“We are the Russian people…. Only we can stop this madness,” said Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russian state TV, in a video she posted to coincide with an attention-grabbing, one-person protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Come out and protest. Don’t be afraid. They can’t jail us all.”
During the broadcast of the evening news program Vremya on Channel One on March 14, Ovsyannikova unfurled an anti-war sign behind the newsreader. “Stop the war,” the sign said. “Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.”
The sign was visible on-air for just a few seconds before producers cut to recorded footage.
Ovsyannikova was immediately detained and then endured what she said was 14 hours of interrogation in isolation without a lawyer. On March 15, she was convicted of the administrative offense of "organizing an illegal demonstration" for her video call for protests and fined 30,000 rubles ($275).
In addition, the state news agency TASS reported that the Investigative Committee is considering charging her under a new law that criminalizes "spreading clearly false information about the armed forces," which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
It was arguably the most daring and high-profile act of protest in Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered the massive military invasion of Ukraine on February 24. And it immediately raised the question of whether such a gesture will remain symbolic or could influence the actions of people -- including those like Ovsyannikova who for years have worked inside Putin’s ruling apparatus -- in a country long conditioned to passivity and fear.
“Such things can influence the mood among the elites,” Moscow-based commentator Dmitry Kozelev wrote on Telegram. “A person from inside the system -- even if not the most prominent representative -- has acted out against the system. That means others could follow.
“According to my information, anti-war sentiments among the establishment are pretty strong,” he added. “They are even found among generals. If a Channel One editor can get on the air with a sign today, what might happen tomorrow?”
In an interview with Reuters on March 15, Ovsyannikova, a mother of two who is in her 40s, said she hopes that “people will open their eyes," and added a message for other Russians: "Don't be such zombies. Don't listen to this propaganda.”
"I think she carried out a heroic deed," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a general manager of Russia's NTV television before its 2001 takeover by state-controlled Gazprom. "I don't care particularly what she did before. She knew the risk she was taking.
"The main thing is that she did this," Kiselyov, who now lives in Kyiv and is a critic of the Kremlin, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "Any bureaucrat of any dictatorial regime, any person who is working for a dictatorial...regime who at a certain point betrays that regime and comes over to the side of the light -- that person's gesture…has more practical significance than 10 fiery articles written by professional oppositionists…. The more people there are like her…the better."
Three weeks into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and with no clear end in sight, the consequences of the massive military offensive are increasingly coming home to Russia. Ordinary families across the country are receiving death notices for their sons serving in the invasion force, learning to live without easy access to much of the global Internet, and feeling the bite of higher prices and fewer imported goods. As unprecedented Western sanctions take hold and grow stronger, Russian businesses and markets are seizing up.
Nonetheless, few true insiders have taken any public action pointing to the sort of mindset transition that Kiselyov attributes to Ovsyannikova. Such anti-war expressions have been limited to a few lesser-known members of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, and a handful of local politicians.
Aleksei Venediktov, the well-connected former editor in chief of the recently shuttered radio station Ekho Moskvy, told Voice of America on March 15 that he believes those at the highest levels of Putin's system, at least, remain solidly behind the president and the devastating war against Ukraine.
"They consider [what has been done] to have been a success," Venediktov said. "They have received from the West the confirmation that the West will not respond militarily, and that was the main thing…. Now their euphoria is on the rise."
"As long as Putin is determining policy, as long as Putin is alive and healthy, they will support him and rally around him," Venediktov added.
However, there have been reports of resignations within the juggernaut of Putin's media apparatus. According to Mediazona, Channel One's Paris correspondent, Zhanna Agalakova has resigned, as has NTV Brussels correspondent Vadim Glusker. Longtime NTV moderator Liliya Gildeyeva stated on March 15 that she had quit and left Russia.
"First I left because I was afraid they wouldn't just let me go," she told journalist Ilya Varlamov's Telegram channel. "Then I wrote a letter of resignation."
Russian attorney Ilya Novikov posted on Twitter that people were debating Ovsyannikova’s motives in the light of her years working for Channel One, about which she said in her video that she was “ashamed.”
“Personal courage is a good thing, but it would be a sign of the end for Putin if people start running from him out of selfish calculation,” he wrote.
Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center compared Ovsyannikova’s protest with the 1969 self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach in protest of Czechoslovaks' passivity regarding the occupation of their country by Soviet forces.
“This is not the act of self-immolation by Jan Palach in 1969, but it is exactly the same in emotion,” Kolesnikov wrote on Twitter. “In Russia of the future, Maria Ovsyannikova will be what Marianne is to France.”
Whether Ovsyannikova's protest stirs the broader public also remains to be seen. The government in recent weeks has stepped up already harsh repression, severely restricting access to information and adopting the new law threatening severe prison sentences for the vaguely defined crime of spreading "false information" about the armed forces.
On March 14, Dmitry Gavrilov, a 48-year-old computer programmer from Cheboksary, the capital of Russia's Chuvashia region, became the first Russian to be fined for the new offense when a court ordered him to pay 35,000 rubles ($325) for holding a sign with the slogan: "No War."
He told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities that it is "impossible" for Russians not to fear arrest "when they see the army of police patrolling the center of the city."
"What scares me the most is that people are silent," he said. "Everyone is really afraid…. When they were voting for Putin, they all used to say, 'As long as there is no war....' Now I ask these same people what they have to say. And they are silent."
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted that "millions" of people may have seen Ovsyannikova's five-second protest and concluded there is a "split" inside Putin's system -- that "there are alternative points of view."
"I think that she has opened the tap," he added, "because tens of millions of people in my country are against this war…against this senseless war that is destroying not only Ukraine, but Russia as well. But they are reluctant, because they are afraid. They have a career, they have a mortgage, as they say. But she also has a mortgage, children, a career."