Russia-Ukraine war: Will the Marina Ovsyannikova protest make a difference?

Introducing Grid Health, our new weekly health and policy newsletter

‘Five seconds of truth’: What one woman’s heroism says about dissent in Putin’s Russia

When the history of the war in Ukraine is written, its heroes may include the country’s president, his top aides and countless Ukrainians who have shown bravery and resilience under fire.

After what happened in a Moscow television studio on March 14, it’s worth adding a woman named Marina Ovsyannikova to that list.

She’s the editor who carried a “No War” sign across the set of the flagship Vremya broadcast on Russia’s Channel One. Ovsyannikova was no random intruder. She was a Channel One editor who felt she had done and seen enough. Her interruption was remarkable as a breach of the rigidly controlled news media in Russia. The anchor was reading an item about Russian talks with Belarus when Ovsyannikova entered stage left, carrying a sign with the Ukrainian and Russian flags that said, in English, “No war” and “Russians against war.” In Russian, the message said: “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”

More daring and brazen was the video she left behind.

ADVERTISEMENT

In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, new laws make it a crime, punishable by 15 years in jail, to use the words “war” or “invasion” in connection with the war. Same for criticizing the war or the Russian military.

But Ovsyannikova went further. She left behind a recorded video message and arranged for it to be shared after her arrest. She wore a blue and yellow necklace — Ukraine’s national colors — as she read these words:

“What is currently happening in Ukraine is a crime. All responsibility for this aggression lies on the conscience of one person: Vladimir Putin. My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian. This necklace around my neck signifies that Russia should immediately stop this fratricidal war and our brotherly nations can make peace with each other. Unfortunately, for the last several years I worked at Channel One promoting Kremlin propaganda, and for that I am very ashamed right now. I am ashamed that I allowed lies to be told from TV screens, that I allowed Russian people to be zombified …

“We continue to quietly watch this inhumane regime. Now the whole world has turned away from us. Ten generations of our descendants won’t be able to wash away the shame of this fratricidal war.”

Vremya is among the Kremlin’s prime propaganda outlets, a nightly 9 p.m. staple since the Soviet era, still watched by millions of Russians. After Ovsyannikova’s march onto the set, the cameras cut away and anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, who has hosted Vremya for more than two decades, continued to read from her script.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ovsyannikova was detained at a police station at Moscow’s Ostankino broadcasting center for 14 hours and fined 30,000 rubles ($280). She was charged with “organizing an unauthorized public event” and may face further charge and punishment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called her action “hooliganism.”

The Kremlin has cracked down on social media as well, but the protest went viral in Russia. “Five seconds of truth can wash away the dirt of weeks of propaganda,” wrote human rights activist Lev Schlosberg on VKontakte, a platform that hasn’t yet been blocked. Within hours, Ovsyannikova’s Facebook page had more than 26,000 comments, with many thanking her for her bravery.

Dissent in Russia: where things stand

Chronicling dissent in Russia is a bit like monitoring the war itself. There are regular protests and arrests and occasional antiwar statements from expatriate Russians — but much as it’s difficult to gauge the impact of the Ukrainian resistance or the now well-documented missteps of the Russian military, it is also hard to know which elements of dissent will have any real impact. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to know at what point these may pierce the sanctum of the Kremlin.

Putin’s response to criticism of the war has been predictable and fierce; he has crushed it in every way he can. There is virtually no independent media left in Russia. The security services are enforcing the new laws. Some Russians who were willing to communicate with Grid in the war’s early days have now gone silent or suggested alternatives to calls and email.

But it is also clear that there are cracks in Putin’s wall.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the streets

For all the warnings and shows of security, thousands of protesters continue to take to the streets and squares of dozens of Russian cities to protest the war. Such gatherings do not last long; the police appear quickly, and the protesters disperse or are hauled away. OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors detentions and helps protesters in Russia, reported just short of 15,000 arrests of protesters since the war began. Even protesters carrying blank white placards have been rounded up by police.

These may seem like small numbers in a country of 144 million people. But when one considers that every person coming to a demonstration does so knowing that arrest and jail time are likely, then that’s an indicator not just of dissent, but a dissent that comes with passion.

“It definitely matters because it shows that the society is not fully consenting,” Vasily Gatov, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication who has studied Russian media for years, told Grid. “And in Russian society and history, when this sort of thing revives, it can erupt. It can become a volcano. It is not like this yet. But it shows that there are people who are ready to risk everything to express their discontent.”

Leaving

Some people are expressing themselves with their feet, doing whatever is necessary to leave the country. That’s dissent of a different kind; for some it may be more like desperation.

