On the ninth day of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Editor-in-Chief Viktor Muchnik convened a TV2 staff for a meeting in their small newsroom in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
New wartime laws meant the entire newsroom risked jail time for reporting on the conflict, Muchnik told them, and TV2 was recently officially blocked by Russia’s communications watchdog, along with many other independent media outlets.
“All of us who wanted to change things for the better here, at this point we can feel that we have failed,” Muchnik said, bitterly reflecting on his three decades of work at one of Russia’s most resilient media outlets.
The reporters emptied their glasses of wine, and almost everyone wept. Muchnik then signed resignation papers for the entire collective. A few days later, he and his wife, Victoria, who also worked for TV2 for more than a quarter of a century, packed some suitcases and flew away from Russia, probably forever.
“One reason was professional: the thing you did for so long was killed. The other was a man. None of us wanted to be in this space, in this country that launched a war, and live among people who support this war, ”said Muchnik, in an interview in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where the couple now live together. with dozens. of thousands of Russians who have fled in the weeks since the war began.
For years, TV2 has been an anomaly in the Russian media landscape, an island of media freedom in the Siberian university city of Tomsk. From its chaotic but idealistic beginnings when the Soviet Union collapsed, through various brutal battles with authorities, culminating in fury, defiance and ultimately defeat, TV2’s history gives a remarkable insight into Russia’s last three decades.
The channel was the brainchild of Arkady Maiofis, a reporter on Soviet television who wanted to create a place for free debate in 1991 when the Soviet Union was in its final stages. At the time, Muchnik was a young history professor attracted to the idea of making political programs; the first cameraman was a former police officer
“Arkady was the only one who knew anything about television – the rest of us were straight out of the street. We had one VHS camera, and we made programs and took them to the TV tower. They put it out for us,” Muchnik recalled.
For entertainment, the channel showed American films: they located pirated cassettes at the market and distributed them, fortunately indifferent to copyright concerns.
The canal came into its own in August 1991 during the coup d’état of reactionary troops who wanted to restore harsh Soviet rule. As the central television stations darkened, TV2 journalists received updates calling friends in Moscow and broadcasting the latest news to viewers in Tomsk. Later, TV2 sent a two-person crew to Moscow to film events. The journalists returned the tapes with pilots flying to Tomsk.
Thus, TV viewers in the heart of Siberia received more relevant information than those who watch at home in Moscow, thousands of miles away.
In Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, the channel’s journalists felt they were traveling on a wave of freedom. Local politicians didn’t like TV2 very much, but they felt compelled to come to the studio for interviews.
But when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, things slowly changed. “I didn’t like him at first. I didn’t like his KGB background, I didn’t like his smile and the way he spoke, ”said Muchnik.
Gradually, the space for free programming began to shrink. It did not help that the channel was bought by the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who kept his promise not to interfere in editorial policy but left the authorities suspicious that the channel was his personal word of mouth.
By that time, TV2 was a media outlet with several radio stations and two television stations. A nine-story building to house the media group was being built when Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 as a sign of Putin’s intention to keep the oligarchs out of politics.
The channel survived Khodorkovsky’s arrest but pressure on independent media outlets continued to increase. In 2007, the channel received a series of unofficial warnings from Moscow.
“It was explained: if you want to attack the mayor, that’s fine; if you want to attack the governor, that’s almost fine, but please don’t attack Putin, “said Muchnik.
“And how do you keep Putin out of it if you want to do journalism in our wonderful country?” If you get into trouble, you will soon get to the Kremlin, because that’s how the system is built, ”he said.
At the end of 2013, TV2 sent a report team to Kyiv to cover the first excitements of the Maidan revolutionand put out reports on the latter annexation of Crimea that tasted very different from those on state television.
“Our reporting alienated us not only from the authorities but also from a part of our public that started sending us abuse,” Muchnik said.
A month later, the canal was removed from the air, due to alleged technical problems, and at the end of 2014 it was formally closed. TV2 went from media with more than 250 employees to a website run by a team of 15 people. Authorities refused to register the site as a media outlet, meaning they were banned from attending press conferences or soliciting official comments.
Despite this, TV2 continued to have an impact beyond its modest means. During the Covid pandemic, TV2 journalists received calls from doctors, talking about a disaster that state television pretended not to exist. People sent footage of patients lying on the floor due to lack of beds.
The site broke several Covid-related stories: a man who dressed as a doctor to care for his grandmother and recorded the appalling conditions at the hospital in the process, and a family who were told their grandmother was dead but when they opened the a coffin found the body of a stranger.
Working in these conditions was difficult yet possible – but the invasion of Ukraine in February there was a game changer.
A new Russian law on “fakes” meant that the entire editorial staff could be imprisoned for their coverage. In these conditions, Muchnik made the decision to close the station.
“We couldn’t tell people what was going on in their own country, and it hurts me,” said Aleksandr Sakalov, a TV2 cameraman. “People don’t want to know. They want flowers and birds. Well, now all the independent media in the country will be shut down, and people will get what they want, ”he said.
Now, from Yerevan, the Muchniks are keeping in touch with journalists from other independent regional shops, who have also fled Russia, trying to coordinate future work. They are also working on a project called Witnesses, interviewing Russians about their feelings about the war, and how the decision changed their lives. Some are people who have fled, but others are still in Russia, and refuse offers to be interviewed anonymously.
“Some people feel that it is important to show their faces despite the risks. If you go to protest, you can just be arrested and no one will see you, but this is a way for them to record that they do not agree with this war, ”said Victoria.
Many of the interview subjects told the Muchniks that they had clashed with their own families over their opposition to the war, and Victoria had similarly difficult conversations with her own mother, who is 82 and mostly watches state television.
“She was so upset when we left. She really wanted us to stay, and she said, ‘Why did you have to talk so much, couldn’t you just keep quiet?’ ”
Like many recent Russian emigrants, the Muchniks feel bitterly disappointed that their long years of work did not lead to a different kind of Russia, and sad that they felt they had no choice but to flee.
They hope that they will be able to continue to influence politics in Russia from outside the country, but it is firm that they will not return until there is a political change.
“It is very difficult to exist in this atmosphere of military hysteria. We will not return until the collapse of the regime, “said Viktor.