On the ninth day of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, director Viktor Muchnik assembled a TV2 crew in his small newsroom in the Siberian city of Tomsk. The new wartime meant the entire newsroom could face jail time for reporting on the conflict, Muchnik told them, and Russia’s communications watchdog had just officially blocked TV2, along with many other independent media outlets.
“All of us who wanted to change something for the better feel like we have failed,” Muchnik says, bitterly recalling his 30-year job at one of Russia’s most enduring media outlets.
The journalists drank several glasses of wine and almost everyone wept. Then Muchnik signed the letters of dismissal of the entire team. A few days later, he and his wife Victoria, who also worked on TV2 for more than a quarter of a century, packed a couple of suitcases and fled Russia, probably forever.
Viktor Muchnik, editor-in-chief of the brilliant Tomsk independent media outlet TV2, wishes his colleagues good luck, as the team has ceased operations after being banned by the Russian watchdog. “We cannot follow the path we see fit; we will not work as the Russian authorities want” pic.twitter.com/yAqgBpONi1
— The Siberian Times (@siberian_times) March 7, 2022
“One of the reasons was professional: they ruined what we had been doing for so long. The other was human. None of us wanted to be in that place, in this country that unleashed a war, and live among people who support this war, ”Muchnik says in an interview in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where the couple now lives along with tens of thousands of other Russians who fled within a few weeks of the start of the war.
Freedom Harbor in Siberia
For years, TV2 has been an anomaly in the Russian media landscape, a press freedom haven on the Siberian university town of Tomsk. From its chaotic but idealistic beginnings when the Soviet Union collapsed, through various battles with the authorities and challenges to defeat, the history of TV2 offers an extraordinary retrospective of the past three decades in Russia.
The channel’s creator was Arkady Maiofis, a Soviet television journalist who wanted to create a space for free debate in 1991, when the Soviet Union was on its last legs. At the time, Muchnik was a young university history professor who was attracted to the idea of making programs about politics. The first operator was a former police officer.
“Arkady was the only one who knew anything about television; the rest came straight from the street. We had a VHS camera, we made broadcasts and took them to the TV tower. They broadcast it for us,” Muchnik recalls.
As an entertainment, the channel broadcast American films: counterfeit cassettes were found on the market and they played them with pleasure, without worrying about copyrights.
The canal was fortified in August 1991 by a coup by reactionary forces who wanted to restore the hard line of the Soviet regime. When state television went offline, TV2 journalists were able to update by calling friends in Moscow and broadcasting the last hour to viewers in Tomsk. Later, TV2 sent a film crew of two to Moscow to film what was happening. The journalists returned the cassettes with the help of pilots who flew to Tomsk.
Thus, viewers in the heart of Siberia had more up-to-date information than those watching from their home in Moscow, even though the Siberians were thousands of miles away.
In Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, the channel’s journalists felt themselves on the wave of freedom. Local politicians disliked TV2 very much, but found it necessary to go to the set to give an interview.
Exchange with Putin
But when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, things began to slowly change. “I didn’t like it from the beginning. I didn’t like his past in the KGB, I didn’t like his smile and the way he spoke,” Muchnik says.
The space for free programming gradually began to shrink. It didn’t help that the channel was bought by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who kept his promise not to interfere with the editorial line, although this aroused the suspicions of the authorities, who saw the channel as their private speaker.
By that time, TV2 had become a media conglomerate with several radio networks and two TV channels. When Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, the nine-story building was being built to house a media group, a sign of Putin’s intention to keep the oligarchs out of politics.
The channel survived Khodorkovsky’s arrest, but pressure on independent media continued to mount. In 2007, the channel received a number of unofficial warnings from Moscow.
“They made it clear: if you want to attack the mayor, fine; if you want to attack the governor, that’s fine, but don’t attack Putin,” Muchnik says. “How are you going to leave Putin out if you want to do journalism in our wonderful country? If you delve into some problem, you won’t immediately reach the Kremlin, because that’s how the system works,” he says.
Insults for journalism
The channel continued to interview opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, banned by most Russian TV channels, when they visited Tomsk.
In late 2013, TV2 sent a group of reporters to Kyiv to cover the first protests of the Maidan revolution and published reports on the subsequent annexation of Crimea with a very different tone than on state television.
“Our information alienated us not only from the authorities, but also from part of our audience, which began to offend us,” says Muchnik.
A month later, the channel was suspended due to alleged technical problems, and at the end of 2014 it was officially closed. TV2 has evolved from a media conglomerate with over 250 employees to a website with a team of 15 people. The authorities refused to register the page as a means of communication, which led to a ban on attending press conferences or requesting official statements.
Despite this, TV2 continued to make an impact beyond its modest capabilities. During the coronavirus pandemic, TV2 journalists were called by doctors and told about the disaster, which state television made it look like it did not exist. People sent them videos of patients lying on the floor due to lack of beds.
The site has posted several coronavirus-related exclusives: a man who disguised himself as a doctor to care for his grandmother and filmed the appalling conditions in the hospital during the process; He also told the story of a family who were told their grandmother had died, but when they opened the coffin, they found the body of a stranger.
“People don’t want to know”
Working in such conditions was difficult, but possible. However, the February invasion of Ukraine turned the situation on its head: Russia’s new “fake news” law meant that the authorities could imprison the entire newsroom for covering it. Under these conditions, Muchnik decided to close the channel.
“We couldn’t broadcast to people what was happening in their own country, and it hurts me,” says Alexander Sakalov, operator of TV2. “People don’t want to know. They need flowers and birds. Well, now all the independent media in the country will shut down and people will get what they want.”
Now from Yerevan, the Muchnik family keeps in touch with journalists from other independent regional publications, who also fled Russia. They are trying to coordinate their future work. They are also working on a project called “Witnesses” where they interview Russians about their attitudes towards the war and how this decision has changed their lives. Some of them have fled, but others remain in Russia and refuse to interview them, while protecting their identities.
“Some people find it important to show their face despite the risks. If you go to a rally, they can simply stop you and no one will see you, but for them it is a way to declare that they do not agree with this war, ”explains Victoria.
Many of those interviewed told the Muchniks that they had quarreled with their families because of their opposition to the war. Victoria had similar conversations with her own mother, who is 82 and mostly watches state television. “She was very upset when we left. He wanted us to stay and said, “Why did you talk so much? Could you just shut up?” Victoria says.
Like many recent Russians, the couple is deeply disappointed that all their years of working to create another Russia came to nothing. They are also sad that they felt like they had no other choice but to run.
They hope that they will continue to exert some influence on Russian politics from outside the country, but it is clear that they will not return until political changes take place. “It is very difficult to exist among this militaristic hysteria. We will not return until the regime falls,” Viktor says.
Translated by Maria Torrens Tillak
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