«Keeping silent kills you»: An interview with Egor Polyakov, who was behind the anti-war protest on pro-Kremlin site

On the morning of May 9, the President of the aggressor country, Vladimir Putin was in for an unpleasant surprise. And not somewhere out there, in Ukraine or in the Black Sea near the Snake Island, but right within spitting distance — in Moscow, on the Warsaw highway.

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«Keeping silent kills you»: An interview with Egor Polyakov, who was behind the anti-war protest on pro-Kremlin site

On the morning of May 9, the President of the aggressor country, Vladimir Putin was in for an unpleasant surprise. And not somewhere out there, in Ukraine or in the Black Sea near the Snake Island, but right within spitting distance — in Moscow, on the Warsaw highway.

number of anti-Putin articles appeared on the home page of Russian pro-government outlet Lenta.ru.

The headlines read:

  • «Vladimir Putin has turned into a pathetic dictator and paranoiac»,
  • «Putin has unleashed one of the bloodiest wars of the 21st century»,
  • «It is easier to cover failures in the economy behind the war. Putin must get away. He has unleashed a senseless war and is leading Russia into the abyss»,
  • «Zelensky turned out to be cooler than Putin»,
  • «The diseases that the Russian elite suffers from are „buddy system“ and toadyism»,
  • «Tribunal is waiting for Putin and his allies»

As it turned out, the reason for these articles to appear is not a hacker activity. Lenta.ru reported that this was a protest of employees.

The responsibility for publication was claimed by the head of the sections «Economy» and «Living Environment» Egor Polyakov and the editor of these sections Aleksandra Miroshnikova. 

Polyakov said that together with Miroshnikova, they selected about 40-45 cases, news, and facts that the Russian media had concealed after the outbreak of the war and described them in as much detail as possible, trying not to fall into reverse propaganda. DEV Ukraine has contacted Polyakov to find out the details of the media protest. Polyakov also shared his opinion on what is happening now in Russian media and society in general, and voiced his thoughts about the causes of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.

How did the editorial team of Lenta.ru react to your action?

If we talk about personal reactions, there were 30-40 positive versus zero negative inside the office. Moreover, some people from the editorial team texted me with whom I was not even familiar. But I know at least a few people who justify the war and, I believe, they do not treat our action positively.

Egor Polyakov

What did your management tell you?

For ethical reasons, I will not disclose the content of our conversation. There wasn’t anything «wow», they attempted to lean on me in a raised voice, but I was mentally ready for this, so we quickly understood each other and drifted apart.

How was the «pitfall» noticed?

It was noticed by the duty workers, who did not even understand initially what had happened. Between forty and fifty minutes after the «update» of the articles, I was already having a tense conversation with my immediate manager.

Screenshots of the articles published on Lenta.ru on May 9, 2022. All of the articles were accompanied by a disclaimer: «This article is not approved by the leadership, and the presidential administration will likely punish them therefor. In other words: TAKE A SCREENSHOT NOW before they delete it.» 

Did you have to get away somewhere?

Yes, I left Russia.

Was it planned?

Yes, Sasha (another journalist participating in the action) and I understood the risks, so it was part of our plan.

Regarding Marina Ovsyannikova (ex-editor at Channel One, who interrupted a news broadcast with an anti-war poster), are you familiar with her performance? Do you believe that it was directed? Or do you think it was a sincere action?

I don’t know Marina personally, so I cannot comment on her actions, probably she had her reasons. I don’t really believe that it was directed. Technically, as it seems to me, it wasn’t staged: from the moment of appearing on the set to the sound of Marina’s voice and further being kicked out of the set, plus, we can add here that the recording was impossible to download from the federal channels — all these things indicate that it was not a staged action.

Can you explain why you decided to do it? It has very ambiguous consequences for you, doesn’t it?

It’s very simple. Keeping silent kills you. On the very first day of the war, I realized that if I didn’t try to do at least something, I simply wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eyes in the mornings.

Keeping a good conscience and being honest with myself are the main motives.

The most important news about Ukrainian IT in English are here

You know, probably a hundred thousand times, I’ve scrolled through this kind of dialogue in my head: what is more important — work or the lives of innocent women and children? What is more important — the future life of colleagues who remained silent for the sake of personal comfort or the future life of innocent women and children? I have contemplated lots of such comparisons in my head, and it was difficult and painful, but never once did I conclude that something could be more important than the lives of innocent people.

How do you think it happened that you decided to make such a step — and others not?

