17 June 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Up until today, the most seditious word in Russia was “war.” Now we have added “Navalny.” In Kazan, a court fined a picketer for using the symbol of a banned organization. This symbol was the word “Navalny” on a poster the size of a piece of typewriter paper. What constituted the infraction was the phrase “Free Navalny.”
Symbolic, indeed. In the eyes of the Kazan judge, the oppositionist’s name is a symbol of extremism and terrorism. The Kazan Themis is clearly not blindfolded. She is casting a sidelong glance at Moscow and sees that Vladimir Putin is painstakingly, ridiculously painstakingly, avoiding saying the oppositionist’s name. He has his own reasons for this, of course: so as not to diminish the Russian president’s grandeur by the mention of a distasteful name.
The word has always carried great weight in Russia. The regime always rewarded people handsomely for a flattering word—and despised them full-on for a seditious one. In the eighteenth century, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev was sentenced to death for his travel sketches but got off with six years of prison.
In the nineteenth century, Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for reading Belinsky’s “seditious” letter to Gogol out loud to a group of friends. Thank god, he got off with four years’ hard labour. In the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was accused of betraying his homeland for his book Gulag Archipelago, though he was not punished or even imprisoned but just deported from the country.
A Fleeting Threat
Under socialism, though, many writers, poets, political writers, and journalists paid for free expression with their freedom or their life. But repression for mentioning a name—I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that before. The Russian regime is panicking over the prospect of society’s consolidation and considers the uncensored word one of the greatest threats to itself.
That’s why it has not only thrown a censorship knot over all mass media but is also cutting short any attempts by individual unaware citizens to cast doubt on the correctness of the Kremlin’s political course. This fear of the free word attests to the fact that the usurpers of power don’t feel their position is safe; they’re afraid of falling off their perches at the slightest puff of the wind of freedom.
Meanwhile, they shouldn’t be afraid. In Russia, people love to talk, but there’s a chasm between word and deed.
Look at our glorious liberal writers and journalists, major thinkers and leaders of public opinion. As soon as there was a glimmer of punishment for speech and it began to become a reality (sometimes a criminal one), then nine out of ten liberal chatterers wound up abroad instantly in order to joyfully instruct the Russians who stayed in the country about freedom and democracy.
As Soon as Free Times Return…
Even that writing fraternity that has stayed in the country for the most part reluctantly has accepted the demands of censorship through their teeth, nearly weeping, yet nonetheless pulling on the dunce’s cap of “foreign agent” and accompanying with explanations and footnotes the names and organizations the regime doesn’t like. They very much want to be free, but they’re not ready to pay for their freedom even with minor life inconveniences, to say nothing of anything more serious.
They very much want to write with all their heart and without a glance at the censor, to hit straight from the shoulder and brand the vile regime, but what can they do? They have to save their publication, their workers, their family, their mortgaged apartment, and ultimately themselves. It’s not a matter of saving the country. As soon as free times return, then they’ll be bold and uncompromising again and will recall with tears in their eyes how courageously they flipped the Putin regime the bird with their hand in their pocket.
Or how, with all the strength they had left, they worked in emigration to organize forums, meetings, and conferences, while explaining to the slow-witted West how you have to be brave and decisive toward the Russian regime. Words, words, words…
Translated by Marian Schwartz