“It’s not propaganda”: a Khodorkovsky ally became a top manager at RT

The Bell

What happened

It’s difficult to imagine a person with Maria Baronova’s biography working at RT. She took part in anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-12, participated in elections as a member of the opposition’s coordinating committee, corresponded with billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky while he was in prison and then became a coordinator for Khodorkovsky’s organization, Open Russia.

  • Baronova’s views have always been odd: she said in an interview (Rus) that in the early 2000s she loved President Vladimir Putin and the vitriolic pro-Kremlin historian Sergey Kurginyan. And she considered (Rus) Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to be a U.S. project. But later she turned into a very vocal opposition figure. She participated in all the major protests, including those on Bolotnaya Square in May 2012, which ended up with many protesters being jailed. Baronova herself was released after signing an agreement not to leave the country. In 2016, Baronova put herself forward as a candidate for the Duma but lost the election and fell out with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
  • Baronova defends her move to RT with the same passion she once used to criticize the government. In her words, she has been doing one thing her entire life: helping people and making her country better. She was supposedly limited in her job choices because of her “excessive toxicity” (i.e. association with the opposition, particularly Khodorkovsky).
  • While she wrote on Twitter in 2013 that RT “lies about Russia”, she now refuses to answer questions about whether this is still the case and says she agrees with the channel’s editorial policy. RT, in her words (Rus), is not involved in propaganda, but rather in “communication with society.”
  • At RT, Baronova will be in charge of a charitable project named, ironically, after a song by the legendary perestroika-era rock group Kino. The idea behind the project is that viewers can donate money directly to the bank cards of those in need (RT journalists will check if their stories are true). Many philanthropy specialists have criticized the idea, but Baronova isn’t bothered. The main objection is that journalists might not be best qualified to evaluate what aid is required, and that those who receive the money might not know how to spend it most effectively. Moreover, such donations may help generate nice stories, but they don’t improve the system, which is what charities are for. Baronova herself says that the project is designed to help those who fall through the cracks.

Why the world should care

Baronova is well known in liberal circles in Moscow, and her move to RT has provoked large amounts of bafflement and anger. Her motives may remain opaque, but her story is a reminder that opposition to the current regime is not necessarily a zero-sum game.

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