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THE NOVGOROD AFFAIR
P. 8 THE EXILE SEP 21 - OCT 4
Did a blogger bring down a governor?
On August 3, Novgorod governor Mikhail Prusak was dismissed from his post. He’s been looking doomed for some time now, though few actually predicted that he’d be ousted this soon. The Novgorod region in Russia’s northwest has been badly lagging behind the rest of the country in social and economic development, and it has been and remains mostly in the hands of local criminal syndicates.
Not that Novgorod is unusual—most of Russia’s provinces suffer similar problems. What made Governor Prusak’s dismissal so unusual is the sequence of events leading up to his sacking. Indeed, the whole Novgorod affair offers a rare insight into modern Russian politics, where the players are Kremlin power, regional barons, corruption and petty intrigue. It also throws light on the growing role and power of the electronic media in Russia.
It started this past April when a young Moscow University graduate named Kirill Martynov, a fairly well-known blogger in the LiveJournal community (by far the most important forum/meeting point for Russia’s chattering classes), started pleading for his readers’ help. Martynov told his readers that his fiance, Antonina, had been arrested in Novgorod and charged with the attempted murder of her four year old daughter, Alisa.
The charge stemmed from an incident on February 26, when Alisa was badly injured after falling from the fourth floor stairwell of a seedy dormitory where she was living with her mother. A small boy who witnessed the fall later claimed that the little girl was "pushed down between the bars of the staircase."
Antonina was taken to a grim detention center and held there for two months. The local prosecutor pressed the case zealously because it looked fairly clear-cut: Antonina was a young local woman of very modest means, divorced from her first husband, now engaged to a promising suitor in Moscow. She wanted to marry him, but the child was a hindrance. The motive was there: get rid of the daughter, and her future in Moscow was secure. It might be a quick and easy conviction.
But the case quickly fell apart. It turned out that Kirill was very fond of his future stepdaughter Alisa; he wanted to marry Antonina and become Alisa's legal father (they were indeed married a few months later, in July). Alisa herself apparently didn't blame her mother, and her behavior showed that she trusted her mother completely upon recovering from the fall.
As it turned out, Kirill Martynov was an even more powerful blogger than expected, with some influential friends in the Russian internet community, including the publicist Alexei Chadayev, who at age 28 is the second youngest member of the Public Chamber of Russia (an extra-parliamentary body of intellectuals and public figures, set up by President Putin in 2005). Moreover, Novgorod is home to numerous journalist-bloggers who are widely read in Moscow, and through that link, her story made it to Russia’s mass-circulation media.
The story quickly turned into a grassroots uproar, as it became one of the biggest running topics in the Russian internet and media space. You might say that this was a perfect example of "civil society" in action. From the point of view of the ZheZhe (Russian LiveJournal) collective opinion, the brutal machinery of the Russia’s government was once savagely destroying several young lives. Most people in the ZheZhe community summed up the persecution this way. On the one side was Antonina, a very pretty young woman with fine, delicate features, the picture of sweetness. On the other side was the Novgorod machine. Novgorod has a huge problem with organized crime, which operates with almost total impunity and without fear of police action. The prosecutor needed to show that he was tackling crime. Unable to solve all of the contract murders, and helpless before the gangsters’ power, the police chose an easy target to enhance its "solved" crimes statistics.
As for the witnesses who testified against Antonina, her neighbors, they were nothing but low-life alcoholics who detested the bookish, intelligent young woman. A classic case of envy and spite, the mob against the intellectual. Moreover, they argued, the boy who saw Alisa’s fall could not have observed it from his position on the staircase one floor above. This is just a partial list of their reasons for siding with Antonina.
But then the story took another turn, one that suggested that the power of "civil society" is not always benign, that it can turn into a kind of mob rule no better than the government machine it fights.
The first crack appeared when popular young journalist Oleg Kashin visited Novgorod to conduct his own investigation, and he returned to Moscow no longer convinced that Antonina was completely innocent. Her behavior during the accident was strange indeed. For example, when her fallen daughter was lying there in a pool of blood, rather than rushing to help her, Antonina ran out on the street, while the neighbors were the ones left calling the ambulance. Antonina explained this as an uncontrollable hysteria and panic that overwhelmed her, and she ran away to find her mother for help. Moreover, Antonina’s neighbors were not at all the deranged alcoholics bloggers claimed they were. Nor did they hold a prior grudge against Antonina. The boy, who was the only witness to the accident, seemed honest, lucid, and in his account, he genuinely seemed to be describing what he believed he’d seen that day. As for the prosecutor-villain, it turned out that he was a rather simple but seemingly honest provincial cop who genuinely thought he was solving a serious case of attempted murder rather than fulfilling some political orders from above; in fact he now regretted starting the whole affair which turned into such a huge public spectacle.