For at least one man, leaving was a political act. This week, Anatoly Chubais stepped down from his role as an international envoy for Putin and flew with his wife to Turkey. Chubais was not considered a Kremlin insider, but he is the most senior official to resign since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Chubais left without public comment, but in the early days of the war, he had posted a picture of Boris Nemtsov, a political opponent of Putin’s who was assassinated in 2015. The post was widely seen as a criticism of the decision to go to war.

The pro-Kremlin Tass news agency said he had left Russia and resigned as a special representative to Putin.

“Yes, Chubais has resigned of his own will,” Kremlin spokesman Peskov said. “But whether he has left [Russia] or stayed, that’s his personal affair.”

Chubais joins a growing exodus. The exact figures are unclear, but Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago, put the figure at 200,000 and said it’s probably higher than that. The government of Armenia reports 80,000 arrivals since the war began, Georgia another 25,000, and tens of thousands of Russians have fled to Turkey. Meanwhile, with more than two dozen countries banning flights from Russia, the twice-daily train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki has been a sellout since the war’s early days.

Polina Borodina, a Moscow playwright, is among those who packed up and left for Istanbul. “They didn’t just take away our future,” Borodina told the New York Times, speaking of the decision to attack Ukraine. “They took away our past.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Journalists are leaving as well, unwilling to continue their work under Putin’s new restrictions. A survey by the local news website Agentsvo showed that at least 150 journalists had fled the country in early March. Their survey covered only 17 newsrooms; the overall number is likely much higher.

Some Russians may be leaving because of the looming economic disaster, others because they oppose the war or crave democracy. Whatever the case, it’s another expression of disaffection, if not dissent. And while the exodus hardly compares to the flow of refugees from Ukraine, 200,000 people in three weeks is a large number. And bombs and missiles aren’t falling on Russia.

Staying connected — Telegram and VPNs

In Russia today, there is a profound version of the generational split between the digitally connected and those tethered to old forms of communication. Annenberg’s Gatov puts it simply: “There’s the TV generation and the iPhone generation.” Putin’s clampdown on dissent has only sharpened the divide.

Since the war began, the Russian government has blocked popular services including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, along with foreign news sites. Increasingly, Vremya and other Russian-controlled sources of information are dominating not just the air waves but social media as well.

But the younger generation is finding ways around the information firewall.

ADVERTISEMENT

Russians are turning to the messaging app Telegram for unfiltered coverage and updates of the war. The app’s channels include messages from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, information hubs for news about Russian and Ukrainian casualties, news about the refugee flow and much more.

Meanwhile, as Grid’s Benjamin Powers reports, Russians are flocking to virtual private networks (VPNs) in huge numbers to escape the Kremlin’s tightening digital vise. As of March 14, demand for VPN services had reached 2,088 percent of the average daily demand in the week before Russia invaded Ukraine, according to an analysis by privacy monitoring service Top10VPN.

Ariel Michaeli, founder and CEO of app analytics company AppFigures, said there had been 10 million downloads of 121 different VPN apps in Russia over the last 30 days.

“I do see VPNs as coming to the rescue in Russia right now for all the obvious reasons,” said Michaeli. “It was a sudden and very abrupt change in demand.”

Old-school communications are filling the void as well. Phone calls from family and friends in Ukraine, Poland and other countries receiving refugees are a source of credible information for Russians, and the BBC has taken a step into its past, announcing that it had restarted shortwave radio news broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia in the wake of the Russian invasion.

ADVERTISEMENT

The generational divide

Back to that TV versus iPhone generational split.

Grid and other news outlets have found examples of Russian families divided by generation when it comes to feelings about Putin, the war and in particular when it comes to preferred sources of information.

“They are receiving completely opposite pictures of the war,” Gatov said.

The older generation gets the Russian TV view — because that’s what they tend to consume. It goes like this:

Russian forces are engaging in a minor incursion into Ukraine — what Putin and his commanders call a “special military operation,” aimed at quelling a dangerous, thuggish, “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv. It’s not a war, but a necessary mission to help beleaguered Russians in Ukraine. Russian newsreaders have explained away Russian bombs as having been staged by the Ukrainians. The lengths to which Russian TV stage-manages the war are reminiscent of Josef Stalin’s rule, when out-of-favor figures were airbrushed from official photographs and events were ignored or amplified in the press to suit the Communist Party’s wishes.

ADVERTISEMENT

The other is the actual picture, the one the rest of the world is seeing. This is what Russia’s younger generation tends to see.

The Guardian is one of many media outlets to have spent time recently with Russian families in which parents in their 60s, 70s and 80s are clashing with their children over the dueling narratives.

