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“It’s my second time in Paris,” says Marina Ovsyannikova, sitting in the dingy offices of Reporters Without Borders, the NGO for press freedom. “Yesterday my daughter said, ‘Last time I threw coins into the fountains, but I didn’t expect to come back this way.’”

Ovsyannikova was the editor on Russian state TV who burst into a live broadcast last March, waving a sign written at her kitchen table in felt-tip pen: “Stop the war — Don’t believe propaganda — They’re lying to you.” Her lawyer eventually warned her she would “rot in jail” unless she fled Russia. Helped by Reporters Without Borders, she escaped with her daughter, travelling in seven different cars and, finally, getting lost walking across the border, as she recounts in her new memoir, published in German.

Now, as she hides from Vladimir Putin’s killers in Parisian safe houses, the “ashamed” former cog in his propaganda machine is revealing the machine’s workings.

Crucially, Ovsyannikova’s origins are more Soviet than Russian. She was born in Odesa, Ukraine, in 1978 to a Russian mother and Ukrainian father, who died when she was a baby. She and her mother ended up in Chechnya, until war made them refugees.

In free but chaotic 1990s Russia, she became a journalist, she writes, “to give the humiliated and insulted a voice”. In 2003 she joined Channel One, “the country’s most important TV channel”. She says, “At the time it wasn’t yet a propaganda machine. It broadcast real information. Little by little, Putin’s rhetoric became more aggressive towards the west and Ukraine. The channel transformed into a real propaganda tool after the [2008] war in Georgia, when the Kremlin realised it had lost the information war.”

Now, she estimates, “80 to 90 per cent” of state TV journalists neither believe nor even watch their own propaganda. “In the morning, they anonymously sign petitions for free speech or [Alexei] Navalny, and in the evening they are obliged to create these stories.”

Much like their American colleagues at Fox News, they knowingly zombify older provincial viewers. Ovsyannikova’s own mother imbibed their output all day, “learning to hate Ukrainians and Americans”.

Yet Ovsyannikova stayed at Channel One, nurturing western interviewees willing to spout the Kremlin’s line. There were no longer genuine journalistic jobs to move to, she explains. Colleagues who quit “went nowhere. They became YouTubers, a bit, but in the profession they were known as ‘crashed aeroplanes’.”

Anyway, propaganda paid her lavishly to work one week in two. That helped her raise two children after separating from her husband, a colleague who became a true Putinist believer. She says, “As a child, I never had a normal life, a house. I spent so much effort constructing my life, building my house. When at last I thought I could give my children a peaceful life, the [2022] war began.”

Russian propagandists got their own information from western TV. On her work monitors, Ovsyannikova saw crying Ukrainian refugees — “all those images of my childhood again”, she says. Her final tipping point was a call from a British journalist friend who had just survived cancer. He asked if she was still working for Channel One.

“I answered, ‘You know I have no option. I’m alone with two children. Should I die?’

He said, ‘Always stay on the side of goodness.’”

So she ambushed the broadcast, and to her surprise, managed to display her sign. Were those six seconds worth it? “It’s a difficult question, because I have lost everything: my home, part of my family, my fatherland. I would never have believed that 30 years later, I’d become a refugee again.”

Most of her former colleagues remain in post. In wartime, she explains, a regime looks after its soldiers, security forces and propagandists. Her colleagues “got one salary raise just before the war, and another just after my protest”. On social media, they post pictures from exotic foreign holidays in the Maldives or the United Arab Emirates while Ukrainians die.

Few Ukrainians can forgive Ovsyannikova’s earlier collaboration. Some believe she’s a Russian agent. She requests sympathy not for herself — “I think I got out of it very well” — but for jailed, tortured Russian journalists. “Maria Ponomarenko, who is my age, who has two children, suffers daily mistreatment. She cut her veins to escape. They saved her, and when she had recovered a little, they put her back in the cell. There is no escape.”

So where is Ovsyannikova’s fatherland? “The normal democratic world,” she replies. She likens Russia to the Germany of 1944: “It will wash in this shame for decades.”

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

Marina Ovsyannikova’s “Zwischen Gut und Böse” is published in German by Langenmüller

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