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The woman who spoke out against the Ukraine war on Russian TV now lives in France

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, an editor with a leading Russian news broadcast staged a protest that, at least in Russia, is unthinkable today. She risked prison for it and ended up fleeing. Now she lives in France. And NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sat down with her.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Last March as a Russian anchorwoman read the news, editor Marina Ovsyannikova shouted out from behind her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EKATERINA ANDREEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARINA OVSYANNIKOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: She had burst onto the set of Russia's Channel One, holding a large, white poster board where she had scrawled, stop the war. Don't believe the propaganda. They're lying to you. She would know.

OVSYANNIKOVA: Bonjour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).

OVSYANNIKOVA: Nice to meet you.

BEARDSLEY: Eleven months later, I meet 44-year-old Ovsyannikova in the Paris headquarters of Reporters Without Borders, the organization that helped her get out of Russia.

OVSYANNIKOVA: I worked 20 years in Channel One in Moscow. I was editor of the main news program. Yes, I was a part of this strong Kremlin propaganda machine.

BEARDSLEY: For a time after the Soviet collapse, the newscast was more or less independent. She says that changed in 2008 after Russia invaded Georgia and stepped up its propaganda against the West. She switches to Russian and speaks through an interpreter.

OVSYANNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) I must admit that I didn't recognize the coming catastrophe. You know, we saw all these changes happening, but we thought, OK, it's maybe for the less-educated part of the population. Maybe it's for members of the governments. So we tell them the things they want to hear. Nobody took it seriously, and we kind of hid our heads in the sand.

BEARDSLEY: Ovsyannikova says, for her, Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a point of no return.

OVSYANNIKOVA: I really cried. Maybe two days.

BEARDSLEY: Two days of torment knowing she had to act. The divorced mother prepared her sign at home when her two kids were visiting their father.

OVSYANNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) I was 90% sure that I wouldn't be able to do it, that somebody would stop me. And finally, in the last minute, I ran to the studio with my poster because I was thinking that maybe if I didn't do it that day, the next day, I wouldn't have the energy at all.

BEARDSLEY: She lost her job but believes she was not immediately jailed because the Kremlin thought a divorced mother with no protest history might generate sympathy. She's sure authorities regret that decision now. She was later put under house arrest for demonstrating near Red Square with a sign bearing the number of children killed in Ukraine. Nine days before her trial, her lawyer told her she would likely get a heavy sentence and had better flee. Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, says Ovsyannikova's escape is something out of a Hollywood film.

CHRISTOPHE DELOIRE: When she left, I wouldn't have bet that she would succeed. There were so many risks on the road. She was under house arrest with some members of her families in front of her house who are Putinist, and they could have betrayed her. She had an electronic bracelet. So there were so many reasons that she would fail.

BEARDSLEY: She used seven different cars and cut off her electronic bracelet and threw it out the window. Near the EU border, they got stuck in the mud, and she had to walk for hours through forests with no phone coverage, guided only by the stars. A strong sense of humor clearly helped her make it.

OVSYANNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) But I didn't leave my luggage. I still brought it with me until the end.

BEARDSLEY: She fled with her 12-year-old daughter but had to leave her 18-year-old son and a mother who told her she's a criminal behind. Ovsyannikova is disappointed few Russians have protested the war but says the fear and the propaganda work.

OVSYANNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) Many have this stance. Like, things are not that straightforward. This is the common expression, and this works very well because it allows the propaganda to sell some conspiracy theories about some evil forces that have been working for centuries to destroy Russia.

BEARDSLEY: While she's lost a lot - her home, part of her family - Ovsyannikova says she still has much to live for. She says this war can only end with Ukraine's victory and the fall of Putin. She will soon publish a book about the inner workings of his propaganda machine and says she will never shut up. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.