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The Golunov case and why Russian activists cannot ignore the war in Ukraine

Russian police detain participants of a rally in support of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, Moscow, June 12, 2019. Photo: Shamil Zhumatov, TASS
The Golunov case and why Russian activists cannot ignore the war in Ukraine
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
The victory of Russia’s civil society in the case of Ivan Golunov* has raised two very important points. Firstly, we have seen that, if provoked, Russians are able to stand up for persons who have fallen into disfavour with police authorities. Secondly, Russian civil society seldom rises to the occasion, especially on such a large scale.

(*Ivan Golunov, who works for the independent Russian website Meduza and is known for exposing local corruption, was recently arrested in Moscow on trumped up charges of drug dealing. He was reportedly beaten and held in custody without access to a lawyer for twelve hours before being put under house arrest. Human rights groups contend Golunov was framed. After a huge public outcry, Russian police dropped the drug charges against him and freed him from house arrest-Ed).

A number of Ukrainian journalists have pointed out that if such rallies and public outcry had been employed in defense of Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and Pavlo Hryb, the Ukrainian sailors, Crimean Tatars or other political prisoners, Russian liberal circles could have achieved a similar result. Some political commentators explain that the reason the pro-Golunov rallies gathered so many people and were so successful lies in the fact that reporting about corruption, which is not related personally to Vladimir Putin and his immediate entourage, is officially admitted by the Kremlin, so therefore, Ivan Golunov and his supporters do not risk being labeled as “nazi traitors” or “enemies of the state”. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s repressive measures against such people cannot equal the punishments directed against those who touch on “forbidden” topics.

Russian journalist Ivan Golunov. Photo: Vladimir Gerdo, TASS

Almost four years ago, I noted that Russian authorities often use the anti-corruption theme to strengthen their authority and keep officials under control. In addition, the Kremlin does not consider anti-corruption reports critically dangerous for its own power, since most Russians seem to tolerate this phenomenon and are ready to put up with swindlers and con artists to avoid “a greater evil”. So, the fact remains that many other Russian political prisoners – and first of all, Ukrainians – have seldom received as much public attention as the Golunov case.

Of course, asserting that the “Ukrainian issue” is totally absent from Russian liberal media does not correspond to the truth. There have been several peace marches against the war in Ukraine and many rallies in support of Oleh Sentsov during his hunger strike. The Free Russia Forum, which recently ended in Lithuania, included a Ukrainian section, which was attended by political scientists from Kyiv. Many discussions devoted to Russian information terrorism concerned Russia’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda, mainly the dissemination of fakes and myths about the May 2 events in Odesa. Not only did guest speakers openly explain and discuss the occupation of Crimea, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and Russia’s interference in other countries, but these events were repeatedly sounded as the main examples of Putin’s crimes.

However, it is much more difficult to communicate with the general Russian population as most Russians prefer not to discuss their country’s policy towards other states. Human rights activists explain that Russians fear repression and that foreign policy issues are not popular among average Russians. They are content with raising protests and organizing rallies in support of different social issues, and perhaps later, they may be ready to move on to wider political demands.

Thus, most Russian liberal activists continue to perceive the “Ukrainian issue” as an external problem not worth much attention within their political activities in Russia, and most importantly, very dangerous. Accordingly, they consider that support for Ukrainian political prisoners is not an integral part of their own human rights program, but a sign of pure altruism that does not offer them any personal benefits. So, it is quite natural that the extent of Russian support for Ukraine cannot be compared with support for fighting widespread local corruption. All societies are basically selfish, and most people prefer to defend their “own”, and not “foreign causes”. We can and must condemn Russians for their egoism and irresponsibility, but we should also realize that it is something totally predictable.

But, the problem is a simple one. Russian dissidents fail to understand that they will not be able to achieve any tangible social changes in their country if they continue to ignore the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Putin’s propaganda does not deny such important social issues as pollution, corruption, poverty, etc. Yes, the Russian media seldom reports on these issues, but they are not totally blocked. For example, the problems of bribery and incompetence in official government circles have been raised in Russian entertainment media, and in 2018, at least two popular comedy series on theses topics appeared on television: The Year of Culture and House Arrest.

However, none of these topics can generate a serious large-scale protest movement that could lead to systemic changes and Putin’s demise, since Kremlin-inspired fear has a stronger impact on Russians than civic anger about lawlessness and the decline of living standards. It is not only about the fear of repression, but mainly about the carefully cultivated propaganda of the West as an “external threat”. Second, Russians also fear any type of revolution that might plunge the country into havoc, devastation and war, as it has been so aggressively propagated by the Kremlin over the years. Third, Russians believe that theft and bribery are inevitable under any government with the only difference being that a liberal government will not only continue “to loot the Motherland”, but will also “destroy it by order of its overseas masters”. Thus, as long as Russians see Putin as their “defender and saviour”, they will never venture beyond local protests, as they firmly believe that revolutionary rallies would plunge the country into something “much, much worse”.

That is why such topics as landfills in villages, garbage collection, corrupt apparatchiks, the construction of churches and other “permissible” demands will always remain on the local level until Russians understand one thing. Putin will not save Russia from any mortal danger. As soon as Russians realize that it was the Kremlin’s aggressive policy that instigated the so-called “external threat”, and that they themselves are responsible for all the chaos and bloodshed, only then will they be able to stand up and take a fresh look at the social problems surrounding them. As soon as they understand that the Kremlin is deliberately killing them, abandoning them without work or medicine, directing government funds to an unnecessary war in Ukraine, only then will they be able to overcome their fears and direct the Kremlin’s aggressive propaganda against Putin himself. The perception of Putin’s war as a “foreign issue” is an illusion, since the Kremlin has long since used its foreign policy in internal Russian discourse, making it the basis of its information operations to influence the Russian mindset.  

As long as Russian liberal activists do not realize the above-mentioned points, their limited civic protests and activities are unlikely to lead to significant consequences. In fact, each victory, however small, will be accompanied by a wave of important defeats. So, when Golunov’s supporters gathered on June 12 for an unauthorized protest against police misconduct, the police were given a free hand to take their revenge by detaining more than 500 people out of a crowd of around 2,000. Moreover, Golunov himself announced that he was not going to take part in any unauthorized rallies, while Meduza’s chief editor Ivan Kolpakov said that “we have stood up for and freed our guy”, but “we do not engage in political activism and do not want to be the heroes of some kind of civil resistance movement”.  Thus, the Meduza editorial staff refused to support a campaign against police fabrication of criminal cases.

With such an approach, Russian activists and liberal thinkers should not be surprised that each new Golunov-like case will be followed by similar police provocation and repression, and they should also realize that Goluvnov’s case was an isolated one, and no single victory will ever stop the Kremlin’s repressive machine.

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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