Emotional Bubble Wrap and the Freedom of Speech, Part II

Extended International Dance Mix

My last post was about the US, but this issue of feelings vs. freedom of expression comes up in other countries too. It’s been making the news in Russia for months. At the end of September, the Duma began considering a bill that would alter existing law by criminalizing acts that offend “religious faith and feelings of citizens,” as well as acts against religious objects and places where religious ceremonies are conducted. The draft bill called for penalties of up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about 9700 USD). It is still under consideration but very likely to become law, considering the legislature’s recent work limiting other freedoms.

pussy riot livejournal

Photo from pussy-riot.livejournal.com

One part of the context for this was Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s the short version: several members of this provocative feminist collective went to the church’s altar and performed a prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking her to save the country from Putin. Based on what I’ve read, they mouthed the words for a video, planning to add an audio track later and then post it online. Three were arrested, held for months, and then tried and sentenced to two years in a penal colony, but one was later released early. Critics called this a travesty of “justice” because the women hadn’t actually broken Russian law. [Wikipedia’s article for Pussy Riot cites a report I wrote on the Russian media reaction to the verdict, if you’re curious (see note 134).]

The women did offend a lot of conservative Russians with their anti-government message and/or the way they delivered it, because the Russian Orthodox Church is a pillar of national identity. This act of protest was an affront to both individual believers and the nation itself, people said. Christ the Savior Cathedral also has deep symbolic value–probably why they chose it. The atheist Bolsheviks tore it down in the 1930’s to make way for a swimming pool, but it was rebuilt according to the original plans in the 1990’s.

Another part of the context was the Innocence of Muslims video that was making the rounds and the headlines earlier this year. To prevent the international wave of anger and rioting from spreading to Russia, a court ruled in early October that the video was “extremist material” and “offended the feelings of believers and inflamed conflict between nationalities.” This decision allowed authorities to ban distribution of the video, and on top of that some internet providers cut off access to YouTube in certain parts of the country, especially the predominantly Muslim Northern Caucasus republics.

Russians value the freedom of speech, and older generations know what it is to be deprived of it. But they’ve also lived through a lot of instability and war since 1991, and there is potential for more conflict if they aren’t careful. Some of those who supported the government measures had this in mind, saying the freedom of expression was important but social stability was a higher priority. Too much permissiveness could “push society to the edge of destruction,” and for all they knew mosques and synagogues would also be targeted.

Critics said the draft law was too vaguely worded and likely to be abused (a common refrain!). They said it wouldn’t protect other groups like religious minorities and non-believers. Some worried about how far it would be carried: would a woman be arrested for entering a church with her head uncovered? People also said restricting internet access meant caving into intimidation from international terrorist groups, who were using the video as an excuse for violence. Other critics said the “idiots in power” didn’t understand that anyone who really wanted to watch the video would find a way. [I can provide links to the Russian originals for anyone who is interested.]

Like many others, I seriously doubt that the proposed Russian law and banning of the video came from a sincere concern for people’s religious feelings. At the same time, it was reasonable for officials to be afraid, considering that Russia has a large Muslim population and that people in other countries were dying in anti-video protests.

After the law is passed or rejected I’ll have more to say.


  1. From a legal point of view, the real issues are 1) enforcement (will the government move to prosecute “offenders” or will they ignore a breach, and furthermore, will the government apply it selectively, and 2) interpretation by the courts (will judges and juries broadly apply the statutes such that legitimate dissent is stiffled?). This is a very murky and complicated area of the law with no easy solutions.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Dirk. Interesting moniker, by the way. You seem to know your way around law, so you might be interested in looking into Russia’s legal system. Regarding enforcement and interpretation, I read somewhere that Russian (and Soviet) law was written to protect the state from the citizens, and not the other way around.

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