A Singular Courage

They say one person can’t make a difference. Well, let me set the stage for a singular act.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation–former KGB espionage network officer, and for the past 22 years leader of his country, now an autocracy–is tightening the noose.

Many Americans were surprised to think so much “Americana” was all over Russia, particularly the cities: from CNN to MacDonald’s, from Ford and Adidas to Coca Cola and rappers. Never underestimate the power of American culture, energy, and capitalism! Of course they’re all over Russia, and have been, in increasing presence for years, even if, as they withdraw under sanctions against that country, some Americans are only now learning they were there in the first place. But Americans were aware that there seemed to be an uneasy peace with the former Soviet Union—no cuddly warmth, mind you, but at least an end to the Cold War.

Except that in recent years, climate change is sensed there too, not only in the planetary environment. Putin’s noose has been growing tighter every year, as has his control of the Russian populace. The adulation in which he was held by Donald Trump mystified Americans and only intensified that unease (and wow, aren’t the Trumpists silent now!). After all, Putin had dispatched adversaries by assassination even when they were abroad in other countries (and never denied it), had invaded Chechnya and carpet bombed the city of Grozny (and never denied it), and then blatantly annexed Crimea in 2014. Yet previous American presidents –Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and certainly Trump—chose to sanction Putin, yet looked the other way. The hope, naturally, was that things would get better, give enough diplomacy and enough time.

So here we are. His “limited military action” to supposedly “liberate” two provinces in eastern Ukraine has morphed into a massive assault on the entire sovereign nation while he sabre-rattles his nuclear warheads and rails against all opposition including especially internal opposition. This past Wednesday he referred to pro-western Russians as “scum and traitors” who needed to be “removed from society.” He described the war in Ukraine as part of an existential clash with the United States and compared the West to Nazi Germany, derisively referring to the “political beau monde” in Europe and to the “slave-like Russians who support it.” (Apparently he’s ignorant of the etymological fact that in English and all other languages that have a Latinate basis, the word slave has as its root slav, because the Romans embedded that in Latin when they conquered Slavic peoples and enslaved them.)

When Putin reserved his toughest language for Russians who disagreed with him, he signaled that he was opening the door to a new wave of repression, and indeed, beginnings of a new crackdown quickly became evident. Authorities announced a criminal case against a popular lifestyle blogger, Veronika Belotserkovskaya, for her anti-war Instagram posts that supposedly discredited state authorities and the armed forces of the Russian Federation. Putin also blocked access to the website of BBC News and said this was just the beginning of the response to an information war unleashed by the West against Russia. He vowed to fight back, against the “fifth column of treacherous Russians whose allegiances are with the West.” Then, a day or so later, he reprised the theme with intensity, suggesting that any Russian with ties to the West could be considered a traitor. He furthermore announced that Russia must “purify” itself of such traitors, likening them to pestilences–flies–who find their way into your mouth, which patriotic Russians must spit out.

The use of this particular dehumanizing language is genuinely frightening. It is fascist language. That a citizenry must purify itself of pestilence is chillingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

That’s the current scene.

Into this scene stepped a woman. By now you’ve heard of her, because this employee of Russia’s Channel One, the state-run flagship television channel that is the most watched station in all of Russia, has become world famous. Her name is Marina Ovsyannikova. She was an editor and producer with Channel One. She gave her first interview to Christiane Amanpour, so these quotes come from her own video statements recorded before her action, as well as from the Amanpour conversation and a few subsequent interviews.

Once the Channel One broadcast was on the air, she entered the studio, dodging production assistants on the studio floor and carrying a large cardboard sign on which in English and Russian she had scrawled NO WAR. She stood behind the anchorwoman and shouted, “They are lying to you here. This is propaganda.” Later, in a pre-recorded video, she said, “Unfortunately, I have been working at Channel One during recent years, on Kremlin propaganda, and now I am very ashamed that I’ve allowed lies to be said on TV screens. I am ashamed that I let the Russian people be zombified. It is in our power only to stop this madness,” she added, “Take to the streets. Do not be afraid. They can’t jail us all.”

Apparently, having been a child in Chechnya, she keenly remembered that at age 12 she could hear the sound of bombs falling around her school, and how her family had to flee the country. Years later, now a grown woman, she had grown more and more uncomfortable with her work, and finally anguished by that work at Channel One. I imagine that particularly as an editor, knowing what she would have to cut from reports was specially painful for her since it made her feel as if she were a collaborator in propaganda — which in fact she was. Her father was Ukrainian, her mother Russian. That mother apparently had been so, as her daughter put it, “brainwashed,” that no reasonable dialogue about the war in Ukraine was possible with her. All this accumulated sorrow, guilt, anger, and shame, drove Ovsyannikova to her singular act.

She was of course immediately arrested and held overnight incommunicado, even unable to contact her own lawyer. But the next day in court after her interrogation, she was at least temporarily released after paying a fine of approximately $280. This doesn’t seem very much, but she was not charged with a criminal act—yet—possibly because Putin fears making her into a martyr.

To Amanpour, she explained that she had been “feeling a cognitive dissonance more and more, between my beliefs and what we say on air. The war was the point of no return, when it was simply impossible to stay silent.” She said she was not scared now, although she had been afraid up until the very last minute when she used her executive pass to breeze by the guard who stood in front of the studio and dashed in behind the host and before the cameras. She added, “What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor country, and the responsibility for this aggression lies on the conscience of only one person. This man is Vladimir Putin. I am ashamed that we kept silent in 2014 when all this was beginning.”

The world applauds Marina today, because the eyes of the world are on her. But as time goes by and other news breaks to distract that public and nudge her off the headlines, what will happen?

I think that’s when Putin will move against her, and against other countrywomen and countrymen who oppose him. Against Olga Smirnova, who quit the Bolshoi Ballet where she was the star ballerina, denounced the war, and now has moved to the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. I think that’s when he will move against the grandmothers in Saint Petersburg who demonstrated against their sons being sacrificed to war. I think that’s when he will move with the full force of his promised and threatened 15 year prison sentence against Marina Ovsyannikova.

France offered her asylum but she gratefully declined, saying that although she was worried for her children, “I have publicly refused to take political asylum in France because I am a patriot, and I don’t want to immigrate and lose another 10 years of my life to assimilate in some other country.” So she will stay.

And this blog will stay, too, stay on her story, and keep reminding ourselves and you every step of the way — so far as we are able to find out — of what happens to her.

They say one person cannot make a difference. They claim a singular act simply doesn’t weigh in the scales of history. They say acting alone is meaningless, even self-destructive. Yet this was a singular act, with what already looks to be considerable effect. She acted alone, taking principled and full responsibility for her act. She made a difference.

Because Marina’s is not a courage of medals, of firearms, of aerial bombardments. Hers is a courage of bearing witness, of feeling the fear and doing it anyway, of speaking painful truths, the courage of presence. That’s a singular courage, often a woman’s kind of courage. It’s a courage easily overlooked and swiftly forgotten. We will not forget. We will not let you forget.

This blog post will be off next week but will return the week after.