6 April 2022
For six seconds, Marina Ovsyannikova held up a poster on “Vremya”, the main news program on Russian state television, and became an icon for freedom of speech and the press overnight. Those six seconds on live television would change her life forever. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke with the 43-year-old editor about what motivated her to take such a courageous move with concrete repercussions, the minutes that followed, and how her family reacted.
Ms. Ovsyannikova, in a matter of minutes, you became a global icon for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, a champion of democracy. What do democracy and democratic values mean to you personally?
For me, democracy means being able to live as a free person. However, my home country, Russia, has recently turned into a totalitarian state that is increasingly closing itself off from the outside world. Communication has been affected as well. Virtually all independent media outlets are blocked or classified as “foreign agents” and most social media platforms are no longer accessible. State-directed information propaganda is now almost the only news sources for the Russian people, leading to an information vacuum – which we have to overcome.
I have always enjoyed traveling and talking to many different people. Therefore, democratic values are not empty phrases for me. On the contrary, these values mean that people in Russia can exchange their views with the whole world and express their point of view instead of living as obedient slaves in a totalitarian country!
Let’s talk about the sign you held up on March 14th during a live broadcast on Russian state television. How exactly did it come about? What happened immediately afterwards? How did your colleagues react?
My desire to protest had been growing for many years. I disagreed with the policy of the channel “Perwy kanal,” as well as with some other developments that occurred and still occur in our country. The wish to speak out was simmering inside me, but for personal reasons I could not quit immediately. However, that changed abruptly with the start of the war. It was clear to me that I could not work for “Perwy kanal” one day longer. In the heat of the moment, I considered going to “Maneshnaya Square” to protest, but at the last moment, my son stopped me.
I had the idea for holding up a poster the following weekend. I went to the stationery store around the corner, bought a highlighter and some paper. At home, I drew the poster. And by Monday, I knew: it was now or never. My original plan was to place myself more in the background of the TV studio. However, at the last moment I felt a strong “emotional impulse.” I decided to run into the studio, cross a security barrier and stand directly behind the presenter.
Everything happened in a flash. The security guard – a nice girl – had no time to get her bearings, let alone understand what had just happened. Nothing had anything like this happened in the 50-year history of “Vremya”.
After a few seconds, I left the studio, looking calm on the outside, and walked down the central corridor. The entire management team of “Perwy kanal” was already coming towards me. I had to make a written statement in the office of the deputy director. Then the police, who had been called in, escorted me to my office. The atmosphere was unreal. All the employees present just stood there looking at me, completely dazed. They didn’t understand what had happened. They didn’t understand how something like this could happen at all.
On the German talk show “Markus Lanz,” you said you wanted to wake up Russians who had been turned into “zombies” by Russian propaganda. Do you think you succeeded in doing that?
Judging by the fact that most people around me think the same way I do, it’s hard to judge how successful the campaign was in the end. My friends, neighbors and acquaintances support me as much as they can. Many people have written me or commented on my statement in social media. But when I ask people why they don’t take to the streets, why they don’t take action themselves, the answer is usually: “We’re afraid. It’s better not to get involved in politics!”
Since March 4th, Russia has issued prison sentences of up to 15 years for unpopular reporting. What does this mean for journalism? Is it enough to wake people up if they don’t dare to demonstrate?
No, of course, that’s not enough! People form their opinions, but state propaganda in Russia is very advanced. Just today I read in a recent poll that 81 percent of people in Russia support Putin’s “actions.” I don’t know if this poll result is true and if this data can be trusted. My perception is that more than half of Russians do not support this war.
On Saturday, protests again took place in Moscow and many other cities in Russia. Several dozen people were arrested, but the masses are keeping quiet. People are really afraid.
Nevertheless, there are some – albeit few – people in Russia who are willing to put everything on the line: their lives, as well as the lives of their families, all in the name of active protest!
You said you are surprised that you have not yet been convicted for the poster you held. Do you think Vladimir Putin is using your media publicity to portray himself as a champion of the rule of law?
After my protest moment, the leaders of “Perwy kanal” kept silent for a week. They did not know how to react. They screened me on the basis of all available sources. And not only me, but my relatives as well. Only a week later my direct superior Kirill Kleimyonov went public with a report claiming that I was a British spy, which is totally absurd! Since then, I have had the feeling that I am being watched at every turn.
Many people ask me the one question, “Why aren’t you in prison?” I think that to some extent Russian propaganda is fine with me communicating with Western media. It may be that my notoriety – at least at the moment – serves the Kremlin’s interests. I cannot say what the leading FSB forces of our country think. But there are active calls to put me behind bars. A new administrative procedure was initiated, but two days later it was withdrawn. Now my lawyers are waiting to see what charges will be brought. We are waiting to see what will happen next.
