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The Week In Russia: One Step Forward, At Least 530 Steps Back

Russian police officers detain a protester during a march to protest against the alleged impunity of law enforcement agencies in central Moscow on June 12.
Russian police officers detain a protester during a march to protest against the alleged impunity of law enforcement agencies in central Moscow on June 12.

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There was euphoria in Moscow as journalist Ivan Golunov walked free after a historic climbdown by the Russian law enforcement authorities, who dropped a drug charge widely seen as fabricated. But it was back to business as usual the next day, with police detaining hundreds of peaceful demonstrators seeking to turn an exception into the norm.

'The Best Day'

What a difference a day makes.

On the evening of June 11, there was jubilation in Moscow after Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced that the drug charges against Ivan Golunov were being dropped and the investigative reporter would be released from house arrest for lack of evidence.

The joy was centered on the journalists who had joined forces and pushed hard for exactly that outcome -- one that, while not entirely unexpected given omens such as the incredible disappearing drug-lab photos that were removed from a police website, the court decision to keep him at home in the first place rather than in jail, President Vladimir Putin's performative meeting with Russia's human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, and the tone of reports in the state media, was still a stunner.

But the celebration was not limited to that cohort, ranging as far afield as rappers, rock stars, and remarks on the Facebook page of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

"The best day," wrote Zakharova, who spends her time on the job defending the actions of the Russian authorities at home and abroad and often attacking those of their Western counterparts, adding that she was crying tears of joy.

Russia is far from monolithic, of course, and to divide its officials, politicians, and public figures into good guys and bad guys would be a vast oversimplification -- in many cases. Still, it's hard not to see Zakharova's tweet as a sign of the times in Russia today -- or maybe a symptom.

And One Dalmatian

As for images, the one that struck me as a distillation of the mood on a rare day when Russian protesters got their way was a photograph of Golunov embracing his dog -- a Dalmatian named Margot -- after he walked free.

Scenes like that and the accounts of Golunov crying in a courtroom cage at a hearing a few days earlier in the week, when his future looked far dimmer, could play into Kremlin efforts to make his release look less like an embarrassing climbdown or a cold-blooded calculation than like a humanitarian act -- similar to the way the pardon, release, and exile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky played out in 2013.

The word "stunning" may be overused in journalism, but it was right on the money this time. Russia's top cop, Interior Minister Kolokoltsev, may have stopped short of stating that the case against Golunov was fabricated, but he acknowledged what the journalist's colleagues had been insisting all along could not be otherwise: there was zero evidence.

Before going on to say he would ask Putin to fire two senior Moscow police officers (Putin did so two days later), Kolokoltsev issued a short and clear sentence that sounded highly unusual to anyone steeped in the recent history of politically-charged court cases in Russia: "Today he will be released from house arrest and the charges dropped."

'Happy But Confused'

Wrapping it up, Kolokoltsev explained with an air of the matter-of-fact that "the rights of any citizen, regardless of his profession, must always be protected."

Wait, what? The whole thing was a bit hard to wrap one's head around. AP Moscow correspondent Nataliya Vasilyeva summed it up in a tweet later the same evening: "What a day! Ivan Golunov walks free. Russian police say [they were] wrong. Russian journalists are happy but confused."

A lot of that confusion lifted less than 24 hours later, replaced by a strong sense of deja vu. By that time, the number of people hauled away by police cracking down on a march meant to maintain pressure on the authorities for justice in other cases like Golunov's had passed 500.

The protest-and-arrest-monitoring site OVD-Info -- always in demand -- put the number of people detained at 530, including at least 20 minors. Other reports said it exceeded 550.

Deja Vu

Either way that's more, even, then the 400-plus detained at the protest on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin returned to the Kremlin for his third term -- the clampdown term -- after doing a stint as the prime minister to keep a hold on power without violating the constitution.

There were plenty of similarities to many of the other protests held since then – demonstrations that have neither pushed Putin from the Kremlin nor stopped him from staying there for a fourth term. Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny posting on social media from a police van, for instance, or burly officers roughly detaining people whose age or other attributes suggest a low threat level.

Images of occurrences like that were back with a vengeance, regaining prominence less than a day after Golunov's happy reunion with his dog.

Another photo that may have captured the mood in Moscow at this particular time in history showed a Yandex food-delivery man seemingly cut off from his customers by a line of sheepish-looking, seemingly teenaged members of Rosgvardia, the National Guard that Putin created by decree in 2016.

Freer, Not Free

He may have just been pausing to look up an address, but nonetheless the photo raised a question that just won't seem to go away in Russia: Can you have food, fun, and freedom too?

Natasha Tveritinova, a pensioner who marched in Moscow, suggested maybe not yet.

"Russia is freer, on one hand, compared to the Soviet Union I lived in," she said. "But when people languish in jail on political charges, then it cannot be free."

Speaking of vengeance, the crackdown on the march on June 12 -- Russia Day -- can perhaps be explained on one level as an act of revenge. Shortly after word came down that Golunov was being cleared and released, people were saying that the siloviki wouldn't take this lying down.

Russian police detain protesters during the march in central Moscow on June 12.
Russian police detain protesters during the march in central Moscow on June 12.

It also shows that both Golunov's release and the crackdown on protests were purely pragmatic moves -- both almost certainly set in motion at Putin's say-so.

"Sadly, after a 'concession' (ie, not continuing the frame-up of #Golunov, it was pretty much inevitable the authorities would go hard on today's protest, fearing that momentum would swing against them. (Momentum being even more crucial in non-democratic politics)," Mark Galeotti, an author with expertise on Russia's security agencies, tweeted after the demonstration and detentions.

And analyst Andrei Kolesnikov urged caution amid the celebrations, warning that "Golunov was released only in order to avoid causing damage to the Kremlin's image."


"At the top, they simply reasoned that the damage to the image of the Interior Ministry would spread like wildfire to the Kremlin, so it would be better to stop the raging flames at the source," Kolesnikov wrote in a June 11 article in Forbes' Russian edition.

Golunov's release can be considered "a big victory for civil society" and a watershed, he wrote, contending that the journalist's case and the protests that halted construction of a church in a popular park in Yekaterinburg are signs that ordinary citizens acting in concert are presenting a strong challenge to those in power, who "had gotten used to perceiving people as the silent majority at best and at worst, the rabble."

"But this doesn't mean that the state is ready to retreat and give in," Kolesnikov warned. "On the contrary, the confrontation has become fiercer."

And meanwhile, there are many people in custody in Russia who might wonder whether anything has changed.

Behind Bars

The same day Golunov was detained, it became clear that American equity-fund executive Michael Calvey -- whose move from jail to house arrest in Moscow in April was the apparent result of pressure from the business community and Kremlin concerns about the optics of the fraud case against him -- would not be permitted to take part in Putin's showcase annual economic conference in St. Petersburg.

Four of Calvey's colleagues remain in jail pending trial, including a Frenchman, and 24 seamen seized near Crimea in November are among dozens of Ukrainians whom activists say are behind bars on trumped-up charges in Russia -- most notably, perhaps, the director Oleh Sentsov.

No freedom for U.S. investor Michael Calvey just yet.
No freedom for U.S. investor Michael Calvey just yet.

And while there are signs this could change, Golunov's release was a rare exception for a Russian charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code, an antidrug law that activists say is widely used -- or abused -- by state authorities seeking to silence dissent. Every year, more than 100,000 people are convicted under the statute.

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    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.

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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.

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