When Marina Ovsyannikova burst onto the set of a flagship news show with a daring anti-war message two months ago, she didn’t realise that it would make her the most hated woman in Russia.
Not only was she sacked and called a traitor by former colleagues and Kremlin officials, but she was also greeted with distrust by anti-war figures because of her track record as a longtime cog in Moscow’s propaganda machine.
Yet, the mother-of-two and veteran state television producer stands by her stunt and actively encourages other Russians to follow suit. She feels that the enormous publicity she garnered may actually be saving her from jail.
“The more outspoken you are about your civil stance, the more scared the authorities are going to be, and they will have no idea what to do with you,” Ukrainian-born Ms Ovsyannikova told The Telegraph.
“If they had jailed me, there would be protests. I would be in the headlines. They’re now doing their best, so that people forget about me or make up conspiracy theories so that others start to question my genuine civic protest.”
Ms Ovsyannikova worked for state television for most of her life, rising through the ranks to an enviable and well-paid job as a producer on Channel One’s flagship nine o’clock news show.
But almost three weeks into the invasion, she decided she could not continue.
A long-time, trusted employee, she managed to get on the set of the live broadcast with a small, rolled-up poster. In now-famous footage, the petite, blonde woman stood behind Vladimir Putin’s favourite TV anchor and for a few seconds held up a sign that read: “No to war. Stop this war. Propaganda lies to you.”
Ms Ovsyannikova said that day was too hectic for her to feel nervous or dwell on the possible fallout: “I didn’t have much time to think. I felt scared only after I did it. My hands started to tremble so hard I couldn’t drink a glass of water.”
She described it as an ill-prepared “emotional outburst”.
Ms Ovsyannikova spent the night in a police station, and was released in court next afternoon with a fine for a social media post under the new war propaganda law. Her former boss, head of Channel One’s news service, condemned her in a live broadcast, suggesting she was a British spy who “betrayed her country.”
There were fears that she could face up to a decade in prison. Over 2,000 people have stood trial and been fined for “discrediting” the army for their anti-war protests in recent weeks in Russia while 53 have been charged with spreading “fake news”.
The Kremlin has so far mostly targeted reporters from provincial media or pressed charges against more prominent figures in absentia. But charges against Ms Ovsyannikova never materialised.
This week, she even travelled to Norway to pick up the prestigious Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.
Recognition not universally welcomed
But not everyone is happy that she is now being lauded for her protest.
Some in Russia have called into question her credentials as a journalist, highlighting her tacit support of the Kremlin through years of a worsening crackdown on civil society. Many in Ukraine have dismissed her as a turncoat and a Kremlin stooge.
It was “humiliating for Ukrainians to see a Russian state propagandist who fueled the war for years” to receive a prize previously awarded to stalwarts of Russia’s human rights movement, said Daria Kaleniuk, a leading Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who turned down an offer to speak at the award ceremony in Oslo.
When German newspaper Die Welt offered her a contract, several prominent Russian journalists who themselves are struggling to find work could not hide their frustration.
“Dozens of independent Russian journalists are seeking a job in Europe at the moment,” said Farida Rustamova, a well-respected independent reporter.
“But it’s Marina Ovsyannikova who gets a job at Die Welt. With all due respect it wasn’t her who risked safety working in Putin’s Russia.”
‘My son told me I’ve destroyed our family life’
Ms Ovsyannikova knows she is in a “tough spot”.
“I’m a stranger in a stranger’s land,” she said. “I’m at the heart of an information war. If I want to get a taste of the opposition humiliating me, welcome Twitter! If I want to enjoy my former Channel One colleagues bullying me, I go on Facebook.”
She is also facing problems at home. Her husband, a senior employee at the state-owned RT channel whom she calls “a decent man”, has launched a custody battle over their two children. She fears the Kremlin may be using him to get back at her.
“My son told me I’ve destroyed our family life,” she said. “Consequences of my protest are snowballing every day.”
Ms Ovsyannikova is focusing instead on doing more to help. She is sending the proceeds from her prize to a fund supporting Ukrainian refugees and is assisting dissidents to escape Russia.
‘I’m in limbo... I live day by day’
She has spent the past few weeks in Europe, speaking at public events and meeting policymakers but said she will return to Russia shortly.
“I’m in limbo. I live day by day. I would never have expected my life to turn out like this: I built a wonderful house in Moscow that I was hoping to spend the rest of my life in,” she said.
She said she had no regrets and takes inspiration in acts of courage from other former state employees such as Boris Bondarev, a senior Russian diplomat who quit earlier this week after calling out Putin for killing Ukrainians.
“We’re not doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it for Russia’s future, so that Russia would not plunge into medieval darkness,” she said.
“War became a point of no return when everything else no longer matters, when your private problems mean nothing compared to the problems people in Ukraine face. We all share one plan: stop the war, make sure war criminals face justice, and get Ukraine rebuilt.”