Everyone in Russia is guilty of something. In Soviet times, it is said, suspicious authorities would challenge peaceable citizens by demanding to know “Why are your papers in order?” Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of the Media Most group, is guilty of felony insolence and courage in the first degree. He may also be guilty of fraud and embezzlement, with which he was charged last Friday.

After three nights in the Butyrka jail, Gusinsky was released and told not to leave Moscow. He could be re-arrested at any time. The charges against him, which relate to Media Most’s 1998 acquisition of Russkoye Video, a state-owned company, are punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment and confiscation of property. But it is nearly universally conceded that but for Media-Most’s relentless criticism of Kremlin policies and exposure of Kremlin scandals, no arrest would ever have been contemplated.

The Gusinsky affair is hardly the first Kremlin crackdown on the press. Two years ago, the Kremlin set up a Ministry of Information to ride herd on the media, co-opting where possible, coercing where not. The state has plenty of bribes and brickbats suited to the purpose. Privately owned media are financially vulnerable. They may have state-owned investors, or loans from state banks, or tax delinquencies. They may have to pay broadcast-license fees, which the state can waive. They may depend on state-controlled companies for advertising revenue. All of the above apply to Media-Most, whose financial underpinnings were seriously weakened by the 1998 crash of the ruble and of Gusinsky’s flagship enterprise, the Most Bank.

With so many less intrusive ways to make a point, the state’s decision to show a Stalinist hand is especially chilling. A “dictatorship of fear,” said the newspaper Segodnya, a Most property, and many agreed. Seventeen of Gusinsky’s fellow oligarchs–Russians who got rich by acquiring state property in rigged deals–signed an open letter warning that the arrest puts democracy at risk. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to whom Gusinsky provided media support, called for his immediate release. Anatoly Chubais, a top Kremlin official throughout the Yeltsin years, called the arrest the work of those who would make Russia “a semi-fascist state.”

President Vladimir Putin, traveling in Europe when the arrest occurred, tried the out-of-the-loop defense. “I don’t run the public prosecution service,” he said, adding that Gusinsky could have been questioned but arrest was “excessive.” Even so, Putin said he saw no “political aspect” to the case. Putin’s statements touched off speculation in Moscow that the president is not in charge, that Gusinsky’s business rivals–in particular, Boris Berezovsky–engineered the arrest. Russians who believe Putin did not know of the arrest in advance are to be congratulated on their innocence. They may be the only Russians innocent enough to be guilty of nothing.