The victory of Russia’s civil society in the case of Ivan Golunov* has raised two very important points. Firstly, we have seen that, if provoked, Russians are able to stand up for persons who have fallen into disfavour with police authorities. Secondly, Russian civil society seldom rises to the occasion, especially on such a large scale.
(*Ivan Golunov, who works for the independent Russian website Meduza and is known for exposing local corruption, was recently arrested in Moscow on trumped up charges of drug dealing. He was reportedly beaten and held in custody without access to a lawyer for twelve hours before being put under house arrest. Human rights groups contend Golunov was framed. After a huge public outcry, Russian police dropped the drug charges against him and freed him from house arrest-Ed).
When the Russian government arrested investigative journalist Ivan Golunov on trumped up drug chargers, Kremlin watchers assumed this was just another of a seemingly endless series of attacks on the free press by the oppressive government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, one that would be met with the same ineffective protest by activists and others supportive of what remains of an independent news media in Russia.
But what they got surprised both them and the Russian security forces. The BBC called the protest “a rare public show of support” for arrested journalists, calling it “unprecedented” and adding a tweet from Reporters Without Borders calling the popular opposition uprising an “historic mobilisation of the Russian civil society.”
A number of Ukrainian journalists have pointed out that if such rallies and public outcry had been employed in defense of Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and Pavlo Hryb, the Ukrainian sailors, Crimean Tatars or other political prisoners, Russian liberal circles could have achieved similar results.
Some political commentators explain that the reason the pro-Golunov rallies attracted so many people and were so successful lies in the fact that reporting about corruption, which is not related personally to Vladimir Putin and his immediate entourage, is officially allowed by the Kremlin. So, Ivan Golunov and his supporters did not risk being labeled as “nazi traitors” or “enemies of the state” by speaking out against the reporter’s arrest.
Accordingly, because the rallies weren’t seen as an attack on Mr. Putin, even if they were surrogates for protests against the Russian president, the Kremlin’s response to them was necessarily muted. Politically, the security force’s response couldn’t be as aggressive and severe against Mr. Golunov’s supporters as they typically are against those who protest against Mr. Putin, himself. The law of proportionality called for a lesser response.
The “Ukrainian Issue”
Almost four years ago, I noted that Russian authorities often use the anti-corruption theme to strengthen their authority and keep officials under control. In addition, the Kremlin does not consider anti-corruption reports critically dangerous for its own power, since most Russians seem to tolerate this phenomenon and are ready to put up with swindlers and con artists to avoid “a greater evil”. So, the fact remains that many other Russian political prisoners – chief among them, Ukrainians – have seldom received as much public attention as has the Golunov case.
Of course, asserting that the “Ukrainian issue” is totally absent from Russian liberal media and civil society does not correspond to the truth. There have been several peace marches against the war in Ukraine and many rallies in support of Oleh Sentsov during his hunger strike. The Free Russia Forum, which recently ended in Lithuania, included a Ukrainian section, which was attended by, among others political scientists from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Many discussions during the forum devoted to information terrorism concerned Russia’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda, mainly the dissemination of false information and fake news reports about the May 2, 2014 protests in Odessa in which 48 pro-Russian activists were killed in a fire at the Trade Unions House during clashes between Euromaidan and anti-Maidan protests. Not only did guest speakers openly explain and discuss the occupation of Crimea, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and Russia’s interference in other countries, but these events were repeatedly sounded as the main examples of Putin’s crimes against foreign states.
Russian Social Progress Tied to Country’s Foreign Policy
However, it is much more difficult to communicate with the general Russian population as most prefer not to discuss their country’s policy towards other states. Human rights activists explain that Russians fear repression and that foreign policy issues are not popular ones to discuss among average citizens. They are content with raising protests and organizing rallies in support of different social issues, but are not yet comfortable addressing their nation’s foreign entanglements.
