Russia just had a mini popular uprising

Did the world notice?

Ivan Golunov
Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained and accused of drug offences, sits inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow on June 8 [Reuters/Tatyana Makeyeva]

Ten days ago, the political lethargy which Russia had descended into since Vladimir Putin won another six years in power last year was unexpectedly disrupted. The arrest of a journalist triggered a chain of events that shook Russian society awake and pushed it to unprecedented action.

The story of shocking police transgressions and the mass mobilisation that they provoked is indeed worthy of a Hollywood political thriller production, but it also tells us something important about the state of affairs in Russia today.

The arrest

On June 6, investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who works for the independent outlet Meduza, was arrested and accused of making and selling drugs. Photos were uploaded on the interior ministry’s website showing bags containing an unknown substance and what appeared to be chemical lab equipment, which allegedly were found at his apartment.

The police said more drugs were found in the journalist’s backpack. He was facing between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Golunov and Meduza staff immediately denied the accusations and said the drugs had been planted on him. The evidence indeed appeared flimsy. A blood test showed that there were no drugs in his blood, while none of the suspicious bags used as “evidence” had his fingerprints on them and the police also refused to check his hands for traces of drugs. Even the photos published on the interior ministry’s website turned out to have been taken at a different location and not Golunov’s apartment.

The case and accusations were outrageous, even by Russian standards. It is true that Russian journalists face many dangers, especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg. There have been cases of intimidation, beatings and killings but never by an official authority. The arrest of Golunov was such a shock that it immediately topped the news agenda.

The public reaction

But just as the arrest was unprecedented, so was the reaction of Russian society. Almost immediately after the news spread, a huge queue formed in front of the central office of the Moscow police. People were lined up for their turn to stand in an individual picket line, the only form of protest that does not require prior permission from the authorities. The picketing continued overnight.

Then three of the biggest independent newspapers – Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBC – were published on June 10 with the same front page: “We are all Ivan Golunov”. There was so much noise about the arrest that it completely overshadowed the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Putin was trying to convince investors to put their money into Russia.

The outpouring of solidarity with Golunov was so strong that public figures who did not express enough support also faced a backlash. For example, a member of the presidential media pool, Andrei Kolesnikov, reportedly had to delete a Facebook post about the arrest after he received a barrage of critical comments from readers who found his words too cautious. Even people who would not normally engage in politics would discuss his arrest and change their avatars to messages in solidarity with Golunov.

Soon a planned protest was announced in downtown Moscow, to be held without permission from the authorities.

The authorities’ surrender

The reaction of the Kremlin towards the public outrage was equally unprecedented. The case threw state media into total confusion. Some propagandists supported the arrest, while others either backed Golunov outright or demanded that the messy case be sorted out and all evidence made public.

Then the unexpected happened: On June 11 Golunov was set free.

Russian authorities very rarely let anyone go under public pressure. On one of those rare occasions, opposition politician Alexei Navalny was released in 2013 – after being sentenced to five years in prison – following a spontaneous demonstration the authorities feared could turn into mass unrest. 

But this time, the authorities acted even more out of character. Golunov was not only released, he was also pronounced innocent, while the police officers involved in the planting of evidence were dismissed and, in fact, might themselves face a court case.

This basically meant that the state – for the first time in years – actually admitted to falsification of evidence in a politically motivated case.

Although the authorities clearly capitulated on Golunov’s case, they were quick to get back to their feet. On June 12, thousands of people came out in protest without obtaining permission from the Moscow municipality. Perhaps even more people would have come out if it weren’t for Meduza’s chief editors who called on people not to join the protest (some think this was part of the deal to release Golunov).

More than 400 people were arrested, including Navalny, who was accused of being the organiser of the “illegal” protest, although he wasn’t; he now faces a criminal charge.

The release of Golunov does not appear to have settled things; people are still reeling from what happened. They have snapped out of their political apathy and are back on their guard.

What does all of this mean?

The main takeaway from what happened over the past 10 days has been that the fragmented and subdued civil society is perfectly capable of rising up and forming a united front, while the sidelined and suppressed independent media can actually have a massive impact on society and the authorities.

The “victory” in this unprecedented battle has not only put Golunov (who was little-known to the general public) and his work in the spotlight but has also demonstrated that investigative journalism in Russia is capable of putting pressure on the authorities and is very much needed and appreciated.

Here it is important to point out that this “victory” was made possible because the Kremlin had no intention of putting Meduza’s journalist in jail. It has been alleged that two FSB officers were behind his arrest, both of whom Golunov had linked to shady dealings in Moscow’s funeral business.

The FSB is known to get involved in the fabrication of evidence but they had never done it in such a preposterous manner. It seems this time they crossed a red line and were made to understand that without the Kremlin’s approval, they are not to touch any public personality of such standing.

There are two important outcomes of this confrontation. First, the authorities will not dare repeat the fiasco by coming after a journalist with fabricated evidence any time soon and, second, civil society has been emboldened by the success of its pressure campaign.

The next test for Russian society will be the arrests of Navalny and his associate Leonid Volkov in connection with the solidarity protest for Golunov. Are Russians ready to defend the two activists the way they did Golunov? If the answer is yes, then the escalation against the authorities will continue; if it is no, then Russia will slip back into its political slumber.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.