have any other social media accounts — I know that people have started Telegram channels and posted on Twitter using my name, but that wasn’t me.
— Did you always want to work at Channel One?
— Are you kidding? It was my dream! There was no bigger goal in my life. It was 2003 — Channel One wasn’t like it is now. As [anchorwoman] Katya Andreyeva said, our correspondents were the very best, the most truthful, they worked in all corners of the world and delivered us the best and most-verified information. I worked on a crew with Zhanna Agalakova. She was my idol, and I was taken with her ability to put words together so elegantly, her piercing sentences. She was my teacher.
And in general, after working at the regional TV network GTRK Kuban — more of a small-town station — I was very happy to end up in a community of superprofessionals.
— Is it true that you went to school with (RT Editor-in-Chief) Margarita Simonyan?
— She was a year below me, so we never met personally, but Krasnodar is a small town. I was the anchor at GTRK Kuban, a prominent figure, and I knew Simonyan from my reporting. When she became a correspondent at VGTRK and started trying to take stories away from our crew, they pumped the brakes on her, and she raised a scandal — [VGTRK general director Oleg] Dobrodeyev called [GTRK Kuban director Vladimir] Runov, I want to say, from Moscow and demanded he stop interfering with Simonyan and her professional activities. Basically, she knew how to get what she wanted.
— Did her reports contain any hint of the propaganda that RT and Channel One are now full of?
— No, of course not. That was a different kind of television, a different kind of messaging. I remember watching Simonyan’s heroic reporting from Beslan after I moved to Moscow. I was so impressed by her — she was doing such good work, she was truly a brave and heroic journalist. But over time, there was a transformation, and she turned from a bright, provincial girl into this propaganda monster.
— Why didn’t you turn into that kind of monster, too?
— Probably because my moral compass was different. Later, after the publicity I had in Krasnodar (Simonyan and I later switched places; in Krasnodar, I was a star, everyone knew me, and she was just starting out), I wasn’t so concerned with building a career in Moscow. I worked quietly at Channel One, got married, and had my first child. I devoted my time to my family and my kids; I didn’t go on business trips, I didn’t go much of anywhere — I had previously traveled to Chechnya and Abkhazia. But having a kid changed my priorities: I took care of my family, and my husband worked on his career [Note: Ovsyannikova’s husband, Igor Ovsyannikov, is currently the director of RT’s Spanish edition].
— I’ve been told that your husband, who used to work at Channel One himself, got you the job there.
— No, that’s absolutely not true. We first met when I started working on Zhanna Agalakova’s crew. I was an editor and my husband was a director’s assistant. And the network itself first called me on board when the war in Iraq began and they urgently needed people to monitor CNN and Al Jazeera — contract work, purely technical. After that, I interned for a long time before joining Agalakova’s team and meeting my husband there.
— And what was your husband like then?
— A wonderful person from a very respectable Moscow family. His mom worked on TV as a managing editor — she was there, hiding under a table, when they stormed the Ostankino television station [in 1993]. They’re just generally a wonderful family — but then my husband and I went separate ways, we outgrew our relationship.
— You said in an interview with Novaya Gazeta that another reason you worked at Channel One was that it allowed you to maintain a good work-life balance. How did that fit with your moral beliefs?
— For the last few years, I’ve experienced genuine cognitive dissonance, because my convictions were at odds with my work. But my schedule was comfortable, I had a lot of time to devote to my family, I could focus on exercise and travel…
— And that made it easier to keep your beliefs, let’s say, suppressed?
— Suppressed, yes. On the other hand, it somehow matured, boiled over, reached a bifurcation point the moment the war with Ukraine started. It was unbearable: the shock, the horror, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I was just frozen. I hadn’t believed this could happen. Of course, Reuters had been sending photographs, it was plain to see that we were amassing troops at the border. But like everyone else, I thought this was just more saber rattling to improve Russia’s negotiating position, another round of bargaining between Russia and NATO.
Even when they recognized the DNR (“Donetsk People’s Republic”) and LDR (“Luhansk People’s Republic”) and sent in tanks, I thought they would stay inside those regions’ borders. But when they continued to Kyiv and started bombing Kharkiv, my old model of reality just broke down.
— You’ve said several times that you don’t want to leave Russia. Where will you look for another job? Say you go to an interview and they tell you plainly, ‘Oh, that’s that girl with the sign, we can’t hire her.’ How will you live?
— I’m going to be fine. I have two great dogs, Russian champions. I’m going to breed puppies and sell them abroad. I’m going to sell my car, replace it with a compact, cut my spending everywhere else, and I’ll be fine. In any case, I’ll have it better than all of the refugees from Ukraine, who lost everything.
— In the interview with Novaya Gazeta, you said you were scared to go into the studio with the sign, and that after the protest, you were interrogated for almost 24 hours. Do you ever regret what you did?
— No, not for one minute. I’m happy I was able to do it as effectively as possible and reach as many people as I did. We’re despised all over the world. I spoke to my colleague, a British journalist, and he told me there are Ukrainian flags hanging on every balcony in London; they hate Russians now. They don’t understand that this is Putin’s war, not the Russian people’s war. I tried to show that a lot of Russians are against the war. That’s why my sign had both Russian and English — it was for both Russians and international viewers.
— You were fined for your Facebook post, and they’re currently conducting a preliminary inquiry of you. Imagine a situation where they tell you they’ll stop the inquiry if you publicly, on camera, repent for your protest. And if you don’t do it, they’ll take your children away, for example.
— Why would they do that? Am I a bad mother?
— I’m sure you’re a wonderful mother.
— They won’t take my children. And if worst comes to worst, they have their father. And I just hope it doesn’t come to that.