You’ve Come a Long Way, Babushka

Speaking as someone who has written almost entirely pessimistically about Russia for the last 10 years (click here or here for recent examples), I found something distinctly cheering about the arrest and release of Vladimir Gusinsky this past week. Of course the action itself—right down to the decision to imprison Gusinsky in the notorious Butyrka prison, home to several generations of Soviet political prisoners—was reprehensible. It was also exactly the sort of thing that the more apocalyptic Moscow observers most feared might take place under the Putin regime. While Gusinsky, like the rest of the oligarchs who now own much of the Russian economy, no doubt deserves to be investigated, it isn’t at all clear that he deserve to be investigated first. For one, he was one of the few among them to run something recognizable as a legitimate business, and his TV empire was one of the few in Russia to show something recognizable as news. If someone had been looking for thieves among rich Russians, there were more apt targets. More to the point, his arrest was clearly connected to the fact that his TV stations and his newspapers have been among the few to be critical of President Putin, even going so far as to back Putin’s rival, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

No, the arrest itself was not cheering: It was clearly intended as a threat to anyone who might care to oppose Putin in the future. But the response to it, contrary to what might have been expected, was surprisingly vigorous. Both centrist and liberal politicians denounced the arrest, in public, on television—and they were joined by novelists, theater directors, and other members of the intelligentsia. Prominent journalists wrote angry articles, among them the admirable Yevgenia Albats (click here to read her in English), who furiously accused the government of picking on Gusinsky for being Jewish. A group of 17 prominent businessmen signed a protest petition. Gusinsky’s lawyers immediately appealed the arrest, and the prosecutor’s office was forced to use what was described as a “legal loophole” to explain why it was keeping Gusinsky for three days without charging him.

Although there was not exactly a widespread public outcry—most of the Russian public is probably delighted to see any rich man arrested, for any reason—there was, nevertheless, an open, energetic response on several fronts, from a variety of different people with different motives. A mere 15 years ago, such a response would have been impossible, even unthinkable. In the Soviet Union, government prosecutors did not bother to explain why they were holding anybody for three days without charging them; privately hired lawyers did not defend the state’s victims; angry intellectuals were not interviewed on television; independent journalists published nowhere, except in the underground press.

We have come a long way since then, and that is, occasionally, worth celebrating. For this, in fact, is one of the few genuine achievements of the Russian people in the past decade: It is at last possible to say that there is beginning to be something like a genuine Russian civil society. Weak, fragmented and uncoordinated, more closely resembling the Central Europe of the 1970s rather than the Western democracies (or even the Central European democracies) of today, this new Russian civil society is nevertheless collectively articulate enough to get its point across in public, and powerful enough to force the thugs in Putin’s government at the very least to explain themselves. Better still, none of those doing the shouting appear to be remotely afraid or intimidated. It is a good sign for the future: This is one genie that will be tough to put back in the bottle.