By arresting media mogul Vladimir A. Gusinsky last week, the Kremlin--whether by order of President Vladimir V. Putin or not--revived fears of censorship and thought control. Are those fears justified, and what does Gusinsky's arrest--given his speedy release a few days later--mean, if anything?
Neither censorship nor the gulag ever completely suppressed intellectual life in Russia. Witness the genius of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Dmitri Shostakovich, Boris Pasternak and Sergei Prokofiev, who created great works even in the nightmare years of Stalinism. Recognizing this indestructibility, Russian leaders have always sought to keep the mass media under their thumb, and artists on their side. Newspapers buckled and often artists returned the state's embrace. Alexander Pushkin, for example, announced, "I am not a flatterer when I sing praises to my Tsar." Even Mandelstam, although he did it under duress, wrote an Ode to Stalin, which nevertheless failed to save him from the gulag and death.
Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev--all constructed their ruling Soviet ideology on the foundation of the Russian intelligentsia. When communism imploded, however, Boris Yeltsin sought to divert Russia's intellectual energy toward money and the media. High culture was abandoned as a Kremlin plaything and left to survive--or not--on its own. The Internet and mass media, not poetry, was to be the catalyst in jump-starting Russia's civil society.
As president, Putin vowed last January to revive the moral fiber of the Russian people, their glory and international respect. To achieve this goal, he has sought to restore high culture to a position of primacy in Russian life, and to put mass media back in its (politically) subservient place. If geniuses like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov helped dismantle the Soviet Union, Putin appears to believe, other artists and thinkers could revive Russian greatness.
But politics in Russia has never been a matter of greatness, only control; and because the media is key to controlling politics, it seems almost natural that Putin is now seeking to manage it more directly.
Indeed, in his half-year as acting and elected president, Putin has posed as a great supporter of Russian culture in all its aspects: film, literature, music, architecture, science. Mass media, because of its political usefulness, now seems exempted from these tender concerns.
For Russians, Gusinsky's arrest incites a sinister sense of deja vu. Stalin also posed as a best friend of Soviet linguists, athletes, children and soldiers, but most of all as the friend of writers, composers, poets and artists--even as he kept an iron grip on newspapers and broadcasters. Stalin's friendship, of course, sent Mandelstam to his grave, and Pasternak, Shostakovich and Mikhail Bulgakov all found themselves isolated.
Putin's new dictatorship of law also seeks to play the culture card of his law-and-order predecessors. Thankfully (so far), Putin's cultural involvements have assumed less grandiose and intimidating forms. Gusinsky, after all, was arrested in the glare of news cameras, not shipped off to the gulag in the dark of night, and precisely because the glare was too bright for the newly established presidency, Putin had to let him go almost immediately. This gentleness suggests that modern democratic-capitalist governance can now afford its own forms of surveillance to replace Soviet-style censorship, mixing tough traditions with less threatening techniques. The Press Ministry was recently granted more power over the Russian press by demanding that all publications in the country obtain government-issued licenses to continue printing, reserving the right to suspend a license for up to six months if the publisher violates any law--which includes violating pest-control regulations.
The point is to atomize and isolate. Great voices can speak, but these voices must be singular; the chorus of opinion that mass media outlets like those controlled by Gusinsky offers, it seems, must be overseen, monitored and, if necessary, controlled when they get too far out of line, as Kremlin power brokers seem to believe Gusinsky has been.
Gusinsky's Media-Most empire, including television and influential newspapers and magazines, bridled at earlier Kremlin attempts to control them by other means. Gusinsky's arrest seems a signal that the old whips can still be taken out of storage.
On the other hand, Putin's benevolent gestures toward mastera cultury (maestros of culture)--Kremlin benevolence that was once so life-threatening--are complacently accepted by today's mastera. Valery Gergiev, the renowned conductor of the Kirov (now Marinsky) Opera in St. Petersburg, was pleased by the president's direct interest in his new production of Prokofiev's opera, "War and Peace," as was Nani Bregvadze, a legendary Georgian singer, whom Putin begged to sing for him after missing her concert at the Moscow Conservatory.
In treating cultural masters different from media barons, Putin's calculations have been proved right so far. On June 12, at the 10th anniversary of Russia's Independence Day celebration, Nikita Mikhalkov, director of the Oscar-winning film "Burnt by the Sun," receiving a state award for outstanding cultural achievements, addressed the new Russian president as "your excellency" and stated that "there can be no great state without an idea, and (the) Russian idea is a great state." A month earlier, the same Nikita Mikhalkov spoke to the press in Moscow in defense of Putin's strategy in Chechnya.
Gusinsky may have been just the first to learn the limits of freedom, and the depth of those obligations.