Thus, most Russian liberal activists continue to perceive the “Ukrainian issue” as a very hot button concern that could attract very dangerous attention from the Moscow government, one they don’t wish to gamble their organization’s existence upon.
Accordingly, they consider support for Ukrainian political prisoners not an integral part of their own human rights program, but, rather, an extravagance that does not offer them any personal benefits. So, it is quite natural that the extent of Russian support for Ukraine cannot be compared with support for fighting widespread local corruption. All societies are basically selfish, and most people prefer to defend their own, and not foreign causes. We can and must condemn Russians for their selfishness and irresponsibility, but we should also realize that it is something totally predictable.
But, the problem is a simple one. Russian dissidents fail to understand that they will not be able to achieve any tangible social changes in their country if they continue to ignore the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Mr. Putin’s government doesn’t stop discussion on such important social issues as pollution, corruption, poverty or government incompetence.
In fact, while Russian media doesn’t put a lot of effort into covering these issues, the aren’t discouraged from doing so by the Kremlin. For example, the problems of bribery and incompetence in official government circles have been raised in Russian entertainment media, and in 2018, at least two popular comedy series on theses topics appeared on television: The Year of Culture and House Arrest.
However, none of these topics can generate a serious large-scale protest movement that could lead to systemic changes and Mr. Putin’s demise, since Kremlin-inspired fear has a stronger impact on Russians than civic anger about lawlessness, corruption, government incompetence and the decline of living standards.
First among those fears created by the carefully cultivated propaganda of the Kremlin is the idea of the West as an “external threat” to Russia’s security. Second to their fear of an expansionist and threatening West, is the fear of revolution, crafted by propagandists to cause Russians to worry their country is on the brink of descending into chaos, self-destruction and financial ruin. Third, Russians believe that theft and bribery are inevitable under any government with the only difference being that a liberal government will not only continue “to loot the Motherland”, but will also “destroy it by order of its overseas masters”. Thus, as long as Russians see Putin as their “defender and saviour”, they will never venture beyond protesting local issues limited in their scope and potential, as they firmly believe that revolutionary rallies would plunge the country into something “much, much worse”.
That is why such topics as landfills in villages, garbage collection, corrupt apparatchiks, the construction of churches and other “permissible” demands will always remain on the local level until Russians understand one thing. Mr. Putin will not save Russia from any mortal danger. As soon as Russians realize that it was the Kremlin’s aggressive policy that instigated the so-called “external threat”, and that they themselves are responsible for all the chaos and bloodshed, only then will they be able to stand up and take a fresh look at the social problems surrounding them. As soon as they understand that the Kremlin is deliberately killing them, abandoning them without work or medicine, directing government funds to an unnecessary war in Ukraine, only then will they be able to overcome their fears and direct the Kremlin’s aggressive propaganda against Mr. Putin himself. The perception of Mr. Putin’s war as a “foreign issue” is an illusion, since the Kremlin has long since used its foreign policy in internal Russian discourse, making it the basis of its information operations to influence the Russian mindset.
As long as Russian liberal activists do not realize the above-mentioned points, their limited civic protests and activities are unlikely to lead to significant consequences. In fact, each victory, however small, will be accompanied by a wave of important defeats. So, when Mr. Golunov’s supporters gathered on June 12 for an unauthorized protest against police misconduct, the police were given a free hand to take their revenge by detaining more than 500 people out of a crowd of around 2,000. Moreover, Mr. Golunov himself announced that he was not going to take part in any unauthorized rallies, while Meduza’s chief editor Ivan Kolpakov said that “we have stood up for and freed our guy”, but “we do not engage in political activism and do not want to be the heroes of some kind of civil resistance movement”. Thus, the Meduza editorial staff refused to support a campaign against police fabrication of criminal cases.
With such an approach, Russian activists and liberal thinkers should not be surprised that each new Golunov-like case will be followed by similar police provocation and repression, and they should also realize that the public uprising that saved Mr. Goluvnov was an isolated case, and no single victory will ever stop the Kremlin’s repressive machine.