Golunov's Case Turns the Kremlin's PR On Its Head | Wilson Center

Golunov's Case Turns the Kremlin's PR On Its Head

Ivan Golunov sits in a jail cell in Moscow. Source: Evgeniy Feldman, Meduza, CCBY 4.0

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Although the crowd that got to Petrovka Street in the afternoon was largely young, everyone seemed to understand the good old rules for a nonconformist in a police state: know your rights, know their rules, and do not provoke the use of force. If they tell you to stand 50 meters apart, stand 50 meters apart. If you are not supposed to pass your sign on to the next person, do not do that either. Do not contradict, do not present physical resistance.

By the time I got to the Moscow police headquarters there was a well-ordered line of those waiting to stand under the granite plaque reading “The Interior Ministry’s Chief Directorate for the City of Moscow.” Almost everyone managed to procure a piece of paper with the words “Free Ivan Golunov” jotted on it.

I don’t think I have ever seen so many colleagues from all over Moscow’s journalism scene gathered in one place, so determined and so cheerful at the same time. Early last Friday Russia’s journalism community was electrified by the news that a reporter had been detained on drug charges. The person detained and charged with an attempt to sell illegal drugs was the Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov. The combination of the charge and Golunov’s line of work immediately set off alarm bells and made journalists suspect foul play.

For the past three years Golunov has been working for the independent Latvia-based Russian-language news site Meduza. He has exposed corrupt schemes by Moscow city officials in waste disposal and the funeral business, among other industries. He received threats related to his piece on how officials profiteered from mortuaries and funeral services, Golunov said at a court hearing on Saturday. He also said he had never used drugs and would cooperate with the investigation if it “maintained fair rules of the game.”

Few independent journalists doubted Golunov’s statements. The Russian security agencies’ practice of planting narcotics to facilitate arrests and manufacture criminal cases is well known. But police provocations like this are extremely difficult to expose in Russia and hard to explain outside the country. We were looking at yet another case that was almost certainly manufactured and would almost certainly lead to a lengthy jail term for an innocent person. The most recent example of this usual sequence is a Chechen human rights activist who is serving a four-year term for drug possession. The prospect of a similar outcome and an even harsher sentence (possession plus attempted sale is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment) loomed large.

But it soon became clear that the story would not drown in the news cycle and the case would not go as planned. The official story started to show cracks when the police circulated photographs purportedly taken in Ivan Golunov’s apartment. The pictures showed what looked like a makeshift chemical laboratory and sacks of white powder. The reaction was anger first, then ridicule. “Investigative journalists refrain even from jaywalking to make sure the authorities find no fault with them,” the well-known investigative reporter Roman Shleinov wrote. Golunov’s friends and colleagues started to post on social media photographs of Golunov’s real apartment and vouched for him as clean of narcotics of any kind. “His only drug is curiosity,” wrote Leonid Bershidsky, Ivan’s former editor at Vedomosti and at Slon.ru, a news and opinion site that is now called Republic.ru, on Twitter. “But in Russia that’s against the law.”

The public outcry was so loud the police had to retract the publication and admit the pictures had been taken at a different location, not in Golunov’s place. The unprecedented fact that the police had to admit to an attempt to spread sham photos was the first important milestone in the journalism community’s coming to terms with what they were up against. A suspicion that the case might have been a provocation all along was getting stronger.

The idea of individual picketing apparently jumped into a number of people’s minds simultaneously. The first dozen journalists who reached Moscow’s police headquarters, the well-known Petrovka 38 building, and staged individual picketing were detained, but were soon released without charges. In Russia, a person can publicly stand and hold a sign provided there are no other protesters closer than 50 meters from the individual picketer in question. All group and mass protests can take place only if the authorities are notified in advance (which is, by the way, a direct contradiction of the Russian constitution).

The authorities soon stopped the detentions. There are still people standing in that same line today, Moscow’s Monday afternoon, day four after Golunov’s arrest. People are still careful to observe the rules, but the police are apparently getting used to the new, if temporary, reality.

So much has happened by now and so many acts of solidarity with Ivan Golunov are pouring in that the sight of people protesting in front of a police building is no longer eyecatching. The culture figures who spoke in favor of Ivan are the sort that would rarely be seen or heard on issues of everyday politics. Even the journalists from state-run media were allowed a certain leeway in onscreen behavior: an anchor on NTV, a pro-Kremlin television channel, said the Golunov case was a “test for us all.” “If indeed there are narcotics and there is proof, one should present it. But if there are no narcotics, one should present those who have provoked this situation and punish them,” the anchor Irad Zeinalova said on Monday. NTV is a major television channel owned by Gazprom Media, a holding that is as close to the Kremlin as any company can be.

Over this past weekend a Moscow court did something no one expected it to do: Ivan Golunov was placed under house arrest instead of remanded to pre-trial detention, which would be Russian courts’ normal practice for charges of the sort brought against him. That does not sound like a big win, but anyone who has ever come close to Russian law enforcement will know that a house arrest on drug-related charges is practically a miracle.

In an unprecedented move, Russia’s three main business dailies, Kommersant, RBC Daily, and Vedomosti, players with competing interests and divergent internal cultures, this Monday published issues with identical front pages, all in support of the Meduza journalist. As someone who has been with one of those dailies, Vedomosti, since its inception in 1999, I cannot remember a single other case that would have ignited such solidarity.

As the current understanding in Russia goes, this is a civic cause, as opposed to an openly political one. This understanding seems to be of paramount importance, as the practice of the past four days has abundantly demonstrated: it has allowed very different people from different walks of political life to join in. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s only prominent opposition politician, was conspicuously absent from most of the action over the weekend. This needs to go on record: he understood that had he publicly appeared at any of the protest sites, the police would have intensified arrests and detentions. The whole affair would have become political.

At this point it is still unclear what awaits Ivan Golunov, now under house arrest, and wider Russia’s media, now in various kinds of dire straits. Golunov may still be jailed. Today’s uplift and a feeling that something important has happened might give way to the usual skepticism. But for now, the entirety of the past four days feels like an unbelievable awakening.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
More posts by Maxim Trudolyubov