Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Week In Russia: Big Chills, Little Thaws, And 'Workshop Solidarity'

Actor Pavel Ustinov is controversially arrested on Moscow's Pushkin Square on August 3.
Actor Pavel Ustinov is controversially arrested on Moscow's Pushkin Square on August 3.

To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.

If you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes. They say that about New England, but it might work for Moscow, too, if it's the short-term political climate you're talking about. One day, a man is sentenced to years in prison, a few days later he may be released from jail. But the next, some other crackdown is in the forecast. Tough to tell a thaw from a false spring these days.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Hot And Cold

A thaw is a palpable thing, particularly in Russia: When spring comes to Moscow, you feel it first in your blood and in your bones. Before you know it, you're facing the sort of high temperatures the folks back home don't quite believe can be reached in the colder of the two former Cold War foes.

But when it comes to political thaws, things are maybe not as clear cut in Moscow these days as they were as they were in the Soviet Union, where the Thaw that followed Josef Stalin's death lasted about a decade -- its start often seen as marked by successor Nikita Khrushchev's secret 1956 speech denouncing the cult of personality surrounding the late dictator.

What feels like a warm spell one day may be replaced the next by an icy blast.

A cartoon shared on social media titled: "It's not a thaw, it's a backswing.'

Over a six-day stretch in June, for example, journalist Ivan Golunov was detained, beaten, and confined to house arrest on a drug charge and then cleared and released, prompting celebrations by colleagues and other citizens who had taken to the streets -- and the front pages of several publications -- to call the case against him a blatant fabrication.

But within less than 24 hours of the state's stunning reversal on Golunov, more than 500 people had been hauled away by police in Moscow. And by late July, the police and National Guard were cracking down hard on protesters demonstrating over the exclusion of several independent and opposition candidates from the ballot in the September 8 Moscow City Duma election.

More than 3,000 people were detained in Moscow during the wave of protests in the weeks before the vote, some of them beaten, and seven have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years to five years -- punishments that rights activists contend are highly disproportionate or entirely unjustified.

At least one of those seven seems unlikely to serve that term, though. On September 20, after a hail of outrage from fellow thespians and a host of others, the Moscow City Court ordered the release actor Pavel Ustinov from pretrial detention -- which means he will await the result of his appeal "in freedom," as the Russian term has it, and not in jail.

Russian Blockbuster: Actors Lead Moscow Protest For Jailed Colleague
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:27 0:00

It also means that while he may not be exonerated on appeal -- a step that would not sit well with the siloviki -- he can probably expect to have his sentence reduced or, perhaps more likely, suspended to allow him to avoid prison.

Suspending the sentence for a prominent defendant is a tactic the Russian state has used before when it apparently feared a backlash and decided not to create a martyr -- most notably in 2013 in the case of Aleksei Navalny, who has been jailed for days or weeks many times but has never been sent to prison.

'A Thief Must Be In Jail'

Putin, in power as president or prime minister for 20 years, has repeatedly cast himself as a tough but fair leader who backs a firm form of justice but -- a claim that is probably believed by few people, if any – does not interfere with the courts.

In 2000, in the rushed and lopsided presidential campaign that followed his appointment to the post on an acting basis by Boris Yeltsin, Putin promised to turn Russia into a "dictatorship of law."

A decade later, Putin tried to take the politics out of the prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky by quoting a famous hard-guy line from a Soviet film: "A thief must be in jail."

But what about a journalist, or an actor?

The police climb down on Golunov came after a concerted show of support by fellow journalists, while actors and others from the world of Russian theater and film were at center stage in the dramatic defense of Ustinov. In both cases, prominent people close to these professions -- but firmly allied with or in fact working for the state -- have joined the ranks of those calling for justice and accused law enforcement agencies of "bending the stick too far," as the Russian term goes.

Russian journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky calls this phenomenon "workshop solidarity" and suggests that the professional groups and Putin's Kremlin have been testing each other this summer, trying to gauge the extent -- and the limits -- of their power over one another.

"Solidarity with 'your own people' -- colleagues at the theater, the hospital, the institute -- is the unspoken but on the whole encouraged societal norm," Arkhangelsky said in an article in the Russian news outlet Republic. "You're allowed to stand up for your own people, and it's still considered respectable."

Russian journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky (file photo)
Russian journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky (file photo)

"The long-term significance of the Ustinov campaign and others this summer, he argues, is that Russia's authorities are learning to negotiate with various 'workshops' -- journalists, students, and now actors," according to a summary of Arkhangelsky's article by the Russia-focused media outlet Meduza.

