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In most cases, the Kremlin doesn't have to sign an order stifling dissent. What is required is simply understood by functionaries across all levels of government. Call it grass-roots autocracy. This is a new phenomenon in the post-Soviet era, but, in the words of the talk-show host, Russians have "historical experience" of voluntarily and enthusiastically carrying out the perceived will of the supreme leader.
The press in Russia does a fine job of undermining itself. In Tver, one newspaper charges up to $1,225 for a full-page political ad. For an extra $1,400, the paper will print the ad to look like a regular article. Small wonder that there was little faith in editorial independence even before Putin's crackdown. In Novgorod, I met a group of young Russians who called themselves journalists and wrote for various papers and Web outlets. They were also activists for Putin's United Russia Party. In their opinion, media liberties had fueled the instability of the Yeltsin era. "There was too much freedom of the press in the 1990s," said Emin Kalantarov, 23. "People swung from one point of view to the next like monkeys at the zoo. What we're doing now is systemizing political discourse." His main job as a journalist, he said, is to explain the ruling party's policies to readers.
Catherine the Great's chief of secret police was known to torture detainees with a particularly cruel Russian innovation, a rawhide whip with metal hooks called a knout. When Radischev was discovered to be the writer of A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, he was arrested by the authorities and jailed in the Peter and Paul Fortress. He repented almost immediately, giving a full, miserable confession. The book, he said, was just a foolish attempt to "win renown as an author." In no way had he meant to impugn the Empress.
His efforts to appease failed. In a show trial that was watched with interest as far away as Britain and France, Radischev was sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to a 10-year exile in Siberia, but it was still the beginning of the end. Radischev eventually returned from exile, but nothing in Russia had changed. He tried again to push for reform but failed as before. Radischev died by his own hand, having drunk a cup of nitric acid, on Sept. 24, 1802. He was 53.
But his ideas lived on. His faith that the Enlightenment could liberate his beloved Russia is as vital and inspiring today as it was then. On the 205th anniversary of his death a Monday afternoon I was sitting in the backseat of our Lada as we drove north along his route toward Petersburg. Tired of watching the birch forests and semi trucks roll by, I flipped through a book on the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. There, in his words, was quite possibly the perfect homage to his literary predecessor: "Following Radischev, I chanted liberty." That call to freedom, too, is a part of Russia's heritage.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that it was Ivan the Terrible who had taken Novgorod's charter and cherished bell with him back to Moscow. It was actually his grandfather, Ivan the Great.