‘The putsch made us famous’ The life and death of Siberia’s top independent television channel
In the 1990s, TV2 in Tomsk emerged as one of the most remarkable independent media outlets in Russia. Under editor-in-chief Viktor Muchnik, the television station weathered the early years of Vladimir Putin’s reign, only to lose its broadcasting license in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Nevertheless, TV2 journalists continued reporting until about a week into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Like dozens of other outlets, TV2 was forced to shut down amid the Kremlin’s wartime crackdown on Russia’s remaining free press. But its editor-in-chief remained determined to record the fallout from the war. To find out more about the rise and fall of TV2, and what its former journalists are up to now, Meduza sat down with Viktor Muchnik.
Viktor Muchnik was teaching history at Tomsk State University in 1990, when a journalist approached him with an usual idea. The reporter, Arkady Mayofis, worked for a state television station in Tomsk and was fairly well-known in the Siberian city. But having grown tired of the confines of state television, he was thinking about quitting his job and striking out on his own. “He came up with the idea of a non-state television channel: TV2. This idea seemed absolutely crazy to me,” Muchnik told Meduza. “It was 1990 — everything was state-owned!”
Mayofis wanted Muchnik to host a television program about historical figures.“Talk about some people, only not about the good ones. Talking about the bad ones is more interesting,” Muchnik remembers him saying. Thus, TV2’s first program — “Great Scoundrels of History” — was born.
According to Muchnik, TV2 initially gained popularity in Tomsk as a channel where you could watch American movies for free. (“It was 1991, there was no concept of copyright [in the USSR]. You bought the cassette at a kiosk and put it on the air,” he explained. “It didn’t even occur to us that we were doing something illegal. After all, I bought the cassette!”). But it was their coverage of the 1991 August Putsch that put TV2 on the map.
“TV2 was the only Tomsk-based media that talked about what was happening in Moscow. We were broadcasting for all three days,” Muchnik recalled. The channel had a film crew in the capital that sent their tapes back to Siberia via friendly Aeroflot pilots. Back in Tomsk, TV2 reporters collected commentary by phone and recorded local segments about the coup attempt.
“The Communist Party gave us the best publicity — anyone who hadn’t heard about TV2 learned about our existence. It was a fun time,” Muchnik remembered fondly. “The putsch made us the most famous media in the city.”
‘Then Putin came along’
In 1994, Arkady Mayofis talked Viktor Muchnik into becoming TV2’s editor-in-chief. By the early 2000s, it had grown from a one-camera operation into the Tomsk Media Group, which launched two more television channels and four radio stations — “then Putin came along and started tightening the screws.”
“The first bellwether was the breakup of NTV,” Muchnik told Meduza. “At the time I even argued with many of my colleagues and acquaintances in Tomsk. They told me these were ‘Moscow showdowns’ and I replied: ‘It will reach us and affect everyone, you’ll see. Today NTV and [its founder Vladimir] Gusinsky, tomorrow TV2 and Mayofis.”
Muchnik and his colleagues at TV2 realized early on that the country was “moving towards authoritarianism.” “Psychologically, we were prepared for this and we understood that our editorial policy would have a price. Many of us, including the owners and management, were prepared to pay it,” he said.
For a while, the regional angle of TV2’s reporting allowed them to keep broadcasting. But the channel was always under pressure. “The first time they tried to shut down TV2 was in 2007,” Muchnik recalled. “Roskomnadzor issued us two warnings for license violations. Everyone thought the channel was dead, but no — we survived.”
TV2 didn’t change its editorial policy after the closure scare. Instead, the newsroom began planning for the worst. “After 2007, we started to discuss more often what we would do when we were shut down,” Muchnik told Meduza.
‘Incompatible with reality’
The station hung on until 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and sparked a war in the Donbas. At this point, TV2 became, as Muchnik put it, “incompatible with reality.” In addition to coming under increased pressure from the authorities due to their coverage, the channel also lost a chunk of its audience. “Our information policy at the time infuriated a lot of people,” the editor-in-chief explained.
“Rumors were going around that we were working under the protection of the CIA, on instructions from the [U.S.] State Department, and so on. It was clear who was behind it and that this was preparation for an attack [by the authorities],” Muchnik continued. “We were grandiosely taken off the air on New Year’s Eve.”
After TV2 was banned from satellite and cable broadcasting, Muchnik set about rebuilding. “I felt like I was in 1990 again, just a little older,” he recalled of making the switch from TV to digital news. “It was all wildly interesting.”
Unlike television, whose viewers were ageing, the news site attracted a younger audience — not just from Tomsk, but from all over Siberia. At the same time, Muchnik knew that both he and his colleagues were still at risk:
“I had no illusions about my future. At a certain point, I began to understand that they could take down not only the media [outlet], but also me. If it’s me, okay, I understand that any person in Russia must be prepared to sit [in prison] for a while, but what if they take down one of my colleagues?”
‘Leaving Russia wasn’t hard’
TV2 managed to cover Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine for a little over a week. The newsroom’s live coverage immediately earned it a warning from Roskomnadzor. The censorship agency issued a second notice on March 4 and blocked TV2’s website that same day.
“After the adoption of the law on ‘fake news’ [about the Russian military] everything was clear,” Muchnik told Meduza. “I gathered people in the newsroom and said: ‘Under these conditions, the state isn’t allowing us to work the way we want. And we won’t work the way the state wants’.”
The editor-in-chief and his team said goodbye to their audience with a farewell post on social media and a video of the newsroom’s last day. Seeing TV2 shut down for the second time made Muchnik “very angry.” And on top of fearing for his colleagues, he was disgusted at those who threw their support behind the war.
Muchnik and his wife (who also worked at TV2) decided it was time to leave Russia. “I lived in Tomsk all my life. Leaving Russia wasn’t hard for me, but leaving Tomsk was hard,” he told Meduza.
Several of their colleagues left the country, too. But the journalists didn’t regroup right away. “The fact that TV2 was a local media created additional difficulties — we were cut off from our usual audience,” Muchnik said.
Eventually, the former TV2 journalists came up with a new idea: an oral history-inspired project called “Eyewitnesses” (Ochevidtsy in Russian). “A large-scale historical event that will change many people’s lives forever is happening right now. And I have witnesses to what is happening — ordinary people I can come to with a camera and talk [with],” Muchnik explained. “I thought that some historian in the future would thank me for this.”
Today, journalists working on the Eyewitnesses project collect stories in Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia. The interviews they film are uploaded to TV2’s YouTube channel, and they have a dedicated Telegram channel where they publish the letters they receive from people who want to share their stories.
Muchnik underscored that Eyewitnesses is not a rebrand of TV2. And the channel’s former editor-in-chief has no plans to return to Tomsk any time soon. “As long as Putin is alive, I can’t imagine myself returning to Russia. It’s not just about the personal risks: on a human level, it’s just unbearable for me to exist in the same space with the people who started and support the war,” Muchnik said. “The authorities consider me an enemy and, in general, they’re right to do so. I am their enemy.”
Summary by Eilish Hart