Relations between Russia and the West have reached a low point since the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the latest: Do you think a “normalization” of relations under Vladimir Putin is realistic?
Absolutely not. Under Vladimir Putin, normal relations are impossible. Russia has been engaged in aggressive propaganda against the West and all Western values for the last ten years. During that entire time, people in this country have been led to believe that the West is trying to destroy Russia, that America and Britain are our enemies, and so is the Western media. This propaganda is repeated in the “insane” shows on TV: there are shows where Ukrainians are consistently labeled as nationalists and fascists.
If they continually repeat that “black” is actually “white,” people will eventually believe it. We have been very aggressive on television all these years; in fact, there was state information propaganda in all the media, directed specifically against the West. A whole generation has grown up with Putin’s propaganda. It is simply terrible. I think that nothing will change under Vladimir Putin. It will only be possible if a new generation of leaders is elected, a generation that does not think within the patterns of the Cold War. Only then will we be able to “patch up” our battered relations with the West.
Ms. Ovsyannikova, our seventh question is always a personal one: How did your family and close friends react to your protest action on Russian television? Were there people who advised against it?
The situation is very difficult. My son, my mother and I have completely opposite political views. My mother belongs to the older generation. She listens to state propaganda from morning to night, listens to Vladimir Soloviev. Therefore, it is impossible to talk to her or to convince her of anything else. I have often tried to establish a kind of dialogue with her: “Mom, I’m working. I know how to do it, listen to me…” But she doesn’t understand anything, she answers using recited phrases from TV or radio. Such as that the West is our enemy, that everyone wants to destroy our country.
This is why I can’t talk to my mother for more than five minutes. We have completely contradictory sets of values. When we start talking about political issues, we always end up arguing. So, I don’t even try to talk to her about it.
Even my son does not support me. He says I ruined the family’s life because I got a divorce. In addition, his father – that is, my ex-husband – works for another government propaganda channel, “RT.” So we are on two opposite sides of the information war. He fully supports the Kremlin propaganda. I, on the other hand, have more liberal views. Accordingly, my ex-husband teaches our children his values, while I try to give them a different perspective.
Fortunately, my daughter is still small. She does not understand the political connections. But she senses what is happening right now in and with our family.
Thank you very much for the interview, Ms. Ovsyannikova!
About the Faces of Democracy initiative:
To date over 1.000.000 people in 50 countries have signed the online commitments of the Faces of Democracy and the Faces of Peace. More than 100 prominent figures from the world of politics, media, business and society are now committed to our democratic achievements – including numerous heads of state and government, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, the publishers and chief editors of leading media publications and the CEOs of international companies.
The Faces of Democracy and Peace in alphabetical order:
- Jean Asselborn, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
- Inge Auerbacher, Survivor of the Holocaust
- Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
- Annalena Baerbock, German Minister of Foreign Affairs
- Bishop Dr. Georg Bätzing, Chairman of the German Bishops‘ Conference
- Dr. Katarina Barley, Vice-President of the European Parliament
- Gabriela Cuevas Barron, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
- Hubert Barth, Country Managing Partner EY Germany
- Dominik Bartsch, Representative of UNHCR in Germany
- Holger Beeck, Chief Executive Officer McDonald’s Germany
- Jörg Biallas, Editor-in-chief of „Das Parlament“
- Gérard Biard, Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo
- Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
- Wolfgang Bosbach, CDU expert on internal security
- Prof. Dr. Peter Brandt, German historian and the first son of former chancellor Willy Brandt
- Michael Bröcker, Editor-in-Chief of „Media Pioneer“
- Rolf Buch, Chief Executive Officer of Vonovia SE
- Tom Buhrow, Chairman of the ARD network
- Giovanni Buttarelli, Former European Data Protection Supervisor
- Stephan-Andreas Casdorff, Publisher of the leading Berlin newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”
- Piotr Cywinski, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
- Shirin David, YouTube star and “Germany’s Got Talent” jury member
- Detlef Dzembritzki, Chairman of the United Nations Association of Germany (UNA)
- Moritz Döbler, Editor-in-Chief of „Rheinische Post“
- Prof. Dr. Douglas Elmendorf, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School
- Saskia Esken, Leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD)
- Georg Fahrenschon, President of the German Savings Banks Association (DSGV)
- Peter Frank, Federal Public Prosecutor General at the Federal Court of Justice
- Leonard Freier, Former RTL Bachelor
- Fabrice Fries, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AFP
- Dr. Clemens Fuest, President of the ifo Institute
- Yvonne Gebauer, Minister of School and Education in North Rhine Westphalia
- Sigmar Gabriel, Chairman of the Atlantic Brücke e.V.
