Looking for more people like Marina Ovsyannikova

All she needed to do to keep her comfortable life was to keep her mouth shut. What will happen to Marina as a consequence of her astonishing moral courage in speaking out against the war on Russian state TV is impossible to say.

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Marina Ovsyannikova

Marina Ovsyannikova, the editor at the state broadcaster Channel One who protested against Russian military action in Ukraine during the evening news broadcast at the station late Monday, speaks to the media as she leaves the Ostankinsky District Court after being fined for 30,000 rubles ($280, 247 euros) for breaching protest laws in Moscow on Tuesday.

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I find myself awed and somewhat shamed by the moral authority and enormous courage of Marina Ovsyannikova, the woman who materialized on the set of Russian state TV’s flagship news program on March 14 holding a hand-lettered poster with Ukrainian and Russian flags, which read, in English, “No War” and “Russians Against War.”

The Russian language portion of the sign said, “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” As the primetime evening news program on Channel One, “Vremya” (which means “time”) is watched nightly by millions of Russian citizens. News anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, a 25-year veteran said to be a great favorite of Vladimir Putin, kept reading robotically from her script even as Ovsyannikova shouted “Stop the War!” behind her. After a few seconds, producers cut away to another feature.

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Police took Ovsyannikova into custody immediately, as she clearly understood would happen. An employee of Channel One, she’d simply walked onto the set to which, as a news editor, she had easy access. She turned up in a Moscow courtroom the following morning charged with organizing an unauthorized public event, essentially a misdemeanor punishable with a fine, community service or up to 10 days in jail.

It appears quite likely, however, that the mother of two children could be subjected to a new law enacted since Putin’s assault upon Ukraine that makes it a serious crime to describe what Russian state media call a “special military operation” as a war. And one should especially not refer to it as an invasion.

An invasion, you see, would imply that Ukraine is a sovereign country, not simply a rebellious part of Russia, as the Little Tsar insists. The penalty for disseminating “fake news” can be up to 15 years in prison. Most independent Russian news organizations have simply shut down, while European and American outlets, such as the BBC, CNN and The New York Times, have pulled their correspondents out of Moscow.

Russia’s one independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, blurred the text of the antiwar poster in a photo posted on Twitter, even though millions of citizens had already seen it on live TV.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter that Marina Ovsyannikova is a wife and mother who also happens to be quite beautiful. Except that these things always matter. Life is always easier for beautiful people, and she’d had it pretty good. All she needed to do to keep her comfortable life was to avert her eyes and keep her mouth shut. Colleagues expressed surprise, as all she ever talked about at work were her children, her house and her dogs. Bless her.

Until March 14, that is. Anticipating arrest, Ovsyannikova left behind a video recorded before the news broadcast. Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to censor dissent on the internet, the Times reports, the video went viral, generating more than 26,000 comments in Russian, Ukrainian and English within hours.

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She spoke somberly to the camera.

“What’s happening in Ukraine right now is a crime. Russia is an aggressor country,” she said, “and the responsibility for this aggression rests on the conscience of only one person. That person is Vladimir Putin.”

“My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian and they’ve never been enemies.” She gestured to a necklace that symbolized both countries, speaking of Russians and Ukrainians as “brotherly people” that needn’t fight.

Then she spoke of her work on Russian state TV.

“Unfortunately, I’ve spent the last few years working for Channel One, making Kremlin propaganda, and I’m very ashamed of this,” Ovsyannikova said. “Ashamed that I allowed lies to be broadcast from TV screens. Ashamed that I allowed others to zombify Russian people.”

She spoke of the quiet complicity of Russians with Putin’s brutal “anti-human regime.” And then she appealed to their deepest feelings of patriotism in a passage I found particularly moving: “The whole world has turned its back on us, and the next 10 generations won’t wash away the stain of this fratricidal war.

“Go protest,” she urged. “Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t lock us all away.”

Maybe not, although Putin could very well try. He appears to have no more regard for the lives of Russian soldiers than for Ukrainian children. What will happen to Ovsyannikova as a consequence of her astonishing moral courage is impossible to say.

Even in a country like the United States, such gestures can carry heavy costs. Friends and colleagues are apt to disappear from her life. Some out of fear, others from resentment at her willingness to break ranks. Who does she think she is?

Who, indeed?

But courage and moral clarity can also be contagious. Enough Russian patriots like Ovsyannikova could help bring the end of this vicious war and of Putin as well. Despots sometimes appear strongest just before they’re deposed. A significant crack in the armor, and then they’re gone.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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