How Ivan Golunov Cost Putin More Than Robert Mueller | Opinion

I'm sitting at a café near Moscow's Kursk railway station on a dark winter afternoon with Ivan Golunov, the top Russian investigative journalist who was arrested, tortured—and then, incredibly, released in the wake of mass public and media protests, earlier this week. But this is earlier still, December 2017. Ivan is not yet world-famous; he's merely extremely dogged, highly respected by fellow journalists and incredibly good at what he does. He shrugs off my attempts at small talk and immediately launches into our appointed topic: pavements.

Golunov's investigations deal almost exclusively with the most mundane and unglamorous issues imaginable, which nevertheless affect the everyday lives of millions of ordinary people. He does not poke his nose into national security, he does not travel to Chechnya or to Donbass, and he certainly does not and try to figure out who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

His hunting grounds are paving stones, micro-credit schemes, abuses of power in schools and hospitals, internal politics in regional museums, garbage disposal, social media monitors, and most recently, dodgy dealings in the funeral business. He works by taking stones, turning them over (often literally) and digging through the dirt beneath.

Consider parks, for example. The grandiose Zaryadye Park opened in September 2017 in the shadow of the Kremlin at an official cost of 14 billion roubles ($217 million.) The figure is jaw-dropping enough in its own right, but Ivan suggests I don't know the half of it. "It's impossible to tell how much [Zaryadye] really cost because of the intricate financing structure. Shall I explain it to you?"

The nested hierarchy of shadow enterprises and subcontractors the municipality dreamt for Zaryadye meant that it did not have to hold contracting tenders for the park's construction, nor to post details of contracts for public scrutiny on the relevant government website, often Golunov's first port of call "You will never find out who the subcontractors of Zaryadye are from the documents", Golunov says. Unable to follow the money, he started turning stones.

In this case, he was doing so in the most literal sense imaginable. One of the trademark features of the park (designed by American architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, of New York's High Line fame) are its hexagonal granite paving stones. So Golunov went to the Zaryadye construction site, walked up to a still-unpacked pile of freshly-delivered pavers and spotted a shipping label. Within a couple of days he discovered that the granite for this most patriotic of Russian parks was quarried, in western Ukraine (of all places), shipped by train the length and breadth of Eurasia to Xiamen in south-east China for cutting into its elaborate form (no Russian firms possessed the technology meet the American firm's specifications), and then shipped back to Moscow for installation in Zaryadye.

To top it off, the Russian importer was a dummy company registered to a schoolteacher in the town of Pushkino in the Leningrad region. "She had an unusual surname, so it wasn't hard to find out her telephone number," Golunov told me. "She had recently had her passport stolen and had no idea that there was a company registered in her name, let alone a company that had built something in Zaryadye." Of course, says Golunov, such practices are completely illegal - and completely par for the course in state infrastructure contracts.

Golunov's work made him many of powerful enemies, nowhere more so in the Moscow municipal administration. But the detention and beating, as Golunov himself said in his court hearing on June 7, was likely "commissioned" by enemies of a lesser order: a small-time funeral services mafia, with alleged links to the security services and police. The plot was spectacularly ill-conceived and bunglingly executed. It appears crooked undertakers paid off dodgy cops and officials to arrest Golunov, rough him up, plant mephedrone in his rucksack, and post ludicrous photographs on the website of the Interior Ministry depicting an elaborate drugs laboratory in what was claimed to be - but very clearly was not - Golunov's apartment.

The reaction among journalists and the general population was explosive and unprecedented. On Sunday, Golunov appeared at his court hearing, evidently distressed. "I never thought I would attend my own funeral", he said, in what may or may not have been a veiled reference to the cemetery mob. Hundreds of supporters stood outside the courthouse and flooded the courtroom with cries of "Free Ivan Golunov". Against everybody's expectations and the wish of the prosecutor to have him incarcerated in pre-trial detention, the judge placed him under house arrest.

On Monday, three of Russia's best-respected and normally very docile newspapers ran identical front pages featuring the headline "I am/We are Ivan Golunov". The anchors of Russian state TV's flagship "60 minutes" propaganda show made a strongly-worded appeal on Golunov's behalf, as did the notorious CEO of the emphatically pro-Kremlin Russia Today, Margarita Simoyan. One-person pickets, designed to bypass Russia's ban on unsanctioned public gatherings, were held around the clock in cities across the country. By Tuesday afternoon all charges against Golunov had been dropped and by the early evening he was free. Nobody expected the climbdown to be this quick, least of all Golunov himself.

The five days of the Ivan Golunov affair may have a far-reaching impact on the politics of Russia, more than any other single event in recent years, including the Mueller investigation. Golunov may be Russia's best investigative journalist, but his mundane subjects meant that, this time last week, very few people in Russia – including many of my well-informed Moscow friends – knew who he was. High-ranking figures implicated in his investigations – such as those in the Moscow municipality – could sleep soundly, because they knew this. They did not let Golunov be because of their commitment to freedom of expression, but because they knew that Golunov's work only reached a small audience of oppositionist urbanites who read the Riga-based independent news portal Meduza.

Today, thanks to the cunning plan hatched by some dodgy undertakers and their stable genius pals in the Interior Ministry, Golunov is Russia's most famous journalist and the whole world is reading Meduza. Those finding themselves in Golunov's sights should sleep a lot less soundly from this point on, but much remains open. Will Golunov's supporters be able to keep up the momentum of their campaign in a country where untold thousands of people are serving multiple-year sentences in prisons and penal colonies on fake drugs (and other) charges? Or will everything simply go back to normal?

The Golunov case culminated in an unprecedented climbdown. The Kremlin does not usually intervene in instances where lower-rank officials cause global scandals and untold suffering, because the centre is terrified of people realizing how weak the entire structure is. But recent months have seen several instances of the government intervening in social crises on the side of the protesters. In Ekaterinburg, for example, Putin made a personal intervention following protests against the construction of a grandiose new Orthodox church on a much-loved public square. His trust ratings are at an all time low, and for the first time in a while, he is terrified of not being loved.

As I write, one day after Golunov's release, over 400 people have been arrested at a solidarity protest in central Moscow. Golunov, meanwhile, finds himself a reluctant celebrity and a symbol. He will not be able to carry out his nitty-gritty, incognito investigations like he used to. But he will spawn thousands of imitators lifting up paving stones, photographing packaging labels, developing new methods of sifting through the dirt lying in plain sight or hidden only by the thinnest layer of cracked granite. I have rarely seen my Russian friends and colleagues so angry, so hungry for change and so filled with optimism as they are now.

Michał Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture. He is Lecturer in Critical Area Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His book, Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw and a City Transfixed was published by Indiana University Press in 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​