Citizens' Freedoms Whittled Away

By arresting Vladimir Gusinsky last week, the Kremlin revived fears of censorship and thought control. Are those fears justified, and what does Gusinsky's arrest mean, if anything?

Neither censorship nor the gulag ever completely suppressed intellectual life in Russia. Witness the genius of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Dmitry Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak, 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. Even Alexander Pushkin announced, "I am not a flatterer when I sing praises to my tsar."

Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev f all constructed their Soviet ideology on the foundation of the Russian intelligentsia. But when communism imploded, Boris Yeltsin sought to divert Russia's intellectual energy toward money and the media. The Internet and mass media, not poetry, was to be the catalyst in jump-starting Russia's civil society.

Vladimir Putin has vowed to revive the moral fiber of the Russian people, their glory and international respect. He has sought to restore high culture to a position of primacy and to put mass media back in its 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.

Putin has posed as a great supporter of Russian culture, of its film, literature, music, architecture. Mass media, because of its usefulness, now seems exempted from these concerns. For Russians, Gusinsky's arrest incites a sinister sense of d?j? vu. Stalin also posed as the friend of writers, composers, poets and artists, even as he kept an iron grip on newspapers and broadcasters.

Putin's "dictatorship of law" also seeks to play the culture card of his law-and-order predecessors. So far, Putin's cultural involvements have assumed less grandiose and intimidating forms. Gusinsky was arrested in the glare of news cameras, not shipped off to the gulag at night, and precisely because the glare was too bright, 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 press by demanding that publications 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.

The point is to atomize and isolate. Great voices can speak, but these must be singular; the chorus of opinion that mass media outlets like those controlled by Gusinsky offers, it seems, must be overseen, monitored and controlled when they get out of line. 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 kultury (maestros of culture)are complacently accepted by today's mastera. Valery Gergiev, conductor of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, was pleased by Putin's 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 he missed her concert at the Conservatory.

In treating cultural masters different from media barons, Putin's calculations have proved right so far. At a June 12 Independence Day celebration, film director Nikita Mikhalkov received a state award for cultural achievements; he addressed Putin as "your excellency," stating, "There can be no great state without an idea, and [the] Russian idea is a great state." A month earlier, Mikhalkov spoke to the press defending Putin's strategy in Chechnya.

Gusinsky may have been just the first to learn the limits of freedom, and the depth of those obligations.

Nina Khrushcheva is director of special projects at the East/West Institute in New York. She contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.