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Russia October 1, 2007
The Novgorod Affair
Did a blogger bring down a governor? By Kirill Pankratov Browse author
Page 2 of 4
Its a pencil sharpener -- the one you always wanted

It's a pencil sharpener -- the one you always wanted

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.

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