Iat the 19th-century building in the heart of Kyiv, a group of journalists were hard at work. Olga Volkona, the TV presenter, was preparing to interview a military expert. In a nearby room, reporters were posting content to Telegram, YouTube and Facebook. Others were preparing for the launch next week of an online newspaper.
The channel, February Morning, has one ambitious and seemingly impossible goal: topple Vladimir Putin. Unlike other media outlets operating in Ukraine, it is exclusively aimed at an audience living in Russia. Its 70 staff are Ukrainian and Russian. Some of them work in provincial Russian towns, as part of an undercover network.
The channel’s founder, Ilya Ponomarev, used to be a member of Russia’s parliament. In 2014 he was the only deputy to vote against the annexation of Crimea. A vengeful Kremlin then chucked him out of the Duma and barred him when he was on a trip to the US from re-entering 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 channel’s live studio backdrop. It is the Russian tricolor “minus the red blood”, he said. It was also the flag of Veliky Novgorod, one of Russia’s oldest cities, famed for its medieval democracy until its takeover by Ivan the Terrible.
The most effective way of ending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is to bring down the regime in Moscow, Ponomarev said. With Putin in power, there is every prospect the conflict could drag on for years, even decades. “Our job at the end of the day is an uprising of the masses,” he said. “We need individuals to see they are not alone.”
Ponomarev conceded it would be difficult to persuade Russians conditioned by years of state TV propaganda to turn on their government. But he said there were two groups who formed a promising constituency. One was younger urban liberals and supporters of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Many have recently emigrated.
The other was Russia’s frustrated working class, fed up with corruption and misrule. Often leftwing and largely disorganized, they had not fled abroad and were more likely to carry out acts of civil disobedience, he said. Since February, activists have burned down several Russian military recruitment offices, tasked with sending soldiers to Ukraine.
The former MP claimed “limited” credit for these mini-attacks, which have featured extensively on February Morning’s media outlet, Rospartizan. The channel gives tips on bomb making and how to thwart Russia’s FSB spy agency by turning off mobile phone location settings. These “small tricks” were taught in the early Putin era at left-faction summer camps, he said.
Russia’s opposition is famous for its internal feuds and backbiting. Ponomarev has previously been critical of Navalny. He described him as an ally in the struggle to get rid of Putin but alleged that Navalny’s controlling tendencies made him unfit to be president. Ponomarev said his vision was of a decentralized bottom-up Russia where local communities make their own decisions.
February Morning’s Ukrainian chief editor, Larisa Rybalchenko, said it would take time before she and her editorial colleagues change Russian society. “It will be a long journey. There is a lot of disinformation out there, especially about the war. But it’s essential for Russia and for Ukraine,” she said. Last week Russian troops seized her home town, Svitlodarsk, in the Donetsk region.
Since the invasion, the Kremlin has launched an unprecedented media crackdown. It has closed down the country’s last independent sources of news, including the paper Novaya Gazeta, the radio station Echo Moskvy and the TV channel Rain. Numerous journalists have been branded “foreign agents”. Using the word “war” is a criminal offence; the Kremlin term is “special operation”.
Ponomarev said he was looking for western sources of funding for his channel. But he said London and Washington were wary of promoting “regime change” in Russia, even though that is what they privately want. The Biden administration is providing Kyiv with $40bn in arms and humanitarian aid. It says it’s not trying to remove Putin.
Asked whether he was now a foreign agent in the eyes of the Kremlin, Ponomarev said: “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 have ensured there are no visible political figures among leftists and nationalists. We need to offer a credible vision for Russia’s future.”
The channel wants to build a second studio on its balcony, which overlooks central Kyiv and a sky of screeching summer swifts. The news operation costs $1ma year. Ponomarev said he covered running costs himself, from accumulated funds during a successful career as a Silicon Valley investor. His own political views of him were those of a “left-libertarian anarchist”, he said.
The young rebels plotting in tiny groups against the mighty Russian state were similar to the social revolutionaries of more than a century ago, he said. They fought to bring down the tsar and to give land to the peasants. In February 1917 they succeeded in removing the government – only to see the Bolsheviks and Lenin take over the revolution and seize power.
“Elites in Russia are dissatisfied. But right now they are not scared enough,” said Ponomarev. “They need to see the ghost of 1917.”