Famed Antiwar Protester Was Once Cog in Russia’s Propaganda Machine

Her feet stuck in muddy soil on a pitch black October night, Marina Ovsyannikova stopped in despair. For four hours, she and her 11-year-old daughter had been trudging through plowed fields leading to Russia’s border, trying to escape the country.

With no phone signal, they had been navigating by the stars, diving to the ground when the headlights of border guards’ cars approached. They were lost.

“It was real hell,” Ms. Ovsyannikova said, recalling how she sat down in the mud and moaned, “Take me back to Moscow. I’d rather go to jail.”

And prison was a very real possibility for her if she did return.

Her antiwar protest a few months earlier had rattled the Kremlin and earned headlines around the world. In March of 2022, just a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun, she stormed a live broadcast of Russia’s most-watched TV news program, holding up a sign reading: “They’re lying to you.”

She was able to access the program’s live studio because Ms. Ovsyannikova herself had long been a cog in Russia’s propaganda machine. For two decades, she had worked as a journalist at Channel 1, a state-run television station whose flagship news program parrots the Kremlin’s views.

“I was well aware that we were creating a parallel reality,” Ms. Ovsyannikova, 44, said of her time spent working for state media. “The war simply became a point of no return. It was no longer possible to keep quiet.”

Rubble in Kyiv after a Russian strike last March. Ms. Ovsyannikova said seeing clips from Western media showing such attacks was a tipping point in her decision to protest the war.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Immediately after her extraordinary protest, Ms. Ovsyannikova was detained, interrogated, fined and then later, after another protest, placed under house arrest.

Convinced both that she was innocent of any crime and that she had no future in Russia, she engineered her escape: She cut off her electronic monitor, swapped cars six times on her way to the border, then went the final distance by foot, finally sneaking under a barbed-wire border fence, before ultimately making her way to France, where she now lives in exile.

The roots of Ms. Ovsyannikova’s protest can be found in her childhood, which gave her both affection for Ukraine and firsthand experience of the horrors of war.

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She was born in Odesa, Ukraine, to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father who died when she was a baby. She grew up in Chechnya, where her mother, a chemical engineer, worked at an oil refinery. But she had to flee that home when Russian soldiers crushed the breakaway region in the mid-1990s, during a violent conflict that imbued her, she said, with a hatred of war.

As refugees, Ms. Ovsyannikova and her mother relocated to the outskirts of Krasnodar, in southern Russia. After studying journalism in college and working as a regional TV anchor, Ms. Ovsyannikova joined Channel 1 in Moscow in 2002. Her job: monitoring Western broadcasts to cherry-pick news that showed the West in a bad light to air on the network’s shows.

“In the minds of Russians, there had to be an image that all Americans were L.G.B.T supporters who killed Black people and abused adopted children from Russia,” she writes in “Between Good and Evil,” an autobiography to be released in the United States this month.

Ms. Ovsyannikova, right, at the Paris offices of Reporters Without Borders, which helped her escape from Russia. Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Still, despite her insider’s knowledge of — and degree of complicity in — the network’s propaganda role, Ms. Ovsyannikova stayed at Channel 1, a choice, she said in a video posted after her protest, of which she was now “deeply ashamed.”

To justify her decision, she said there was nowhere else for a journalist to go in a country with little to no independent press. Besides, her well-paid job allowed her to raise her two children in a gated neighborhood outside Moscow.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the state propaganda apparatus went into full swing, dismissing civilian casualties and portraying the attack as a fight against neo-Nazis.

But on her screens, Ms. Ovsyannikova saw clips from Western media showing villages flattened by Russian strikes and streams of desperate Ukrainian refugees, reminding her of her childhood in Chechnya.

This was the tipping point that compelled her to surrender her privileges for what she knew would be the persecuted life of a Russian protester.

“Staying and working for a criminal regime amounted to signing a pact with the devil. Your hands would be covered with Ukrainian blood,” Ms. Ovsyannikova said.

Alone at home on a Sunday, she drew her protest sign using her daughter’s pens. She hid it in the sleeve of her jacket as she went to work the next day.

Sitting in the newsroom, Ms. Ovsyannikova anxiously watched for opportunities to burst past the guards blocking the entrance to the set of “Vremya,” Russia’s most-watched news show.

“A guard was looking at her phone,” she said. “I realized that was my chance.”

Ms. Ovsyannikova rushed to the set, unfurled her sign behind the anchor and shouted, “Stop the war!” Within six seconds, the camera cut away.

Ms. Ovsyannikova holding her protest poster during a live broadcast of Russia’s most-watched news program. It reads: “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Ovsyannikova was quickly arrested and questioned for hours. She overheard her interrogators discussing what she should be charged with, worrying that images of her protest going viral had made her case one of global interest. President Emmanuel Macron of France had already publicly expressed concern about her fate.

Ms. Ovsyannikova, who resigned from her job, avoided criminal prosecution and was only fined 30,000 rubles, or about $400.

The next backlash she faced came from unlikely camps: Ukrainians and her own family.

A month after her protest, Ms. Ovsyannikova was hired by Die Welt, a German newspaper, to report on the war in Ukraine. But her past raised suspicions among Ukrainians, who questioned the authenticity of her antiwar conversion.

There was a protest outside the newspaper’s offices in Berlin, and Ukrainian activists posted on social media that there was “no such thing as ex-propagandists.” A reporting trip to Ukraine ended in failure as she could not secure accreditation.

“I was very naïve,” Ms. Ovsyannikova said. “I didn’t get that when Russian troops are shelling all of Ukraine, anyone with a Russian passport isn’t welcome.”

Back home, Ms. Ovsyannikova’s mother, “zombified by Kremlin propaganda,” wanted her in prison. Her son, 18, said she had “ruined our family life.” And her ex-husband, a top manager at the state-run channel Russia Today, was seeking custody of their two children.

Ms. Ovsyannikova returned to Moscow in July to deal with the custody case. But she couldn’t keep silent and protested again, outside the Kremlin, decrying the killing of children in Ukraine. This time, she was charged with the criminal offense of spreading false information about the country’s armed forces and placed under house arrest, awaiting a trial where she faced up to 10 years in prison.

“They were tightening the screws,” Ms. Ovsyannikova said. “My lawyer told me to flee.”

Ms. Ovsyannikova in court in Moscow in August after she was arrested at another protest and charged with a criminal offense that carried a prison sentence of up to 10 years.Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Her escape was coordinated by the French nongovernment organization Reporters Without Borders, with the assistance of a local network that helps dissidents leave the country. She fled with her daughter, Arisha, on a Friday night, when Russian security services are known to ease up.

Ms. Ovsyannikova got rid of her electronic tag with wire cutters and traveled within Russia for about two days, changing cars and guides in remote villages.

The last part of the journey was supposed to be a half-mile night walk to the border. But it took them hours to spot the flashlight of their next contact and reach safety.

“There were very stressful moments,” said Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Without Borders. He declined to reveal details of the operation, including where they crossed the border, for security reasons.

But he added that, in an era of information warfare, “weakening a propaganda system from within, including through defections, is useful.”

Ms. Ovsyannikova spent her first few months in France incognito, using a false identity for dentist visits and changing homes several times. She said she feared for her life, given Russia’s habit of poisoning opponents.

To dispel the fear, she has resorted to humor. “The Kremlin doesn’t have enough polonium for everyone,” she said.

Ms. Ovsyannikova in Paris this month. While she said she has feared for her safety, she added: “The Kremlin doesn’t have enough polonium for everyone.” Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
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