On the ninth day of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, editor Viktor Muchnik gathered the TV2 team for a meeting in their small newsroom in the Siberian town of Tomsk.
New wartime laws meant that all editorial staff risked jail time for reporting on the conflict, Muchnik told them, and TV2 had just been officially blocked by the Russian communications watchdog, along with many other outlets. independent.
“All of us who wanted to change things for the better here, right now, can feel like we’ve failed,” Muchnik said, looking back bitterly at his three decades working at one of Russia’s most resilient media outlets.
Journalists emptied glasses of wine and almost everyone cried. Then Muchnik signed resignation papers for the entire collective. A few days later, he and his wife, Viktoria, who also worked for TV2 for more than a quarter of a century, packed a few bags and flew out of Russia, probably forever.
“One reason was professional: the thing you’ve been doing for so long was killed. The other was human. None of us wanted to be inside this space, in this country that launched a war, and live among people who support this war,” Muchnik said, in an interview in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where the couple lives now, along with tens of thousands of Russians who fled in the weeks after the war began.
For years, TV2 has been an anomaly in the Russian media landscape, an island of media freedom in the Siberian university town of Tomsk. From its chaotic but idealistic beginnings as the Soviet Union crumbled, through various bitter battles with the authorities, culminating in fury, defiance and ultimately defeat, the story of TV2 provides a remarkable insight into the past three decades. of Russia.
The channel was dreamed up by Arkady Maiofis, a Soviet television journalist who wanted to create a place for free debate in 1991 when the Soviet Union was on its last legs. At the time, Muchnik was a young history professor attracted by the idea of making political programs; the first cameraman was a former policeman
“Arkady was the only one who knew anything about TV – the rest of us came straight off the streets. We had a VHS camera, and we made programs and took them to the TV tower. They came out for us,” recalls Muchnik.
For entertainment, the channel aired American movies: they located pirated tapes at the market and aired them, blissfully unaware of copyright issues.
The channel took off in August 1991 during a coup by reactionary forces who wanted to restore hardline Soviet rule. As central television stations shut down, TV2 reporters got updates by calling friends in Moscow and delivering the latest news to viewers in Tomsk. Later, TV2 sent a two-person crew to Moscow to film events. Journalists returned the tapes with pilots flying in Tomsk.
This is how viewers in the heart of Siberia got more relevant information than those watching at home in Moscow, thousands of miles away.
In Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, the channel’s journalists have the feeling of surfing 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 then, when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, things slowly started to change. “I didn’t like him from the start. I didn’t like his KGB background, I didn’t like his smile and the way he spoke,” Muchnik said.
Gradually, the space for free programming began to shrink. It didn’t help that the channel was bought by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who kept his promise not to interfere in editorial policy but left authorities suspicious that the channel was his personal mouthpiece.
At that time, TV2 was a media holding company with several radio stations and two television channels. A nine-story building to house the media group was under construction when Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, a sign of Putin’s intention to ensure the oligarchs stay out of politics.
The channel survived Khodorkovsky’s arrest but the pressure on independent media continued to increase. In 2007, the channel received a series of unofficial warnings from Moscow.
“It was clear: if you want to attack the mayor, that’s fine; if you want to attack the governor, that’s pretty much OK, but please don’t attack Putin,” Muchnik said.
“And how are you supposed to leave Putin out of this if you want to do journalism in our wonderful country? If you have a problem, you get to the Kremlin quickly, because that’s how the system is built,” he said.
The channel continued to welcome opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexeï Navalny, banned from the airwaves of most Russian television, during their visit to Tomsk.
At the end of 2013, TV2 sent a reporting team to Kyiv to cover the initial turmoil of the Maidan revolution and published reports on the subsequent annexation of Crimea that had a very different flavor from those on state television.
“Our reporting alienated us not only from the authorities, but also from part of our public, who started to send us insults,” Muchnik said.
A month later the channel was taken off the air, due to supposed technical issues, and at the end of 2014 it was officially shut down. TV2 has gone from a press holding company with more than 250 employees to a website managed by a team of 15 people. Authorities refused to register the website as a media outlet, meaning they were barred from attending press conferences or asking for official comment.
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 claimed did not exist. People sent images of patients lying on the floor for lack of beds.
The site revealed several Covid-related stories: a man who disguised himself as a doctor to care for his grandmother and recorded the appalling conditions at the hospital in the process, and a family who was told that her grandmother had died, but when they opened the coffin found the body of a stranger.
Working under these conditions was difficult but possible, but the invasion of Ukraine in February changed that.
A new Russian ‘forgery’ law meant that any editorial staff could be jailed for their coverage. Under these conditions, Muchnik makes the decision to close the station.
“We couldn’t convey to people what was happening in their own country, and that hurts me,” said TV2 cameraman Alexander Sakalov. “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 wanted,” he said.
Now, from Yerevan, the Muchniks keep in contact with journalists from other independent regional media 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 fled, but others are still in Russia and refuse to be interviewed anonymously.
“Some people think it’s important to show their face despite the risks. If you go to a protest you can just be arrested and nobody will see you, but it’s a way for them to let it be known that they don’t agree with this war,” Viktoria said.
Many interviewees told the Muchniks they had fallen out with their own families over their opposition to the war, and Viktoria had similar difficult conversations with her own mother, who is 82 and mainly watches TV. of state.
“She was so upset when we were leaving. She really wanted us to stay, and she said, ‘Why did you have to talk so much, you couldn’t have shut up?’ »
Like many recent Russian émigrés, the Muchniks are bitterly disappointed that their long years of work have failed to create a different kind of Russia, and saddened that they have no choice but to flee.
They hope they can continue to influence politics in Russia from outside the country, but are adamant that they will not return until there is a political change.
“It is very difficult to exist in this atmosphere of militaristic hysteria. We won’t go back there until the regime collapses,” Viktor said.