09/10/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Russia: Prison Bars Cannot Hold Back the Wind of Freedom

On 17 August, three members of the all-women punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years' imprisonment in a penal colony. The verdict confirmed the militaristic character of Putinism, now on a downward path into imperialism and tsarism.

However, we should not be bamboozled by such Potemkin window-dressing. According to legend, the Russian minister Grigory Potemkin had fake building facades made of cardboard built along the route taken by Empress Catherine II in order to give her a false idea of Russian society. Vladimir Putin's entire system is a front, which should not deceive us.

There is a danger that the image of Russia's institutions as being frozen in an archaic and despotic past could obscure the reality of a changing society that is much more diverse than we imagine. The culture of fear and obedience has been in retreat for a number of years.

Despite the Kremlin's best efforts, a dogged and courageous determination has been spreading through the country. Earlier this year, challenges to electoral fraud were seen in Russia's main cities, most clearly in Moscow. The decade's first large-scale demonstrations against Putin's party, United Russia, took place at opposite ends of the country -- in Vladivostok in 2008 and particularly in Kaliningrad in 2010.

Last December, the streets were filled with the biggest marches seen since the end of the Soviet Union, and the main television stations, despite having reverted to Kremlin control in the early 2000s, gave airtime to the protests. It was a brief relaxation, but since then journalists appear to be gradually growing in confidence, despite questionable dismissals among editorial staffs, in addition to the problems faced by independent journalists and threats to Internet freedom.

Dissident voices were already fighting to make themselves heard, particularly at a local level. Well-established examples included an independent radio station in Siberia, a newspaper in the Volga region and the quarterly magazine Dosh, which reports with courage on events in the Russian Caucasus.

However, an event that symbolizes the velvet revolution under way took place in mid-June this year. Angered by an unflattering article about him, Russia's chief investigator General Aleksandr Bastrykin drove the deputy editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov, into a forest where he made threats against his life, among other things. The newspaper is noted for its no-holds-barred investigations, as well as its unhappy record of five murders among its staff since Putin came to power. Bastrykin heads the federal committee that investigates sensitive criminal cases, including the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

It was the incident's aftermath that made it unusual. The editor of Novaya Gazeta, instead of keeping silent from fear of reprisals, published an open letter in which he reported what had happened and said his deputy had left the country temporarily for security reasons.

Over several days, a large number of journalists filed past the investigative committee's headquarters. On Twitter, the hashtag #OccupySK (the committee's initials in Russian) jumped in popularity. Bastrykin was finally forced to apologize and give an undertaking to ensure the safety of Novaya Gazeta journalists. The general has not resigned -- still unthinkable, even now -- and continues to dispute some of the incident, but it was the first time that a senior government figure had backed down in response to public pressure.

A few days later another, less serious incident showed the media's change in attitude toward one of the areas most affected by the cold hand of Putin -- Soviet history. On June 22, the commercial television station NTV rejected a direct request from the culture minister to cancel the screening of a film about the Second World War on the grounds that it was "inappropriate." The film depicted the patriotism of gulag prisoners and the cruelty of their guards. Not only was the film screened as planned, but the head of the station also made public the reasons for the decision in the form of a scurrilous poem, describing the minister as "Stalinist."

Yet NTV is far from being close to the opposition. Last December it broadcast two films accusing demonstrators and electoral observer groups of acting on the orders of the U.S. State Department, which critics branded "Surkov propaganda," a reference to the Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov.

The government has enacted a series of harsh laws in record time to try to curb the growth of freedom of information. Curbs on NGOs and demonstrations were strengthened and defamation was reinstated in the criminal code, after being decriminalized last November. In the name of child protection, a government agency will shortly draw up blacklists of "harmful" websites that will be blocked without any debate or court decision.

However, none of these gagging mechanisms will work. On the contrary, by reacting to social discontent and the aspirations of the middle classes with suspicion and fear, the government will merely provoke a more radical response and weaken its grip on the country. The iron bars used to imprison the women of Pussy Riot cannot hold back the wind of freedom.

Special thanks to Johann Bihr, Head of Europe desk at Reporters Without Borders.