- Yvonne Gebauer, Minister of School and Education in North Rhine Westphalia
- Thomas Geisel, Former Mayor of Düsseldorf – the state capital of North Rhine-Westphalia
- Tom Gerhard, Actor and comedian
- Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of the Republic of Croatia
- Alice Greenwald, President and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum
- Thomas Greminger, OSCE Secretary General
- Maria Großbauer, Organizer of the Vienna Opera Ball
- Christiane Grün, Managing Director 3M DACH countries
- Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Hahn, Henkel-Endowed Chair of Sustainability Management
- Dr. John Hamre, President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies
- John Harris, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of POLITICO
- Dr. Reiner Haseloff, Prime Minister of Saxony-Anhalt
- Prof. Dr. Klaus Hasselmann, Climate researcher and Nobel Prize laureate in physics 2021
- Prof. Dr. Gerald Haug, President of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
- Dr. Christoph Heusgen, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC)
- LTG Ben Hodges, Retired Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe
- Reiner Hoffmann, President of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB)
- Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland
- Dr. Gunnar Jeremias, Head of the Interdisciplinary Research Group for the Analysis of Biological Risks
- Hans-Ulrich Jörges, Editor-in-chief of „Stern“
- Jean-Claude Juncker, Former President of the European Commission
- Bruno Kahl, President of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND)
- Kersti Kaljulaid, President of the Republic of Estonia
- Anja Karliczek, German Federal Minister of Education and Research
- Daniela Katzenberger, Soap opera star
- Fritz Keller, President of the German Football Association (DFB)
- Steve Killelea, Creator of the Global Peace Index
- Julia Klöckner, Federal Minster of Food and Agriculture
- Laura Codruța Kövesi, European Chief Prosecutor
- Dr. Hubertus Kolster, Managing Partner of CMS Germany
- Ingo Kramer, President of the Confederation of German Employers‘ Associations (BDA)
- Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU)
- Prof. Dr. Heyo Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of the Charité
- Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, Survivor of the Kosovo War and Activist
- Miroslav Lajčák, OSCE CiO 2019 and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic
- Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert, Chairman of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and Former President of the German Bundestag
- Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum Davos
- Armin Laschet, Former Prime Minister of North-Rhine-Westphalia
- Prof. Dr. Karl Lauterbach, German parliamentarian and health expert
- Dr. Jürgen Linden, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Charlemagne Prize
- Christian Lindner, Federal Minister of Finance
- Dr. Christian Lutz, Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Bahn AG
- Heiko Maas, Former Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs
- Dr. David Magerman, Managing Partner at Differential Ventures
- Sandra Maischberger, Television journalist and talk show host
- Aiman Mazyek, Secretary-General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany
- Prof. Dr. Rudolf Mellinghoff, President of the Federal Supreme Finance Court
- Prof. Dr. Lamia Messari-Becker, Professor of building technology and building physics
- Ralf Martin Meyer, Police President of Hamburg
- Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney
- Benigna Munsi, Nuremberg Christkind 2019/2020
- Namika, Singer-Songwriter
- Dr. Irfan Ortac, Secretary-General of the Central Council of Yazidis in Germany
- Dr. Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, Acting President of the Republic of Kosovo
- Marina Ovsyannikova, Journalist and peace activist
- Boris Palmer, Lord Mayor of Tübingen
- Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Papier, Former President of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany
- Prof. Dr. Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
- Ulf Poschardt, Editor-in-Chief WELT
- Dr. Heribert Prantl, Member of the Chief Editorial Team of „Süddeutsche Zeitung“
- Ernst Primosch, CEO of Edelman Germany
- Q2/Grade 12 – Albert Einstein High School Kaarst
- Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, Co-President of the Club of Rome
- Gitanjali Rao, TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year
- Carla Reemtsma, Co-Organizer of Fridays for Future in Germany
- Alfred Theodor Ritter, Owner and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Alfred Ritter GmbH & Co. KG
- Dr. Daniel Röder, Founder of Pulse of Europe initiative
- Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF)
- Prof. Dr. Conrad Schetter, Director for Research at Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)
- Thomas Schnalke, CEO Düsseldorf Airport (DUS)
- Olaf Schubert, Comedian and cabaret artist
- Martin Schulz, German Social Democratic Party chancellor candidate 2017
- Dr. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
- Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Chair of Chatham House Council
- Dan Smith, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
- Erna Solberg, Former Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway
- Prof. Dr. Anja Steinbeck, President of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf
- Gabor Steingart, Founder and Publisher of the Media Pioneer Publishing GmbH
- Dr. Johannes Teyssen, Chairman of the Board of Management of E.ON SE
- Pia Tillmann, Actor and Influencer
- Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Leader of the democratic Belarus
- Dr. Ulrike von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
- Dr. Andreas Voßkuhle, Former President of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany
- Professor Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative
- Dagmar Wöhrl, Investor at „The Cave of the Lions“
- Joshua Wong, the Face of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement
- Brigitte Zypries, Former Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy