In 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.
Before the fall: Alisa and her mom
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.