At first glance, the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov seemed to be the latest in a string of attacks on the free press in Russia. The reporter was brought up last week on what to many appeared to be a fabricated drugs charge.
But the response to his detainment took the Kremlin – and Russian society – by surprise.
For starters, Golunov’s arrest prompted an outpouring of journalistic solidarity. Over the weekend, Russian reporters took turns staging solo protests, lining up to hold placards outside the Moscow branch of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those single-person pickets – which do not require a permit – continued into Monday evening.
On Tuesday afternoon, authorities reversed course and announced they had dropped the case against Golunov because a lack of evidence, Minister for Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev said.
But the outcry over his case represented a spontaneous burst of protest in a country where political speech is often tightly controlled. And Russian media organizations – both independent and pro-Kremlin – rallied to Golunov’s cause.
On Monday, three leading Russian business newspapers published identical front pages with the headline: “I/We are Ivan Golunov.”
It was a phrase reminiscent of “Je suis Charlie,” the slogan that went viral after the 2015 mass shooting at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Equally striking was support from Russia’s celebrities, artists and performers. Many Russian celebrities posted videos calling for Golunov’s release, calling his case an important test for the rule of law.
“It’s crucial that Ivan Golunov walks free not only for himself and for his loved ones, friends or colleagues,” said rapper Oxxxymiron (Miron Fedorov). “It’s crucial for the whole society and all of us. Because if bravery will continue to be punished and villainy will be praised, none of us have a future.”
Veteran rock musician Andrey Makarevich recorded a video statement in support of the journalist, saying “We must do everything so this travesty ends.” Makarevich’s band, Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), was scheduled to perform Wednesday in Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate Russia’s National Day, but the performance was canceled after “a call,” the musician said on Facebook.
Chulpan Khamatova, the actress best known for her role in the 2003 film “Good Bye Lenin!,” said, “I want to live in a country where there is no fear. I don’t want to be afraid. Ivan Golunov must be free.”
Many others weighed in. But Fekla Tolstoy, a TV personality descended from author Leo Tolstoy, suggested why the case resonated with so many Russians.
“It’s not just the latest attack on freedom of speech, it’s a signal to all of us: Anyone one of us can be arrested,” she said. “And we can’t put up with that.”
Kremlin acknowledges conflicting information
Golunov is best known for his investigations into large-scale crime and corruption in Moscow. He investigated how family members of Moscow’s deputy mayor purchased nine elite multi-million penthouses in just one day; a state communications regulator’s use of artificial intelligence and hundreds of staffers to censor the Russian internet; and linked Moscow’s funeral business to criminals and government circles.
The last investigation Golunov published before his arrest was an expose on how Moscow loan sharks deceive debtors to seize their property, evicting over 500 residents in five years.
Russia’s police are widely criticized for corruption, and official handling of the case has only fueled suspicion that the case against Golunov has been fabricated.
Golunov was arrested Thursday and subsequently charged with intention to sell drugs in large quantities. Police initially released images from his apartment that appeared to show a kind of drug laboratory, but subsequently backtracked, saying most of the images were not from Golunov’s apartment.
On Tuesday, police dropped the charges and freed Golunov from house arrest.
“According to the results of biological, forensic and fingerprint examinations and DNA testing, a decision was made to terminate the criminal prosecution of citizen Ivan Golunov due to the lack of evidence of his participation in the crime. Today he will be released from house arrest, and the charges will be dropped,” said Kolokoltsev, the interior minister.
Kolokoltsev added that the police officers involved in detaining the journalist had been suspended and that he would request the dismissal of two senior interior ministry officials.
Before Golunov’s release, even the Kremlin acknowledged conflicting information in the case.
Asked to comment on police statements over the weekend, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday: “We have paid attention to the corrections that were later published, and we also proceed from the fact that there are several issues that are in need of a clarification.”
Peskov’s comments were the closest the Kremlin has come to acknowledging the public outcry. Meanwhile, Meduza, Golunov’s employer, and other media outlets have raised questions about his treatment in custody.
The ambulance doctor who examined Golunov in police custody said the journalist had a concussion, bruising and possible broken ribs. Police subsequently allowed him to be examined, according to a statement from the Moscow branch of the interior ministry, and a prominent doctor said there was no need for him to be hospitalized – although some questioned the doctor’s political motives for saying so.
Speaking in the courtroom on Saturday, an emotional Golunov clearly appeared to be under enormous stress.
“This is all very hard, it’s like in a movie,” he said, before breaking down and crying. “I never thought that I’ll be attending my own funeral.”
That spectacle, then, may also be what is driving public outrage.
Film director Andrey Zvyagintsev spoke for many when he said the case had laid bare official corruption and hypocrisy.
“This is all fake, pretend and lies,” he said. “How long? How long will this dragon tribe drink our blood, when will they be sated? For how long can we observe this and be indifferent?”