Vladimir Putin Leaves Behind A Revived Prison State On His Exit

It was quite possibly the greatest gift to journalists since bars started offering free Wi-Fi. Vladimir Putin, who steps down as Tsar of All The Russias this week, had secretly divorced his wife of 25 years, Lyudmila, and shacked up … Read More

By / May 7, 2008

It was quite possibly the greatest gift to journalists since bars started offering free Wi-Fi. Vladimir Putin, who steps down as Tsar of All The Russias this week, had secretly divorced his wife of 25 years, Lyudmila, and shacked up with a medal-winning rhythmic gymnast and model-turned-politician half his age who had hitherto been known principally for her "extreme flexibility."

The rumours had been circulating in Russia for some time, but only Moskovski Korrespondent newspaper had the balls to run with the story, which unsurprisingly went global with dizzying speed. After all, a quick Google Image search for the young lady in question, Alina Kabaeva, tends to turn up photos of a foxy-looking girl wrapped only in furs (courtesy of a photoshoot for the Russian edition of Maxim) or else pirouetting on the spot with one leg wrapped behind her ear. What, frankly, is not to like?

The only thing is, it wasn't true. Well, apparently. Not only did Mr Putin and Ms Kabaeva flatly deny the story, but, more to the point,  so did the newspaper's billionaire owner, Alexander Lebedev — not noted as an ally of the outgoing President. And Moskovski Korrespondent is perhaps more accurately described as an ex-newspaper; immediately after the story was printed, its editor was fired and the presses shut down. Two weeks on, the paper's future is still in limbo. Lebedev has withdrawn his financial support, citing "conceptual disagreements with the newsroom" but insisting in a statement that "this has nothing to do with politics and is solely a business decision". But that's an entirely false dichotomy, because in Russia, criticizing your leaders is rarely good business.

At least the hacks in this case have merely lost their livelihoods. Many have been unluckier, most notably the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder in October 2006 just might have been connected to her strident criticism of the regime's human rights abuses in Chechnya and elsewhere. Twelve days later, her friend and fellow dissident Alexander Litvinenko stood in the Frontline Club in London and issued a stirring denunciation of those he believed were responsible. "I'm totally confident", he said, "that there is only one person in Russia who could kill Anna Politkovskaya with her standing, with her fame. That is Putin." Five weeks later, Litvinenko himself was dead in the most macabre of circumstances.

Reporters Sans Frontieres estimated last year that 21 journalists had been murdered during Putin's reign, and while not all of these deaths can or should be laid at the door of the government, there is little doubt that exposing corruption and human rights abuses in Russia is not a great career choice. But outrages like the Politkovskaya murder are merely the most ugly symptoms of a much deeper malaise; press freedom is the canary in the mine for any democracy, and in Russia it died long ago. In 2003, Freedom House moved Russia from the "partly free" column to "not free" in its annual survey of press freedom. The following year, the same change was made in its general survey of civil liberties.

All five of the major TV stations toe the government line. Regional media is usually under the direction of local authorities. Coverage of government is uniformly bland and sycophantic; coverage of opposition scant and biased. (Think Fox News as parodied by the Simpsons.) There are few independent newspapers, and most of the larger ones are controlled either by billionaire oligarchs or companies like Gazprom or Promsvyazbank with close ties to the Kremlin. While Michael Moore and company were sounding off about the value of Cheney's Halliburton shares, these guys were creating a real live petro-dictatorship. Expose that, though, and there's no Palme D'Or waiting for you.

The curious case of Vladimir and his supple ‘girlfriend' is trivial by comparison, not least because it may really just be a tabloid invention to shift a few more copies. Yet in one sense it demonstrates a more chilling truth about the media in modern Russia. Beyond the headline cases of crusading journalists being locked up for attacking the government, or risking death to report on human rights abuses, there has been a more pervasive erosion of the very idea of an independent press. Never mind radioactive sushi or gun-toting assassins; now it takes only a threatening glance from those in power to shut your operation down. Once you live in that sort of a society you're screwed, even if she wasn't.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, this doesn't just concern Russians, either; not with $100 oil, economic warfare against her neighbours, and ICBMs being paraded in Red Square, just like the old days. No, an executive unfettered by the kinds of checks and balances that stop BushCheneyCo from murdering you in your beds is bad news for everyone. The West is pinning its hopes on the new President, Dmitri Medvedev, being a new and more moderate voice, and not merely the puppet for a continued Putin supremacy. We shall see; but the signs aren't good.

As for Anna Politkovskaya, she predicted her fate long before it befell her. Her words should serve as more than a mere epitaph:

We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial – whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit.

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