In a 19th century building in the heart of Kyiv, a group of journalists were hard at work. Olga Volkona, a television presenter, was about to interview a military expert. In an adjoining room, journalists were posting content on Telegram, YouTube and Facebook. Others were planning the launch next week of an online journal.
The February Morning channel has an ambitious and seemingly impossible goal: to overthrow Vladimir Putin. Unlike other media operating in Ukraine, it is aimed exclusively at an audience residing in Russia. Its 70 employees are Ukrainian and Russian. Some of them work in Russian provincial towns, as part of an undercover network.
The channel’s founder, Ilya Ponomarev, was a member of the Russian parliament. In 2014, he was the only MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea. A vengeful Kremlin then expelled him from the Duma and banned him, during a trip to the United States, from returning to his own country. Based in Kyiv, he became a Ukrainian citizen in 2019.
“I love this idea,” Ponomarev said, pointing to the white-blue-white flag that forms the backdrop of the channel’s live studio. It’s the Russian tricolor “minus the red blood,” he said. It was also the flag of Veliky Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, famous for its medieval democracy until it was seized power by Ivan the Terrible.
The most effective way to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is to bring down the regime in Moscow, Ponomarev said. With Putin in power, there is every reason to believe that the conflict could last for years or even decades. “Our work ultimately is an uprising of the masses,” he said. “We need people to see that they are not alone.”
Ponomarev conceded that it would be difficult to persuade Russians conditioned by years of state television propaganda to turn against their government. But he said there were two groups that made up a promising constituency. One was young urban liberals and supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Many have recently emigrated.
The other was the frustrated working class of Russia, fed up with corruption and mismanagement. Often leftist and largely disorganized, they had not fled abroad and were more likely to commit acts of civil disobedience, he said. Since February, militants have set fire to several Russian military recruitment offices, responsible for sending soldiers to Ukraine.
The former MP claimed “limited” credit for the mini-attacks, which were widely publicized in the February Morning news outlet, Rospartizan. The channel gives tips on making bombs and how to thwart the Russian spy agency FSB by disabling location settings on cell phones. These “little tricks” were taught in the early Putin era at left-wing faction summer camps, he said.
The Russian opposition is notorious for its infighting and backbiting. Ponomarev has already criticized Navalny. He described him as an ally in the fight to get rid of Putin, but alleged that Navalny’s controlling tendencies made him unfit to be president. Ponomarev said his vision is of a bottom-up decentralized Russia where local communities make their own decisions.
February Morning’s Ukrainian editor Larisa Rybalchenko said it will take time before she and her fellow editors change Russian society. “It will be a long journey. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially about the war. But it is essential for Russia and for Ukraine,” she said. Last week, Russian troops seized his hometown, Svitlodarsk, in the Donetsk region.
Since the invasion, the Kremlin has launched an unprecedented media crackdown. He shut down the country’s last independent news sources, including the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, the Echo Moskvy radio station and the Rain TV channel. Many journalists have been labeled as “foreign agents”. The use of the word “war” is a criminal offence; the Kremlin term is “special operation”.
Ponomarev said he was looking for Western funding sources for his channel. But he said London and Washington were reluctant to push for “regime change” in Russia, even though that is what they privately want. The Biden administration is providing Kyiv with $40 billion in arms and humanitarian aid. He says he’s not trying to eliminate Putin.
When asked if he was now a foreign agent in the eyes of the Kremlin, Ponomarev replied: “I would be proud if they called me that. Terrorist, extremist, it’s an act of recognition. He added: “Unfortunately, they are really smart. They made sure that there were no visible political figures among leftists and nationalists. We have to come up with a credible vision for the future of Russia.
The chain wants to build a second studio on its balcony, which overlooks the center of Kyiv and a skies of shrill summer swifts. The press operation costs $1 million a year. Ponomarev said he covers the running costs himself, using funds accumulated during a successful career as an investor in Silicon Valley. His own political views were those of a “libertarian left anarchist”, he said.
Young rebels plotting in small groups against the mighty Russian state were similar to social revolutionaries of more than a century ago, he said. They fought to bring down the Tsar and give land to the peasants. In February 1917 they succeeded in overthrowing the government – only to see the Bolsheviks and Lenin resume the revolution and take power.
“The elites in Russia are unhappy. But at the moment they are not scared enough,” Ponomarev said. “They need to see the ghost of 1917.”