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Nicolas Huvé 2024-01-17

Kirill Karnovich-Valua is an Emmy-nominated producer and award-winning creative director. He fled his home in Russia when the war in Ukraine started and is now living in Slovenia. He shared his story with us.


Please tell us about your career before the war in Ukraine. You worked many years for Russia Today (RT) in Moscow, correct?

Yes. Back in time, Russia cared about international relations and tried to deliver its viewpoint, but not through missiles and rockets. RT gained a lot of attention as an alternative to global mainstream media. Working on RT’s social media and digital projects, my team made it the first-ever global news TV channel to reach one billion views on YouTube. We even had Robert Kyncl, the former Chief Business Officer of YouTube, now CEO of Warner Music Group, in our TV studio congratulating us on the milestone. “You are rockstars”, he said back in 2013. What a time it was! 

As an example of how drastically things changed, - back in the day, I openly voted for Alexei Navalny for Moscow mayor in 2013. Now, with Alexei and many other prominent activists held as political prisoners, that sounds surreal. After 2014 – with Crimea, the war in Donbas, the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing, and the tightening grip on the opposition and media – it became much harder to work in the news. So I started focusing on creative digital projects and launched an in-house agency, which became RT Creative Lab. We tried to re-imagine history through digital and social media. We created educational projects that inspired students in universities and history classes all around the world.

You won several awards as a creative director, notably at the Epica Awards. Can you describe your creative ventures and successes back in Russia?

In more than five years before being dissolved, RT Creative Lab won over 300 international awards. But Epica is always going to be a special one, as our two bronzes in 2017 were the first big international prizes in our collection. After that, we won at Epica every year. Nine pyramids, two of them Gold. A key feature of our projects was repackaging history and making it fresh and engaging for younger people. Ironically, one of our last projects, #VictoryPages, was an anti-war project. Our aim was to show why it’s important to be aware of history and how much pain, death and tragedy war brings. But now it’s obvious to me–we were doomed to fail in this task.

Then comes February 24th 2022, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. What went on in your head at that moment? Did you see it coming?

Since January there had been a lot of alarming reports that Russia was planning an invasion, but it seemed unreal. I thought an all-out war in the middle of Europe was impossible in modern times. It’s pointless, stupid in every sense. On February 24th, I was in Prague with my colleagues on a business trip. We were traveling to Berlin – a city liberated by Soviet soldiers from the Nazis who invaded Russia back in 1941. Now the tables had turned. Now it was Russia who barbarically invaded another country. In the same way – without a declaration of war, early in the morning, with heavy bombing, rockets and missiles hitting residential buildings. The first day was the worst. I was devastated. Seeing the videos from Ukraine, people hiding in bomb shelters, refugees running away from their homes – all this brought me a lot of pain. I immediately understood that it was a “before and after” moment. Our lives would never be the same after February 24.

Our aim was to show why it’s important to be aware of history and how much pain, death and tragedy war brings. But now it’s obvious to me –we were doomed to fail.

Can you elaborate on your intellectual evolution from working at RT, which many in the West consider Russian propaganda, to fleeing your home with your family?

At RT there were a lot of truly talented journalists. We would often air heated live debates, giving the stage to radically opposite opinions. In the early years, it was a genuinely diverse team, with people from all over the world working side-by-side, including Russian and Ukrainian, among many others. I felt we were doing something important. 

I love my country. I was proud of the Sochi Olympics; I was stunned by the festival of happiness which was the 2018 World Cup. But as the years went by, it got harder and harder to live in Russia. The level of freedom diminished. The level of violence and hatred grew. After the war, it skyrocketed. You can now be jailed for up to 15 years for “discrediting the Russian Army”. There are no independent media left. Hundreds of people have been imprisoned for their opinions. And the level of hatred is just beyond. 

I am thankful for the years that we had at RT Creative Lab, where our mission was to do good work while experimenting with storytelling formats and new technologies. What I’ve learned since the beginning of the war is that anything can be over in a snap. I also learned that home is not a place. Home is a feeling. I understand that our situation can’t be compared to that of Ukrainian people who had to flee their country. To those who lost their homes in bombings, to those who lost their loved ones. But we lost our old lives and had to start over. We lost friends along the way, we left relatives back home. War is a human tragedy. But keeping the good in yourself, helping others, opposing evil, and standing up to discrimination – this is the way to keep changing the world for the better. One small step, one small deed at a time.

Please tell us the choices you made, and where you are now.

It became obvious that the war was going to last. Although we all hoped for some kind of peace deal, and that the killings would stop, those hopes were shattered after the Bucha massacre. After getting back from Europe–I flew back to Moscow on literally the last plane from Berlin before airspace was closed to Russian airlines – we decided it was impossible to stay in Russia and that we had to get our three-year-old out of the country. I left RT Creative Lab. My teammates followed and eventually, the agency ceased to exist. With my family, we went first to Armenia, then to Turkey – where we would try to figure things out and get on with our lives. Immigrating to another country not of your own will, but being forced, is a tough situation. But as each month passed we became more certain of our choice. Eventually, we ended up in Slovenia, thanks to the Pristop agency, which invited me to become their Digital Creative Strategist. Slovenia is a beautiful and peaceful country, where our boy can grow up in an accepting environment.

It seems you are not an isolated case. How is the Russian creative community coping with the war?

There are a lot of success stories about Russian creatives leaving the country in the wake of the war. I know people who’ve moved to Europe and the US and restarted their careers in agencies or launched their businesses. Back in Russia, the majority of people I know are against the war. Many are trying to find options abroad, but unsuccessfully so far. Some stayed for their teams and are trying to fight from within. Sadly, there are also those who adapted to the situation, doing business as usual and ignoring the war. This I can’t understand. But the majority of my fellow creatives in Russia were against all this from day one. And they are continuing to oppose it. Even publicly, despite the real danger.

I flew back to Moscow on literally the last plane from Berlin before airspace was closed to Russian airlines – we decided it was impossible to stay in Russia and that we had to get our three-year-old out of the country.

What do you wish people would do about this situation?

I wish people would focus on listening to themselves, and on staying human. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the aggression that surrounds us in news feeds. It’s a very hard time to live through. So I wish people wouldn’t rush into the flow of aggression, but instead find ways to help. Not only people affected by these conflicts. Help a random person on the street. Help your neighbor. Spend time with your family. Make them smile. Message your distant friend, tell him how you miss him. In dark times, it’s very important to fill your life and the lives of others with warmth, with random acts of kindness. The more people do this, the more brightness there will be in our world. Maybe that’s naive, but I hold on to it.

Are you working on any projects right now? What are you looking forward to in the future?

I’m working on several ideas and projects here in Ljubljana. Just recently, I helped create storytelling around the launch of a blockchain payment system at the end of 2023. But the biggest thing of the new 2024 is Digital Da Vincis. It was a long-time idea that I had in mind, to create a community that will unite digital artists, new media producers, and award-winning creatives. Digital Da Vincis is a big concept, so far in the early stage. Through this platform (which is a mixture of media, creative lab, digital art collective & studio), we explore how new technologies like AI enhance creativity, how new tools & innovations change the way we create art, content or even advertising. So it’s going to be quite a journey. You can follow Da Vincis on TwitterInstagram and FacebookThe website is also coming live soon. We are always open to new connections, projects, ideas and collaborations. So feel free to get in touch on LinkedIn!

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