Piercing propaganda in Russia isn't easy.
Most Western websites reporting news or distributing it via social media are blocked, requiring digital dexterity to get the uncensored truth on the war in Ukraine and the wariness the world has for Russia and its brutal ruler, President Vladimir Putin.
But for most everyday Russians, disproportionally poorer and older, TV is the main source of information. And after the Kremlin's crackdown — including an Orwellian law with a 15-year sentence for anyone who uses the word "war" to describe, well, the war — the few remaining independent Russian media voices are silenced, leaving only state TV to parrot Putin's lies.
That's what Marina Ovsyannikova faithfully did for years as a producer at Russia's Channel One. But on Monday, during the network's well-watched evening newscast, Ovsyannikova jumped into the live broadcast shouting "Stop the war. No to war" while holding a sign reading "Don't believe the propaganda. They're lying to you here."
Proving this wasn't an impulse, but an impressively bold clearing of her conscience, Ovsyannikova released a prerecorded video explaining her actions, including that she "worked on Kremlin propaganda," and was "ashamed that I was allowed to tell lies from the television screen. Ashamed that I allowed the zombification of the Russian people. We were silent in 2014 when this was just the beginning. We did not go out when the Kremlin poisoned [opposition leader] Alexei Navalny. We are just silently watching this anti-human regime. And now the whole world has turned away from us and the next 10 generations won't be able to clean themselves from the shame of this fratricidal war."
In her video, Ovsyannikova wore a necklace in the colors of the Russian and Ukrainian flags, explaining that her father is Ukrainian and her mother is Russian. That's a lineage shared by many, including Olga Lautman, a nonresident senior fellow for the Center for European Policy Analysis. Lautman, creator and co-host of the "Kremlin File" podcast series, said in an interview that for the most part, "Russians are not hearing what's happening. They are oblivious that there are refugees, they're oblivious that there are cities being bombed. It's a completely different world, as far as they're concerned. It is just a 'special, limited operation' to 'stop genocide.'"
In fact, it's not limited — Russia's bombing seems limitless — and if any genocide is being committed, it's by Russia, which is targeting civilians in what are likely war crimes. And Ukraine, which freely and fairly elected a president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who happens to be Jewish, isn't run by, or overrun by, Nazis, as the propaganda propping up Putin proclaims.
The day of the invasion, Lautman said, "they spent the whole day playing movies of World War II and how the Soviets defeated the Nazis." The "new narrative for several weeks now is that Europe and the U.S. are supporting Nazis."
Europe and the U.S. are supporting Ukrainians, to be sure, but rightfully see them as intrepid individuals fighting a war machine. "It's kind of a mirror image of the war than what we see in the West," said Jill Dougherty, a former CNN Moscow Bureau chief who has returned to report on and analyze the war. Before sharing her analysis at a virtual Global Minnesota event I moderated on Thursday, Dougherty said in an interview that "the message is that Ukraine is not only not a country, it's politically in chaos, it is under control of the United States, and it has been used to attack Russia and Russian speakers."
Russians "have been told that the enemy, the United States, is trying to destroy Russia," Dougherty said. "So they tend to put everything in that context." They trust Putin, she said, "and so they look at this war according to the strictures that they have."
These strictures became stricter after criticism early in Putin's rule for the war in Chechnya and the "Kursk" submarine accident. After that, Lautman said, he "took control of media. They started murdering journalists over the first few years of his administration" and "over the past few decades, the media just toed the line of the Kremlin."
Those who didn't risked the wrath of the regime, and some have left not only reporting but Russia itself. More may do so after Putin's chilling speech on Wednesday, in which he targeted pro-Western Russians.
"The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths," Putin said in words that would have made Stalin blush. "I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges."
Such a bleak, blunt warning may make some Russians even more risk averse to accessing Western media. But they're not completely cut off from some Western, or at least American, thought, including naive narratives from far-right figures like Republican U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, as well as Tucker Carlson's bogus bioweapons lab claims on Fox News. Dougherty said that the Kremlin has even adopted the English word "fake" for unfavorable or illegal depictions of the news.
"This is what they do; they look for Westerners to amplify," said Lautman. "Just to justify that they're not doing anything wrong. They're only defending Russia against these threats [that don't exist]," Lautman said. "You have all the international media outlets operating on the ground, and then for us to have people like Tucker who are basically whitewashing everything and giving out false pretext to justify it and basically spewing Kremlin propaganda."
It's "extremely dangerous," she said. Yes, for Ukrainians and ultimately Russians, as well as journalists chronicling the conflict. Tragically, four already have been killed in Ukraine, including a Fox News photographer and interpreter who lost their lives on the front lines seeking the truth while their colleague Carlson opined irresponsibly from a comfortable studio.
The threats of legal peril led many Western news organizations, including CNN, to temporarily leave Russia — but certainly not to stop reporting on it.
"It is really a sad moment," Dougherty said. "Because getting that information directly from Russia I think is very, very important." It "cuts down on Americans' understanding of what's going on. And it cuts down on Russians' understanding of how the world is looking at this, and the horror the world has right now over this war."
While many Russians may have seen Ovsyannikova's brief burst of dissent on Channel One, another arresting protest scene this week reflected Russia's dystopian disinformation environment. In a video that went viral (at least in the West), a Russian woman holding a sign was brusquely hustled off by authorities.
But unlike the protest during Channel One's newscast, this sign didn't say "Stop the war" and warn of propaganda and lies.
In fact, the sign didn't say anything.
Instead, it was empty, blank — just like Russia's future under Putin.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the "Great Decisions" dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.