That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to it. Of course, I can haughtily answer that I have brass balls. But it won’t be true — this performance has sufficiently damaged my health, but I don’t regret it. Seventy-five days of the war were disgusting to me. It’s embarrassing, painful, insulting, etc. Today is probably the first day when all of this is not gnawing at me from the inside.

Do you have friends or relatives in Ukraine?

I know that I have some, kind of, but we don’t keep in touch or communicate. These are very distant relatives, whom I saw several times when I was a child. Since then, I know nothing about their lives, and this fact (the existence of relatives) would not have affected my choice in any way.

Egor Polyakov right

How difficult is it to post a lie on the website every day?

That’s also a good question. Let me come from afar, answering it. I graduated from the university in 2013, and my first place to work was Gazeta.ru. I started there in 2014, after the Crimea situation, so I had almost no chance to earn money in a normal and independent media. After Gazeta.ru, I had a choice to be employed by the news outlet that would bring searches and the attention of law enforcement agencies or go to work at TASS — I had no other prospects then. I chose TASS, expecting that it would be a good point in my CV and an invaluable experience.

The experience was priceless. I saw how this insensitive machine works from the inside. I didn’t manage it for a long time, though, but, again, I appreciate this experience. In my future career, it helped me a lot, including in the case of this performance. After TASS, I was offered to head an entire department, for which I am sincerely grateful to the management of Lenta.ru.

Believe me, in the first years of my work there (2017-2018), it was a very, very free-from-censorship and cool outlet. I am sincerely proud of the many pieces that I made and people who worked with me.

But the flywheel of censorship has been unwinding over the years. I have long ago understood and even told my colleagues that sooner or later, we will go in different directions because it is simply impossible to work in permanently deteriorating conditions. Plus, don’t forget that, after all, I’m a manager, and I have some responsibility before my colleagues. I often played the role of a lightning rod between my team members and senior management. The war has just accelerated this decision to the maximum. And as for the reasons for this performance — I have already mentioned them.

What is the general mood of media people in Moscow now? You probably cross paths with them at work, don’t you? What do they say? What is the attitude towards the war? In a sense, we are also limited in our understanding of what is happening with you. Exit polls show terrible numbers of support for Putin.

I can hardly speak on behalf of all media people, but I believe that those who have heads on their shoulders cannot approve of this matter at all. I am a very small person to «probe» this matter, as they say. Judging from parts of information from other media or indirect conversations, I would cautiously say that the layer of those who are against is large. I will not say that they are the majority, but I will say that it is a hefty number.

It is useless to look at what social polls show. Yes, indeed, there are many people who support the war.

But we are vainly speculating with numbers, without going into the reasons. People do not see the horrors of war and justify it. What they see is that Nazis and Bandera followers strike at their cities and terrorize civilians.

Imagine that you are an ordinary Russian person with an average salary of, say, 50 thousand rubles [said in the national currency of Russia; around $760] per month; in Russia’s regions, 20-25 thousand rubles [$300-380] is considered to be a good salary at all. You definitely have at least one due loan, you are trying to somehow make ends meet, you do not waste time analyzing information, comparing facts — you come home, being worm out, turn on the TV and consume, even indirectly, only one point of view in an extremely emotional presentation, where your ears are caressed daily about «the rebirth of great Russia» and «the crusade against the Nazis from all over the world».

I understand the claims against Russians. But digging into the reasons, trying to find an answer to your question, it becomes obvious to me that one of the main reasons is poverty. Poverty begets poverty. As a rule, the poor strata are uneducated, the poor people are easier to manipulate, and the poor people do not thrive at the upper levels of Maslow’s pyramid — they do not have the resources for this. Media, in its turn, draws up a beautiful picture of the world, telling about the endless «hell in the West and in Ukraine» and reporting on the successes of the great people led by Vladimir Vladimirovich. How not to believe it?

And this is not to mention the repressive laws and the general distrust in sociology in our country.

Plus, do not forget that the Kremlin really keeps the poor strata hooked by promising all sorts of social benefits. People are so delighted when the government gives them 10 thousand rubles [$150] in surplus, you can’t even imagine.

Lol

Anyways, according to the traffic indicators for such news, this is very clearly visible.

Unfortunately, this is not lol, but a very sad situation, and in many ways, this is the reason for the war. You can see for yourself the scale of theft and looting that Russian troops let themselves go to.

You left Russia. You left everything there. What are you going to do now?

My answer to this will be very short — I want to have a rest.

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