Leading article: A peculiar hero is born

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Authoritarian regimes delight in didactic role models. Mao's China exhorted the young to emulate Lei Feng, a modest soldier who sacrificed his life for the collective. The early Soviet Union extolled Pavlik Morozov, a small boy who denounced his father to the communists during the collectivisation of farms and was killed by angry relatives for his trouble. The Russians of today, thank goodness, needed no official propaganda campaign to hail a hero of rather a different stamp.

Oleg Shcherbinsky is a railway worker whose secondhand Toyota collided with the speeding Mercedes of the regional governor on a Siberian road. The limousine hit a tree, the governor was killed, and Shcherbinsky was sentenced to four years' internal exile for failing to give way to an official car.

At which point, something far more unusual happened than a collision between a speeding official and a private motorist. Told and retold across Russia, the tale of the little man who refused to yield to a VIP took on a life of its own. Shcherbinsky had done what many an ordinary Russian had dreamt of doing, but never had the guts to do. His plight provoked indignation on a national scale. Yesterday Shcherbinsky was freed after winning his appeal. By the end, he had a prominent Moscow lawyer to represent him, the political support of the majority United Russia party (the party created to support President Putin) and every ordinary Russian car driver rooting for him. But it was word of mouth, the internet and the force of popular indignation that had initially brought Shcherbinsky his fame.

This was a spontaneous grass-roots movement against a flagrant injustice. As such, it offers a hopeful sign that even in the depths of Putin's Russia there may at last be developing such a thing as civil society. No Western democracy campaigner could have predicted that it would be the hated VIP lanes and the lingering Soviet-era privileges claimed by many officials that would spark such a protest, but they did.

Oleg Shcherbinsky has earned his place as a populist hero for today's Russia. His example teaches that, with enough support, the little man can prevail against entrenched privilege. But it offers a wider lesson, too, which applies not just in Russia, but in Belarus - where a patently unfair election has drawn a brave, but weak, street protest after the fact - and in Ukraine, where opponents of the 2004 Orange revolution are expected to make gains in parliamentary elections this weekend. The lesson is that the roots of civil society will be the stronger for being home-grown, rather than artificially forced from outside - even if they take a little longer to appear.

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