Many of those who urged the authorities to release Ustinov have also called for justice for others who have been convicted or face prosecution in what has come to be known as the Moscow Case -- an echo of the Bolotnaya Case that followed the crackdown on protests over evidence of electoral fraud and dismay at Putin's return to the presidency in 2012.

'More Than Just Malice'

If it's easy to see why the Russian authorities might be more inclined to step back from a prosecution or shorten a prison term in certain cases -- such as when there is a vocal and potentially influential community that includes Kremlin allies voicing anger -- it may be harder to see why these particular people faced prosecution in the first place.

But there may be a method to the madness, some rules in the absence of the rule of law.

While most of the people detained during the Moscow protests "were freed, fined, or given minimal sentences, the state's eagerness to visit its displeasure on a seemingly-random selection of critics is more than just malice, it is a strategy," Mark Galeotti, an author and expert on Russia and its security services, wrote in an opinion article in the Moscow Times.

Among other instruments to blunt the power of its opponents and the citizenry as a whole, the authorities "rely on deliberately capricious prosecutions," he wrote, adding that "from time to time individuals find themselves in the Kremlin's crosshairs for the slightest of reasons, and the outcome can be disastrous."

"The message is simple. If you want to protest, we may let you, but we might also beat you and arrest you, regardless of how you behave," Galeotti wrote. "In this way, the authorities hope to prevent protests from becoming normalized and limit them to a hardcore who are willing to take that risk."

On July 27 and August 3, police were beating people and arresting them in droves. Weeks later, they were letting them protest with little interference.

No One Safe As Moscow Police Lash Out
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:58 0:00

One factor in what may seem like a swift alternation between chill and thaw, or mini-chill and mini-thaw, is the tension among rival camps close to Putin -- which threatens to heat up as the end of his term in 2024, when he is barred from seeking reelection by the constitution -- inches closer.

"These struggles, rooted in a mix of factional interest and political disagreement, play out in what seem often contradictory policies. This was perhaps most visible during the Moscow protests before the local elections," Galeotti in a separate article published on the website Raam Op Rusland.

Bulldogs Under The Rug

Hard-liners like Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Aleksandr Bortnikov and Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin ally who is secretary of his Security Council, seemed to set the ominous tone at first.

"And the result was over 2,000 arrests and viral videos of riot-armored 'cosmonauts' beating and arresting peaceful protesters," Galeotti wrote.

A Primer On Moscow Protests
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:40 0:00

But other factions were alarmed for several reasons -- some selfish, some less so -- and the final pre-election protest held without permission, on August 31, was free of police violence.

But that hardly amounts to a thaw -- especially if you consider that on September 10, two days after Navalny's "smart voting" strategy helped defeat several Kremlin-backed candidates in the elections and drastically reduce their majority in the Moscow legislature, police raided the offices and searched the homes of activists who back him in more than 40 cities and towns.

And a day before Ustinov was ordered released, a shaman who set out for Moscow on foot from Yakutia a few months ago in a quest to chase Putin from power was detained -- grabbed by masked officers in a predawn raid on his roadside camp in the Buryatia region near Lake Baikal.

The shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, said in July that God had told him Putin was a demon and "ordered me to drive him out."

Shaman On 8,000-Kilometer Trek 'To Topple Putin'
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:56 0:00

A day after he was seized, the shaman was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Yakutia, whose regional Health Ministry said he would be evaluated and provided with "quality medical care" if he is deemed mentally ill.

Back in Moscow, meanwhile, a new protest is expected on September 29 after a hiatus of several weeks.

The eventual effects of the protests are unclear. But in an article in Time magazine, journalist Leonid Ragozin suggested that the events of this summer have served to undermine whatever gains Putin made with his audience at home as a result of muscular moves abroad in recent years, such as the takeover of Crimea and a major military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"All of that was supposed to showcase Russia's newly acquired assertiveness and vigor, to its own citizens more than anyone else," Ragozin wrote.

"It worked that way for some years. But today Putin is back to square one," he wrote, adding that he now faces "an entirely organic opposition which -- thanks to Putin's own draconian legislation on 'foreign agents' -- is reliant neither on Western funding nor endorsement."

  • 16x9 Image

    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.

About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

Blog Archive

The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

The editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk dissects some of the key developments over the previous week and offers some of the takeaways going forward.

Every Friday, direct to your in-box. Here are earlier editions.

Please submit your e-mail address below. The newsletter is, and always will be, free of charge.

You can find our privacy policy and terms of use here.