20 years under Putin: a timeline

Over the last month, two events have shaken up a small corner of the Russian media landscape, which continues to strive for integrity and independence. A Meduza reporter got arrested on bogus charges of drug possession, but was eventually acquitted. Prior to that, Kommersant’s entire political desk resigned over the owner’s interference in its editorial work. The fact that such  events, which have become routine in Putin’s Russia, can still cause a stir and galvanize people to fight back, is a rare sign of hope for the Russian civil society. 


Ivan Golunov at the Nikitinsky Districtional Court in Moscow. Photo: Evgeny Feldman, Meduza.


Stories about injustice in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule have become too numerous to keep track of. There is no segment in the country that has not suffered from the encroachment of the state—politics, economy, civil society, media, the list goes on. In the media, such stories form a vicious circle: journalists get fired, harassed, or killed, while media outlets are shut down or taken over by pro-Kremlin entities. Human rights activists protest, but their calls for justice are ignored. And after a while, history repeats itself. Over the 19 years that Vladimir Putin has stayed in power, these stories have caused nothing but resentment, anguish, and apathy. They all constitute what Russian journalist Filipp Dzyadko calls “links in the same ‘effing’ chain”—a phrase that has since become an adage in the Moscow media circles.

Incidentally, Dzyadko spoke about the firing of Demian Kudryavtsev, then-general director at Kommersant Publishing House, in June 2012. The resignation followed another scandal—the firing of Maksim Kovalsky, editor-in-chief of Vlast (“Power”), Kommersant’s reputable weekly magazine, over a photograph of a ballot with expletives about Putin. (Kovalsky later returned to Kommersant in a different capacity.) These events reflected the Kremlin’s response to the 2011-2012 mass protests against election rigging and marked a turn to more repressive policies and less tolerance toward critical media coverage. 

Two years later, another link was added to the chain. In March 2014, a large chunk of the editorial team at Lenta.ru, one of Russia’s leading online publications, resigned in protest at the firing of editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko. While the official reason for her resignation was never named, it is likely that her interview with one of the leaders of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist organization, served as a trigger. The interview was published amidst Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the topic was too sensitive for the Kremlin to stomach. It was Timchenko and the key members of the former Lenta.ru team who launched Meduza only eight months later from Riga, Latvia. Meduza initially thrived under the banner “Russia’s free press in exile.”

Fast forward to May 20, 2019, the date that marks the exodus of reporters from Kommersant. For a moment, this was, hands down,themedia scandal of the year. Tensions had been simmering in-house for over a month, but when the news finally broke, it caused a domino effect. First, two reporters were ousted over an article alluding to the potential resignation of Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Federal Assembly. Next, in response to this decision by the company management, head of the political desk Gleb Cherkassov resigned as well. As he explained later, he no longer felt he had a “moral right” to commission articles from his reporters. And following that, Kommersant’s entire political desk (ten people) submitted letters of resignation in a sign of joint protest.

In a collective letter to readers, almost two hundred journalists at Kommersant apologized for not being able to inform them about politics for the first time in the newspaper’s 30-year-long history. They also spoke out about the direct pressure from the owner, Alisher Usmanov, and his interference in the editorial work (Usmanov is one of the Russian oligarchs who maintains close ties to Putin and other top government officials, including Matvienko). The letter ended with an address to the public: “Perhaps some of our readers will be able to explain to Kommersant’s stakeholders that right now they are destroying one of the best media outlets in Russia. Kommersant’s work is important for the entire public, for the whole country. Those who destroy it for the sake of short-term political benefits don’t know Russia’s history well. We believe that our country deserves a better future, deserves freedom of speech.”

What happened to Kommersant might have stayed at the center of the liberal circles’ discussions for months, had it not been for the arrest of Meduza’s investigative reporter Ivan Golunov. He was detained in the center of Moscow on June 6 and brought to a police station where he was accused of possession of drugs. In his apartment, the police allegedly discovered more drugs and charged Golunov, though it was clear that the drugs had been planted. The journalist was also beaten up in detention. What ensued was an incredible effort undertaken by Golunov’s colleagues and other journalists and activists (including ones working for the Kremlin) to draw the attention of the country’s leadership to this brazen attack against a journalist and violation of basic human rights. At the time, the said leadership was convening at the annual St Petersburg Economic Forum, coverage of which, according to Google Trends, was losing out to Golunov.

Since then, there have been numerous articles explaining what had happened and why, but the outcome of this collective effort is a happy ending to Golunov’s terrible story. The journalist was first released under house arrest, and a few days later cleared of all charges. In the most bizarre twist of events, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev personally delivered the news in a video message, while Putin dismissed two high-ranking generals involved in the case. It was the most unexpected single moment of justice at the heart of the highly repressive political system that is Putin’s Russia today.

While these two cases—the resignations at Kommersant and arrest of Golunov—are clearly not “links in the same effing chain,” they both speak to the existential problems facing the media in the Putin system.

One, as shown by the exodus at Kommersant, is the problem of choice. Politics has become the Kremlin’s “preserved area,” and it expands its power by politicizing every aspect of life in the country. Covering politics, unless you are part of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, has become, by default, a dangerous job. The better you do your job, the greater is the risk of angering someone at the Kremlin. Despite accusations of collaborationism, Kommersant’s political desk was trying to do their job the best they could within the constraints of this system. (Full disclosure: I worked at Kommersant for over five years.) As Cherkassov noted about the work of his team, “every day people feel responsibility for their work and feel the need to write what they deem necessary, while the opportunity is there. Every new day is a day won against chaos.” It’s a courageous choice. But then there are situations when you face another choice—the line that cannot be crossed, the compromise that threatens your integrity. And perhaps resigning is the only dignified option. 

The second problem is illustrated by the Golunov case. It is the problem of justice, or rather the lack thereof. Putin’s uncharacteristic reaction to the case is not about his newfound love for freedom of speech or indignation over evidence planted by the police. Nor is it about Putin’s caving under public pressure. If it were, he would have ended the media crackdown and released all Russia’s political prisoners a long time ago. His reaction is nothing but a calculated reassertion of control. It shows that the case against Golunov was not sanctioned by the Kremlin, and given the public outrage caused by what seems like adventurism on the part of mid-level officials, it was only logical for Putin to kill two birds with one stone—appease the public and whip the vigilantes into shape. It was a happy coincidence that this convolution of factors played in Golunov’s favor. He will still confront the same choice that any independent journalist working in Russia faces every time he or she embarks on a new investigation.

On balance, both cases show that injustice is a problem that resonates with many Russian people. There is a red line that the Kremlin doesn’t want to cross to keep public outrage at bay. Thus, despite all the odds, independent journalism continues to survive in Russia, and the results of its work slowly seep into the public domain. Essentially, these efforts are laying the groundwork for a post-Putin Russia.