Maria Baronova resigned as editor-in-chief of Russia Today, a state-run media operation also known as RT, last week after condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. She’s well aware that anyone who speaks out against the Kremlin could be in danger – but personal safety is the least of Baronova’s concerns.
"The problem is, I know these people very well. They never send threats, they just kill, so there is kind of [a] weird silence around me, but I really think we’re on the brink of a nuclear war right now. I’m not exaggerating," Baronova told Fox News Digital from Moscow, via a WhatsApp call.
"I have a son, I can’t leave because his father won’t allow me to leave with him, and so I just prefer to stay in Moscow … It seems like we’re either in North Korea or we are going to be killed by a thermonuclear mushroom," she said. "I wouldn’t quit, and I wouldn’t lose my salary and job if I was sure that we are going to be alive for many years, but I really don’t know what is going to happen to all of us next."
While many around the globe are gravely concerned Putin would resort to nuclear weapons, Baronova is worried his behavior will make Russia the target of a catastrophic attack.
"I suspect the Western world will use it," Baronova said. "This is a very dangerous situation."
The blunt Baronova agreed to talk to Fox News Digital until her son’s food was ready. She explained that the last straw before quitting RT wasn’t any sort of on-air propaganda, but rather an Instagram message from her colleague who wrote, "If you are now ashamed of being Russian, don’t worry, you are not Russian," as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine intensified.
"I was really disturbed by that tone and level of support," Baronova said, noting that she publicly responded to her now-former coworker’s message.
"If I chose to be with Russia, this does not mean that I should walk in a totalitarian system, be silent or, for example, rejoice that the regime, which I do not want for my country, is being exported somewhere else," Baronova wrote. "And this regime will finally turn our life into one endless hell. What's there. Already turned."
Baronova then stepped down from the state-run network.
"That was the moment I decided, ‘OK, that’s it,’" she said.
Open Russia movement coordinator Maria Baronova (C) seen during an unauthorized rally organized by the Otkrytaya Rossiya [Open Russia] movement.
Baronova said she hasn’t garnered much support from fellow Russians since leaving RT and is seen as an opposition activist. But this isn’t the first time Baronova found herself in the public eye for opposing Putin’s regime.
She was featured in a 2012 New York Times piece headlined, "A Face of the Russian Protest Movement," that detailed the time she was charged with inciting a riot while protesting Putin winning a third term. In 2014, Rolling Stone said she was "for a short while, one of the most visible protesters in Moscow," in a piece that detailed anti-Putin activism led by the punk band Pussy Riot.
Her life was upended after the arrest and she eventually went to work for Dozhd, Russia’s top independent TV channel which is also known as TV Rain and famously critical of Putin.
Baronova, who was by then a single mother, jumped ship to RT in 2019, irking fellow Putin oppositionists who felt she was abandoning the movement by joining state-run media.
"People felt betrayed when I decided to join RT," she said. "But I decided on purpose in order to have a reasonable conversation with people who are in power right now in Russia."
Last week, Russian authorities accused TV Rain of peddling "false information regarding the actions of Russian military personnel as part of a special operation" in Ukrainec, and Baronova’s prior network was promptly forced off the air as Putin purged non-state media.
Baronova's two previous employers have suffered different fates over the past few days, as RT remains on air and has echoed Putin’s message throughout the Ukraine invasion.
Baronova, who was the managing editor of RT’s Russian language unit, said she wanted to bring positivity to the state-run outlet and much of her responsibilities focused on covering problems with social institutions. Baronova said she also spent much of her time at RT working on a fundraiser for mothers of children with cerebral palsy, and she was largely kept out of conversations regarding which Kremlin talking points would be spouted by the outlet despite her editor-in-chief title.
Roughly three years after joining the state-run news organization with hopes of forcing change, the activist-turned-journalist had seen enough after Putin’s ruthless attack on Ukraine that was supported by many of her now-former RT colleagues.
"I have nothing else to talk about with them," she said. "Our own government is bombing our relatives, our friends."
Baronova feels many Russians are "brainwashed" and some even buy Putin’s claim that the attack was needed to help "denazify" Ukraine, which the Kremlin has insisted was the true aggressor. Putin has claimed he wants to purge Ukraine of fascism; such messages, experts have told Fox News Digital, are appealing in Russia since loathing for the defeated Nazi Germany regime runs deep.
"I try to talk with people on the streets… they even had arguments like, ‘We are fighting with Hitler,’ but look, I’ve got some news. Hitler died 80 years ago," she said. "It seems like they’re really brainwashed."
Putin has cracked down on non-state news since the invasion of Ukraine began, with social media platforms and independent news operations forced to shut down for refusing to parrot propaganda. Some locals don’t mind that Putin has silenced non-state media and a Moscow taxi driver even told Baronova the now-shuttered TV Rain was filled with "traitors" who opposed the Kremlin.
"A lot of people have these kind of sentiments," she said.
Despite Putin’s attempt to control messaging related to the Ukraine invasion, Baronova is baffled that people still buy into his narrative when accurate information can be found by anyone eager to find it.
"We have internet like everybody else in this world, and you can’t hide information from people in the era of the internet, so I don’t understand how they can be brainwashed. How can they be saying that Russia is fighting with Hitler collaborators in Ukraine when Hitler died 80 years ago? But they really have these kinds of conversations," Baronova said, noting that some Russians have begun to open their eyes because of sanctions and American companies pulling out of the nation.
"People were in favor on [the] first day of invasion. Now they are less convinced and much more skeptical because they understand now that they are going to lose their jobs, they are going to lose their cars, their iPhones, their everything," she said. "So, let’s see what that are going to say in a month ... The whole world is in a bad position."
Painting a bleak picture, Baronova said it feels like 1945, the final year of World War II before quickly correcting herself.
"Probably more like 1939," she said, referring to the year that World War II began. "It is really pointless to predict anything … We are watching a lie on my TV."
Suddenly, Baronova had to go, as her son’s meal was ready – she told him to please put down his phone and eat. Before hanging up, she had one final message for Americans.
"Russians love their children, too," she said. "Stay safe. Everybody, stay safe."
Fox News’ David Rutz contributed to this report.