On the ninth day of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, editor-in-chief Viktor Muchnik gathered the staff of TV2 for a meeting at their small newsroom in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
New wartime laws meant the whole newsroom risked jailtime for reporting on the conflict, Muchnik told them, and TV2 had just been 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 moment we can feel we have failed,” said Muchnik, reflecting bitterly on his three decades of work at one of Russia’s most resilient media outlets.
The journalists drained glasses of wine, and almost everybody 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 couple of suitcases and flew out of Russia, probably for ever.
“One reason was professional: the thing you’ve been doing for so long has been killed. The other one was human. Neither of us wanted to be inside this space, in this country which has launched a war, and living among people who support this war,” said Muchnik, in an interview in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where the couple now live, along with tens of thousands of Russians who have fled in the weeks since the war began.
For years, TV2 was an anomaly in the Russian media landscape, an island of media freedom in the Siberian university town of Tomsk. From its chaotic yet idealistic beginnings as the Soviet Union collapsed, through various gritty battles with authorities, culminating in fury, defiance and ultimately defeat, the history of TV2 gives 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 as the Soviet Union was on its last legs. At the time, Muchnik was a young history professor attracted by the idea of making political programmes; the first cameraman was a former policeman
“Arkady was the only one who knew anything about television – the rest of us were straight off the street. We had one VHS camera, and we made programmes and took them to the television tower. They put it out for us,” recalled Muchnik.
For entertainment, the channel showed American films: they located pirated cassettes at the market and broadcast them, happily oblivious to copyright concerns.
The channel came into its own in August 1991 during the coup from reactionary forces who wanted to restore hardline Soviet rule. As the central television stations went dark, TV2 journalists got updates by 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 sent the tapes back with pilots flying to Tomsk.
So it was that television 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 felt they were riding on a wave of freedom. Local politicians did not much like TV2, but they felt obliged to come to the studio for interviews.
But then, when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, things slowly began to change. “I didn’t like him from the start. I didn’t like his KGB background, I didn’t like his smile and his way of speaking,” said Muchnik.
Gradually, the space for free programming began to shrink. It did not help that the channel was purchased 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 mouthpiece.
By this time, TV2 was a media holding 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 in a sign of Putin’s intention to make sure the oligarchs stayed out of politics.
The channel survived Khodorkovsky’s arrest but the pressure on independent media outlets kept increasing. In 2007, the channel received a series of unofficial warnings from Moscow.
“It was made clear: if you want to attack the mayor, that’s fine; if you want to attack the governor, that’s just about OK, but please don’t attack Putin,” said Muchnik.
”And how are you supposed to leave Putin out of it if you want to do journalism in our wonderful country? If you get into any problem, before long you arrive at the Kremlin, because that’s how the system is built,” he said.
At the end of 2013, TV2 sent a reporting team to Kyiv to cover the first stirrings of the Maidan revolution, and put out reports on the subsequent annexation of Crimea that had a very different flavour from those on state television.
“Our reporting alienated us not only from the authorities but also part of our audience, who started sending us abuse,” said Muchnik.
A month later, the channel was taken off the air, due to supposed technical problems, and at the end of 2014 it was formally closed down. TV2 went from a media holding with more than 250 employees to a website run by a team of 15 people. Authorities refused to register the website as a media outlet, meaning they were banned from attending press conferences or requesting official commentary.
Despite this, TV2 continued to have impact beyond its modest means. During the Covid pandemic, TV2 journalists received calls from doctors, talking of a catastrophe that state television pretended didn’t exist. People sent footage of patients lying on the floor for a lack of beds.
The site broke several Covid-related stories: a man who dressed up as a doctor to care for his grandmother and recorded the awful conditions in the hospital in the process, and a family who were told their grandmother had died, but when they opened the coffin found the body of a stranger.
Working in these conditions was hard yet possible – but the invasion of Ukraine in February was a game-changer.
A new Russian law about “fakes” meant the entire newsroom could be jailed for their coverage. In these conditions, Muchnik took the decision to close down the station.
“We couldn’t convey to people what was happening in their own country, and that hurts me,” said Alexander 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 closed down, and people will get what they wanted,” he said.
Now, from Yerevan, the Muchniks keep in touch with journalists from other independent regional outlets who have also fled Russia, trying to coordinate future work. They are also working on a project called Witnesses, interviewing Russians on 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 decline offers to be interviewed anonymously.
“Some people feel it’s important to show their faces despite the risks. If you go to a protest, you can just be arrested and nobody will see you, but this is a way for them to register that they do not agree with this war,” said Viktoria.
Many of the interview subjects told the Muchniks they had fallen out with their own families over their opposition to the war, and Viktoria has had similar difficult conversations with her own mother, who is 82 and mainly watches state television.
“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, couldn’t you have just kept quiet?’”
Like many recent Russian emigres, the Muchniks feel bitterly disappointed that their long years of work failed to bring about a different kind of Russia, and saddened that they felt they had no choice but to flee.
They hope they will be able to continue to have an influence on politics in Russia from outside the country, but are adamant that they will not return before there is political change.
“It’s very difficult to exist inside this atmosphere of militaristic hysteria. We will not go back until the collapse of the regime,” said Viktor.