As for Antonina’s account, it didn’t sound all that appealing. She said she didn’t push her daughter down the stairs, but simply let her out of sight and couldn’t grab her in time to stop her fall. After the fall happened, she said she panicked and ran away because she wanted her mother to help, and she was hysterical. After intense media and political pressure, Antonina was released from jail. Her case continues today, though few people now expect her to be convicted and jailed. Publicity continues too – there is now a lengthy article in Russian Wikipedia, a LiveJournal community called "novgorod_delo," and all sorts of newspaper articles and TV reports.
But what makes this story even more interesting is that its repercussions went far beyond the scene of the crime, to the larger problem of how Novgorod is itself so deeply criminalized at every level, and how badly that region has been governed. Suddenly, the Russian media became obsessed with horror stories about mafia killings in Novgorod, about small businesses destroyed, entrepreneurs and independent journalists intimidated and chased away.
At the top of Novgorod’s power chain are the regional leaders, and this is the root of the problem. Regional power in Russia is a toxic mix of entrenched holdovers from the Soviet era; local plutocrats and demagogues who rose to power in 1989-92 as the USSR fell apart; the "Red directors" who controlled regional industry in the second half of 90's in the reaction to the "democratization" and "privatization" years; and then, of course, the "bratki" – thugs that traded in their gold chains and tattoos for designer suits and PR managers. Last but not least, there are the no-nonsense grey managers who have risen to power in the Putin era, and are trying to exert their own control.
Governor Prusak combined some of the worst features of all of the types listed above. He was an unremarkable middle manager and a graduate of the School of Komsomol Leaders in late 80s, where he learned to parrot the right lines about supporting democratization and perestroika. He was dutifully rewarded by Yeltsin for toeing his line, and appointed governor of the Novgorod region after Yeltsin threw the old Communist party bosses out. Prusak has remained Novgorod’s governor ever since. What’s more, he managed to paint his region as a "reform leader," one of the Russia’s most pro Western, liberal regions, with liberal authorities. One can even find a book on Amazon.com called Crafting Democracy, devoted to Mikhail Prusak and his "remarkable experiment in building regional democratic institutions and self-rule." He was a ubiquitous presence at all the big international conferences, EU parliamentary assemblies and other similar Westernizing-mission schmooze fests, including programs sponsored by the George Soros Open Society Institute.
Many Western journalists and analysts were taken in, writing glowingly of Prusak’s achievements. For example, the following is found on the website of the Kennan Institute:
"…Prusak described how, for over a decade, his administration promoted the economic development of the Novgorod region without help or hindrance from Moscow, instead focusing on attracting foreign investment with tax incentives and progressive policies. ‘For over ten years,’ according to Prusak, ‘the Novgorod region has been able to shed 50 percent of central government subsidies--even without oil or gas. Our only natural resource was the intellectual capacity and will of the people to work.’"
As a rule, most of what the Western media publishes about Russia is bullshit. Glorifying Prusak is yet another example. Behind the facade of the "Westernized" democratic leader charging ahead with rapid reforms and attracting foreign investment, was very familiar reality: Prusak was just another petty, parochial plutocrat, carving up and milking his fiefdom, which was really just a depressed region. Ironically, even though Prusak parroted the pro-Westernizing line, he never belonged to any of the powerful clans in Russian politics, and he was not considered personally corrupt, especially as compared to some other regional bosses. He always remained just loyal enough to whoever ran the show in the Kremlin, while domestically, he let the regional powers (meaning mob rule) sort things out themselves, without seriously challenging them. Moscow was too busy with its own problems and intrigues to bother interfering.
Prusak’s gig only started to unwind in the early 2000s. Whereas many provincial Russian regions started experiencing their first rapid growth in ages, Novgorod continued to fall further behind. Salaries there remained lower, while prices were higher than in neighboring regions. Novgorod essentially remained stuck in the 90s -- in the bandit Yeltsin era, with crime bosses the true masters of the local economy, and masters over people’s fate, intimidating or killing anybody who stood in their way.
One recent and shocking case illustrates this well: three women working for a Novgorod real estate agency were seen as hindering the business of a local mob clan. They died in a fire which was clearly arson. As always, the crime was never solved, the perpetrators never found.
The "Antonina and Alisa" affair led to a massive media blitz on this terrible state of affairs. Of course, the "Antonina and Alisa" case wasn’t the only reason why Prusak fell from power, but it appears to have been the catalyst that convinced the Kremlin apparatus to make its move now.
They say that Russian history goes in circles. Once, during the 11th -15th centuries, there was a powerful and vibrant Novgorod republic – a part of the Hanseatic league and an indigenous democracy on the Russian soil, later brutally crushed by the autocratic Moscow’s expansion. This is the version taught in most Western and some Russian history books. In fact, by the time Novgorod fell it had degenerated into little more than a feeble, corrupt oligarchy, preying on its own population. Novgorod power collapsed thanks to the greed, corruption and incompetence of its own leaders.