When Russian ministers, top managers, and oligarchs were boarding their first-class flights and private jets on their way back to Moscow from the glitzy annual Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on Monday, they probably expected to read articles about themselves in the morning Russian business papers that are always offered on board. Instead, they saw three front pages with identical graphics screaming “I am/we are Ivan Golunov” in huge letters. In an unprecedented and bold showing of solidarity, the three staid outlets stood up in support of a journalist employed by the independent, Latvia-based online newspaper Meduza. The young man had been detained late last week in the center of Moscow and charged with possession of illegal drugs and drug dealing, which could entail up to 20 years in prison. He was beaten while in custody.
Golunov is one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists, and has exposed multiple billion rouble corruption scandals in Moscow’s Mayor’s office. He said he had received multiple threats over an investigation linking a shadowy funeral business to the FSB.
The police published photos of what looked like a narcotics lab said to be in Golunov’s apartment. When friends came forward saying the photos didn’t look like any part of the apartment they knew of, the cops changed their tune, saying the wrong photos had been leaked. Charges as to what drug was in question then changed—from meth to cocaine. No further evidence has been presented—no tests of drug traces on Golunov’s body, no fingerprints on the drug stash.
By midday Monday, no copies of the three main business newspapers, with a combined print run of 700,000, could be found for sale either in Moscow or in Saint Petersburg. Avito, the Russian version of Craigslist had a posting listing three copies for sale for over $3,500. Also, it is important to keep in mind that neither Vedomosti, nor RBC, nor Kommersant are anything like “opposition” papers. They have all three been forced to change owners recently, and now are owned by people loyal to the Kremlin.
The Golunov story ruined Vladimir Putin’s favorite annual PR event, the above-mentioned Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum. Google searches in Russia for “Ivan Golunov” significantly topped those for “Vladimir Putin,” right on the day that Russia’s leader was triumphantly meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But the Forum spectacle was in trouble even before Golunov. The detention of American investor Michael Calvey, jailed in February and under house arrest since April, also cast a long shadow. U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman had refused to attend the Forum due to the flimsiness of the case. After Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov remarked that “we would like to see Michael among the participants at the Forum,” and the Russian prison agency said that Calvey could technically show up, the main news narrative became the American investor’s fate. On the opening day, some attendees wore pins with the name of Calvey’s investment fund Baring Vostok emblazoned on them. Calvey, however, did not show up.
Forum attendees were riveted by the performance of Russian Duma member Andrey Makarov, speaking at a prestigious Sberbank-sponsored breakfast event. Makarov, a member of the ruling United Russia party and the head of the tax and budget committee, deviated from the usual Kremlin script to denounce Russia’s economic policies and the silovikis’ influence on the business climate. He bashed Putin’s recently announced government-led stimulus plans, mocked the “economic ideas” of the well-connected silovik Aleksandr Bastrykin, and called out Maxim Oreshkin, the newly appointed Minister for Economic Development and a favorite of Putin’s, for describing the house arrest of Calvey as “a good sign for the investment climate.” Makarov said that fear permeates Russia’s business community—fear that if you succeed in business, everything will be taken away from you. Oreshkin, as well as other ministers, officials, and oligarchs, sat and listened to Makarov’s tirade. The head of the state nanotechnology investment fund Anatoly Chubais shared a video of the speech on Facebook.
This latent anger among some sectors of Russia’s business elites at how the economy is being managed by Putin and his corrupt silovik cronies perhaps helps explain the outcry when the Golunov story broke on the second day of the Forum. Journalists were asking attendees about Golunov, and the case was even brought up at one of the panels. The papers’ decision to print the covers had to have been informed by this general mood.
But the fallout seems to have been broader, and has snapped many Russians out of their resignation. Since Russian law prohibits unauthorized mass demonstrations, hundreds lined up in Saint Petersburg and Moscow to each in turn take up a single sign—the “single picketing” loophole to Russia’s repressive protest laws. Several famous journalists among the protesters were nevertheless detained by police, and then later released without charges being pressed. The picketing continued through the weekend as Golunov made his way from police custody to a hospital (to be treated for the beating he received) and on to court, where he was placed under house arrest—a lenient outcome for such serious charges.
Normally apolitical celebrities have joined the campaign, sharing videos and posts on social media. The famous actor Konstantin Khabensky, when he took the stage at the opening ceremonies for the major Russian film festival Kinotaur, spoke out against the criminal case and urged people to not be silent as “an inconvenient journalist is being locked up,” lest tomorrow, he said, the same happen “to us.” To illustrate how dramatically the mood has shifted in Russia in the past two years, when the award-winning director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, his colleagues didn’t speak up openly at Kinotaur’s opening ceremony, with a handful only mentioning the case in passing without saying his name.
The regime seems to be in damage control mode. Putin, as is normal for him, has remained aloof, feigning disinterest and ignorance of what is going on inside the country he rules—the old “Good Tsar/Bad Boyar” routine. The official media outlets have played along, pretending to be on the side of truth. Khabensky’s speech at Kinotaur was not cut during broadcast on state TV. Some of the mainstream TV anchors even called for an objective investigation, and the release of Golunov pending proof of his guilt. The lab test results showing that there were no drugs found in Golunov’s blood were openly announced on the main propaganda channel Rossiya-1. Finally, on Tuesday, Russia’s Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced that Golunov would be released from house arrest and the charges dropped. He also said that he ask Putin to fire three Moscow police officials involved in the arrest.
Protests that were scheduled for tomorrow probably had a lot to do with today’s decision to stand down. Thousands of Muscovites had pledged to take to the streets in support of Golunov, without any permission from the city authorities—and on the federal Russia Day holiday, no less. The question now is whether these unsanctioned protests will still go forward, and if they do, how big they will be. The government is banking that “righting” this specific “wrong” will take the wind out of the sails of the angry citizens. But given that the anger was never just about a detained journalist, but rather about the increasing brazenness of the siloviki more broadly, it’s quite possible that people will turn out anyway. The regime will then be faced with a real dilemma: if it cracks down on the illegal protest it risks another, even bigger public outcry; if it stands down, it could open Pandora’s Box by emboldening the opposition. Golunov’s release was the first time in Putin’s reign that public outcry saved an innocent person from prosecution, and the protesters may feel inclined to push their luck.
How and when will Putin’s regime come to an end? The short answer is that it’s impossible to know. Given that it’s a very personalized system without any clear plan for succession, one shouldn’t underestimate its brittleness. At the same time, it might not be a major event that affects a huge number of people—something like the unpopular pension reforms rolled out last year—that does the trick. Rather, it could be something small that triggers a wider reaction—like when a tiny bit of salt is added to a supersaturated solution causing the liquid to rapidly crystallize. It’s worth remembering that five years ago, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, Ivan Golunov would have been denounced as a traitor and a member of a shadowy fifth column of oppositioners trying to undermine the state. It’s also worth remembering that confidence in Soviet stability was never as high as it was in the very late 1980s.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kommersant owner Alisher Usmanov had been sanctioned by the United States. He has not; neither he nor his company USM are on the U.S. sanctions list. We regret the error.