Putin and Pushkin

MOSCOW: By arresting media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, the Kremlin -- whether by order of President Putin or not -- revived fears of censorship and thought control. Are those fears justified, and what does Gusinksy's arrest presage, if anything?

Neither censorship nor the gulag ever completely suppressed intellectual life in Russia. Witness the genius of Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Shostakovich, Pasternak and Prokofiev who created great works even in the nightmare years of the Stalinist era. Recognizing this indestructibility, Russian leaders have always sought to keep the mass media under their thumb, and artists on their side. Newspapers buckled and often artists returned the state's embrace. Pushkin, for example, announced that AI am not a flatterer when I sing praises to my Tsar." Even Mandelstam, although he did it under duress, wrote an Ode to Stalin, which nevertheless failed to save him from the gulag and death.

Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev -- all constructed their ruling Soviet ideology on the foundation of the Russian intelligentsia. When communism imploded, however, Yeltsin sought to divert Russia's intellectual energy toward money and the media. High culture was abandoned as a Kremlin plaything and left to survive -- or not -- on its own. The Internet and mass media, not poetry, was to be the catalyst in jump-starting Russia's civil society.

As President, Vladimir Putin vowed last January to revive the moral fiber of the Russian people, their glory and international respect. To achieve this goal he has sought to restore high culture to a position of primacy in Russian life, and to put mass media back in its (politically) subservient place. If geniuses like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov helped dismantle the USSR, 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.