Political repression

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.

 

 

 

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Russian information campaign against Crimean Tatars?

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

This morning I was listening to Kommersant FM radio talk about today’s referendum in Crimea and heard something disconcerting—likely part of an information campaign against the Crimean Tatars. Over the last week or two the Russian station has been playing 1- or 2-minute spots about the peninsula’s history, and this one focused on the Crimean Khanate. It mentioned how the Tatars burned Moscow in the 16th century, killing many, and how they made a habit of enslaving and selling Russians, Poles, and others.

Is this kind of message an attempt to reduce listeners’ sympathy for the Tatars, who have a lot to lose when Russia takes over (again)? Or is it a way to prepare Russians to tolerate oppression of the group? (Remember what they did to us…..)

Samethink, Otherthink, and the Russian Constitution

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

A few days ago, a member of Russian Parliament announced that he and some colleagues are working on legislation that could change the country’s society and politics, and not for the better.

Duma Deputy Evgeny Fedorov and the others propose removing language from the 1993 constitution about adherence to international laws and norms regarding human rights, saying that Russian law shouldn’t be subordinated to external laws.

They also want to change Ch.1 article 13, which forbids any official state ideology.

Considering Russia’s past, that’s a sensitive issue, to put it mildly.

In the Soviet Constitution, the Communist Party was explicitly given the “leading role,” and Marxism-Leninism was the party ideology.

Depending on who was in power and what was going on politically, there were times when people felt brave enough to criticize the system—gently or very obliquely. Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of impressive examples. At other times, people suffered greatly for daring to question the official version of events openly.

English: Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during...

Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during his university years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the USSR collapsed and Russians wrote a new constitution, they banned any official or obligatory ideology, with the understandable aim of not repeating that history.

Fedorov’s argument in favor of bringing it back now—twenty years later—is that Russian law has no soul as long as the state has no ideology. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, “Fundamental Law deprived of ideology is a document without a heart. We want it to have a heart.”

The journalist comments during the interview that the 13th article “is a guarantee that the state won’t persecute people for thinking differently [inakomyslie]. … We have a thousand-year history” of punishing people for that.

Fedorov is more concerned with the health of the Russian state, which he says is “ill.” “The 13th article is a ban on moral values and state support of them. How can one live without an understanding of good and evil? The state must have the right to support good, patriotism, a healthy lifestyle, properly teach schoolchildren.” He says it isn’t right that Russians should have a law forbidding ideology. “It isn’t right. It’s a lack of trust in one’s people.”

This project may or may not become law. Other deputies might oppose it, but the Duma set a powerful precedent last year by pushing Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov out. Would supporters of Fedorov’s draft law follow this example, or threaten to? Anyway, the bill’s fate is really in Putin’s hands. He might want the constitution changed this way, or maybe he wants to scare people a little. In any event, the process of actually changing these parts of the constitution would be very complex.

In the meantime, the possibility is provoking some debate (with some of it written in verse—how Russian!). Among other things, critics are worried that removing the ban would lead to an official one-party system. It would be great to have several real, independent parties with competing ideologies, but Russians already know what can happen when there is only one party, one ideology.

In conclusion, I have some questions for Fedorov and his pals:

  • Why does ideology have to be “official” to exist or have influence?
  • Is “a lack of trust in one’s people” really the problem here?
  • Why do Russian citizens need their government to tell them what is right and wrong? Too bad they can’t simply observe their leaders to understand that.

 

UPDATE: The Kremlin said today (Dec. 4) that it doesn’t support the proposal to change the constitution.  According to Izvestiya, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin is more interested in the search for a “national idea” that could protect national identity and unity. Fedorov says he is not giving up on his project.

Does this joke make me look fat?

Did you hear that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was voted the sexiest man alive for 2012? In the words of one contest judge, “this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true,” with his “devastatingly handsome, round face … impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and … famous smile.” The Chinese Communist Party’s official paper took the story from The Onion and ran with it, not realizing it was satire.

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

It’s unlikely that North Koreans could ever get away with something like this. (Back to that whole “freedom of expression” thing I’ve been writing about.) I love that we can make fun of our own leaders in the U.S. I love it even more when they’re willing to make fun of themselves. (more…)

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. (more…)

“Russia to see more ‘traitors to Motherland'”

“Again and again, life is reminding us of the mechanism of Stalinist terror. From persecution of regime opponents, to the persecution of internal party opposition. From blaming technological catastrophes and social problems on sabotage, to all-encompassing paranoia. From reprisals within the elite, to total terror that paralyzes society and drains its blood.”  This is what political and rights activist Lev Ponomarev said after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law this week that broadens the definition of treason.

“The Motherland calls! The enemy is already here!!! Get out your bayonets.”
Poster by Irakli Toidze, 1941.

This new version of the law is intended to protect the country’s external and internal security. Along with more obvious crimes like selling state secrets, one can now be indicted for “providing financial, material-technical, consultative, or other aid to a foreign government, international or foreign organization or its representatives whose actions are directed against the security of the Russian Federation.” (more…)

Stalinism alive and well in Russia?

In Russia, October 30th is a day to remember the victims of the Great Terror under Stalin, and this year is the 75thanniversary of the beginning of that massive wave of repression and show trials, when millions of people were executed, exiled, or sentenced to prison camps if they were seen as “enemies of the people.” So there has been a lot in the Russian news lately about the historical and cultural importance of this Soviet leader.

If you don’t follow Russia, you might be surprised to learn that Stalin is still rather widely admired despite the suffering he caused. While some people acknowledge that there was serious repression under him, a shrinking percentage of Russians believes the Great Terror actually happened, according to the Public Opinion Foundation. In another recent survey of Russian citizens, the Levada Center found that people’s attitude toward Stalin and the Stalin era has improved significantly since the late 1990s. Since 1998, the percentage of Russians perceiving Stalin negatively has fallen from 60 to 22 percent. Currently, 48 percent see him and his role in the country’s history positively. Maybe they forget that he was Georgian and not Russian. (more…)