“I noticed on the phone that mum was starting to parrot the government’s narrative about this war — that this was all the fault of NATO, that Russia had no choice but to defend itself,” Victoria Gogh, 28, a fashion consultant, told the paper. “It became my mission to change her mind, to show her what was really going on.”

When the Russian blogger Ilya Krasilshchik asked his 110,000 Instagram followers to send him their stories of family infighting, he said he was inundated with “hundreds of screenshots” from young Russians, showing heated and emotional exchanges with their parents.

“Clearly, this war has been a very traumatic experience for many families in this country,” he said.

Russian soldiers — and their families

There is one constituency in Russia that may defy both the generational divide and Putin’s efforts to whitewash the war: the families of Russians deployed to Ukraine.

The casualty counts for Russian soldiers vary wildly. While Russian and Ukrainian officials, respectively, have obvious reasons to minimize and maximize the figure, U.S. and British defense officials believe the correct number is between 5,000 and 6,000 dead.

Five thousand dead Russian soldiers would amount to one-third the toll of the Soviet war in Afghanistan; that was a 10-year war — this one is three weeks old. Five thousand would be double the toll of U.S. troops killed in the “forever war” in Afghanistan.

Five thousand dead soldiers may not produce a revolution, but that’s 5,000 communities across Russia that must know that something is not quite right in the Kremlin’s version of things.

Ukraine has created a telephone hotline and Telegram channel for Russian families to learn available details about relatives who are in the fight. TikTok videos of captured Russian soldiers have found their way onto Russian smartphones. And all those VPN users can see for themselves, every day, the stories about individual Russian soldiers and the difficulties their military is facing as a whole in Ukraine.

Again, these are all narrative busters; why, even the most pro-Putin Russian may ask, is this small military operation taking so long? Why is it taking so many of our soldiers’ lives? And why, for that matter, are the “genocidal” Ukrainians more helpful in finding our sons and brothers than our own people?

Zelenskyy is keenly aware of all this. He regularly sends videotaped messages aimed squarely at the families or the Russian soldiers themselves.

“I want to tell the Russian soldiers, those who have already entered our land and who are just about to be sent to fight against us,” he said this week. “You will not take anything from Ukraine. … You will take lives. There are a lot of you. But your life will also be taken. But why should you die? What for? I know that you want to survive.”

Will the dissent matter?

In some ways, it is no easier to answer this question today than it was in the early days of the war.

Putin has crushed dissent successfully in the past, and in three weeks of war his security forces have arrested those thousands of people, pushed the new media laws through and outlawed virtually any criticism of the war. While these may be extreme uses of his old tactics, one could say they are working.

It is also worth noting that Putin’s power and popularity are not just products of disinformation.

He came to power promising prosperity but also stability — the latter having been sorely lacking in the era of President Boris Yeltsin, when crime and economic insecurity were facts of life for millions of Russians. “Paryadok” was an often-heard word then — order. Perhaps even more often, one heard its opposite: “bezparyadok” — disorder. Putin, like Stalin and the czars before him, brought his people paryadok. They felt safe. The price of oil and other Russian natural resources helped jump start the economy. As Gatov says, authoritarianism is easier when the economy is good.

And yet.

That economic prosperity is at risk of cratering. A country in which a middle class has grown steadily over the last 20 years will now find the trappings of middle-class life increasingly difficult to afford.

Noah Buckley, an assistant professor in political science at Trinity College Dublin, has spent years researching Russian attitudes toward Putin. Buckley wrote a column a few weeks ago in which he argued that some Russians had at least begun to understand what is happening in Ukraine: “This could be bad news for Putin, whose support within Russia relies on political apathy.”

Buckley has examined hundreds of thousands of Russian public opinion survey responses from 2003 to 2019. “I have found that merely being exposed to public protest depresses approval of Putin and his regime,” he wrote. “Members of the general public learn about regime misdeeds from these protests, and discover that there are more dissenters in their society than they may have previously assumed.”

Putin can count on a reservoir of support from the millions of Russians — a majority — who have backed him for two decades. Putin’s popularity averaged 79 percent in his first 20 years in office. But Buckley does not rule out the power of Russian discontent: “We should not count the Russian people out.”

A similar message comes via Ovsyannikova, the Channel One editor whose very public protest of the war has now been seen all over the world. Russian journalists have been murdered for less-public acts of defiance, but she told Reuters on March 16 she didn’t consider herself a hero. She hopes, she said, that “this sacrifice was not in vain, and that people will open their eyes.”

“Come out to protest,” she urged the Russian people in her recorded video. “Do not fear anything. They cannot jail us all.”

This story originally ran on March 17. It has since been updated.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

TOPICS

Ukraine