The Release of Ivan Golunov and the Power of Collective Action in Russia
The Russian journalist Ivan Golunov is still trying to grasp what happened to him. Some things are clear enough: on Thursday, June 6th, Golunov, on his way to lunch in central Moscow, was stopped by the police, who took him into custody, beat him, planted drugs in his backpack, and then took him to his own apartment and planted drugs there, until he was finally arraigned on drug-trafficking charges. As shocking an experience as this was for Golunov, it was easy enough to understand: people are framed on drug charges in Russia all the time, and Golunov, who is an investigative journalist, had made many powerful people unhappy. What followed the arrest, however, was nearly unfathomable: Russian journalists, including those who are loyal to the Kremlin, mobilized to defend him. People protested in the streets, in print, and even, eventually, on the air. The case against Golunov was dropped. Five days after his arrest, Golunov emerged a free man—and a sudden, unlikely celebrity.
“I’m not used to people coming up to me in the street and saying thank you,” Golunov told me on the phone on Sunday. “I tell them that I should be the one giving thanks: I was just on my way to lunch, and everything else is what other people did. This is a difficult point for me,” he said. “Every time I talk about the people who helped me, I start crying.” The first footage of Golunov that emerged after his arrest—late in the evening on June 8th—was of him in a steel cage in a Moscow courtroom, crying, saying, “Thank you. I never thought I’d get a chance to be present at my own wake.”
Following his court hearing, Golunov was placed under house arrest; two days later, all charges against him were dropped. He granted his first appearance to Ksenia Sobchak, one of the country’s biggest media personalities, who hosts a professionally produced talk show on her YouTube channel. In the interview, filmed in his apartment, Golunov showed how the police planted drugs during the search: officers stood on either side of a wardrobe, and one reached up and told the other one to look on top of the wardrobe—sure enough, a packet of what they said was cocaine and a plastic pharmacist’s scale were there. At this point, Golunov told me, he dissociated and stopped being scared. “I could no longer grasp that this was about me,” he said. This helped him act in a way that appeared almost calculated: whenever he knew that he was in view of security cameras, he tried to create as much of a commotion as possible, screaming and demanding that he be allowed to speak to his lawyer. The rest of the time he was calmer. “My answer to everything, though, was ‘in the presence of my lawyer,’ ” he said. “Like, they’d ask me if I wanted a drink of water, and I’d respond, ‘In the presence of my lawyer, I’ll want a drink of water.’ ” Only fifteen hours after Golunov was detained was he finally able to see a lawyer, he told me. In another couple of hours—early on Friday morning—the detective who had been questioning him started getting calls. One of the first came from Sobchak, followed by other Russian celebrities, officials, businessmen, and investigative journalists calling from as far away as Brazil.
At first, the people who called, wrote, or took to the streets to support Golunov could only imagine what was happening to him. They knew that he had been arrested and would face drug-trafficking charges, which carry a sentence of up to twenty years behind bars. Those who knew him personally feared what might happen to him as a gay man in a Russian prison, where violence and rape are common. Golunov said that the police used homophobic insults and made reference to the violence that awaited him behind bars, though, by then, he told me, the threats failed to elicit an emotional reaction in him. Meanwhile, the protests continued. In Moscow, hundreds came to police headquarters and to the courthouse where Golunov was arraigned. Golunov’s employer, the Latvia-based Russian-language online publication Meduza, called on other media to reprint his investigative reports, and dozens (and probably more) did. Three of Russia’s leading business dailies, all of which are generally loyal to the Kremlin, came out with a single front page with a giant headline that read, “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov.” The Russian edition of Elle, among many others, called on its readers to join the protest.
The solidarity in the media was unprecedented, as was the resilience of the protesters who were willing to risk arrest to stand up for Golunov. In a country where public opinion has long seemed an outdated concept—there hasn’t been a public in years, and few people have dared to have opinions—a nationwide outcry was taking root. The system, which has been impervious to law, elections, international sanctions, and other known forms of pressure, suddenly seemed to cave, or at least to take a step back, in the apparent hope that the protests would abate. But people continued protesting—Golunov’s case became a symbol of uncounted similar cases. “The first thing I saw when I opened my computer [the day after charges were dropped] was an online live broadcast of the protest,” Golunov told me. He started getting ready to go there—it seemed to him that he had a duty to join—but his lawyers advised against it. The protesters didn’t have a permit and were claiming that they were simply taking a walk in central Moscow with hundreds of their friends. If Golunov showed up, his lawyers suggested, his appearance might cause something that would indisputably be an assembly—an illegal one, in the eyes of the regime. Golunov stayed home, and the police arrested more than five hundred people anyway.
As he struggles to process what has happened to him, Golunov has to contend with the competing truths that his predicament was entirely typical but that the outcome of his case was exceptional. The ordinary part, he feels, is what brought people together. “I think it was a cumulative effect,” he told me. “People want to be able to go about their lives, and here it turns out that they can plant drugs on anyone and put them away for twenty years.” Sure, Golunov was a journalist, but he was not famous, and he maintained decent relations even with many of the people he had written about. He suspects that his arrest was connected to his current project, an investigation into the connections between the Federal Security Service and the lucrative funeral business in Moscow. But, then again, for every person in Russia, there is someone more powerful who can decide to have them put away.
Golunov is now a witness in what was a criminal case against him. “The charges against me have been dropped, but the drugs remain,” he explained. “And drugs are illegal. So the police have to figure out where they came from.” He said that he feels a responsibility both to pursue the case—to expose the people who planted the drugs, and perhaps even those who ordered them to plant the drugs—and also to learn how drug laws are enforced in Russia. At the same time, he feels intensely uncomfortable in the role of an activist, a celebrity, and a witness in a high-profile case. He has a security detail but is reluctant to trouble its members, so he has found himself staying home more than he otherwise might. “I would just like to go back to the way things were before that Thursday,” he told me. “I’d like to write articles and ride the subway.”
One can hardly begrudge Golunov the desire to go back to life as it was. But his arrest gave Russia a glimpse of things that many young people there have only read about in books—solidarity, the power of collective action, and justice. What if, by some miracle, Russian society didn’t now return to the way things were before Thursday, June 6th? Russians would have a lot to thank Golunov for.
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