While the space for independent journalism in Russia has narrowed dramatically in recent years, one organization seemed to buck the trend. It was called RBC and owned by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who had unsuccessfully run against President Vladimir Putin for the presidency in 2012. Prokhorov fared poorly in politics, winning only 8 percent of the vote, but RBC began to blossom in the past two years with something almost unheard of in today’s Russia: penetrating investigative reports and an ever-larger audience. On May 13, the hatchet fell.
Three top editors resigned, including the editor in chief of the media group, Elizaveta Osetinskaya; editor of the RBC newspaper, Maxim Solyus; and editor of the RBC news agency, Roman Badanin. While the company praised the departing editors, other news reports said they were essentially forced out because of Kremlin displeasure with the organization’s reports and its growing popularity.
Putin never entirely extinguished independent reporting in Russia; he marginalized it. He permitted some small liberal outlets to survive – and almost all the news media engage in preemptive self-censorship – while the Kremlin dominated television news, the source of information for most people. Whenever an organization or its owner challenged Putin, pried into forbidden areas or gained too large a following, the authorities neutered it, often by removing owners and editors. It happened to the NTV television network at the outset of Putin’s presidency, again at the Lenta.ru news site in 2014, and now it has happened to RBC.
Among other sensitive topics, RBC published detailed reports about the property holdings of the Russian Orthodox Church; about the existence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine; about corruption in the Ministry of Culture; and, perhaps most daringly, about the taboo subject of Putin’s family, including one of his daughters and the business dealings of her husband. More recently, RBC also covered the Panama Papers and involvement of Putin’s cronies in transfers of millions of dollars through offshore accounts. This seems to have hit a nerve. Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of a Sunday night television show, a fierce anti-American commentator and a Putin defender, held up a copy of RBC’s newspaper carrying a story on the Panama Papers leak during a broadcast and attacked RBC’s journalists for being clandestine “assistants” of the United States.
Putin’s goons use violence to suppress opposition voices. In the latest example, a group of pro-Kremlin Cossacks physically assaulted anti- corruption activist Alexei Navalny and his supporters; six were injured, and one hospitalized. Putin’s style is to target his foes, one at a time. But the tangible impact is fear. As Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center has put it, Putin has left the political sphere “sterilized,” with nothing that will allow people to debate social problems publicly.
Putin has taken the illiberal road to authoritarianism, even though he once pledged to “unconditionally” defend Russia’s nascent democracy. Instead, he constructed a cult of personality. It is a hollow pedestal upon which to stake the future of Russia.