Putin deliberately muddles his struggle with the oligarchs–the name given to the small group of men who at trivial cost gained control of the state’s economic assets during the privatizations of the 1990s–with repression of the media. Recent attacks on the oligarchs include the arrest and harassment of Vladimir Gusinsky, president of the Media Most group that includes the near-national NTV television network; the threatened prosecution of Vladimir Potanin, head of the Interros group that (with Lukoil) controls the newspaper Izvestia; investigations of Lukoil and AvtoVAZ; and most recently pressure on Boris Berezovsky, the most prominent and politically active of the oligarchs, to discharge his debts to the state by surrendering his equity in ORT, the national TV network that is 51 percent state-controlled.

At a meeting with oligarchs at the end of July, Putin promised there would be no general review of the privatizations of the 1990’s. He asserted, however, that the courts could overturn particular transactions if prosecutors found “concrete violations.” Like a dime-novel crime boss, Putin told the oligarchs they have nothing to worry about so long as they cooperate. But if they don’t, said a senior Kremlin official, the state may administer “spiked enemas.” Cooperation in this case means not just paying taxes and investing profits in Russia, but applying self-censorship to the media.

The oligarchs as a group are widely detested, but because they control the only major media outlets not in state hands, they are the principal defenders of freedom of the press. “If the … mass media is forced to shut up, there will be nothing good left in the country.” That is not John Peter Zenger or Oliver Wendell Holmes but Boris Abramovich Berezovsky speaking. Not many Russians will run to the barricades to protect Berezovsky’s right to broadcast. It is freedom’s curse to have such exemplars.