7 December 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
What’s good about the American political system is the fact that any idiot can blurt out any misanthropic stupidity to the whole country and no one will cart him off to jail for it. In a recent interview, the American rapper Kanye West admitted to having sympathies for Putin and Hitler. This strange, to put it mildly, man said, “We have to stop insulting Nazis all the time. I love Jewish people, but I also love Nazis.”
So he loves both. To each his own. However, in some countries of Western Europe he would already have been taken into custody for denying the Holocaust, and in Russia he would have been imprisoned for rewriting history or, the opposite, awarded a medal (depending on his luck), but he would definitely not have been left in peace.
Even better is the reaction of American society. Elon Musk banned Kanye West’s account on Twitter, which Musk now owns, advertisers have cancelled their contracts with West, some are questioning his sanity, and others are perplexed over the rapper’s intention to run for U.S. president. West doubtless has his supporters, too. And no matter what anyone says, no matter what wild opinions and insane ideas someone expresses, no one is going to put anyone in prison for it. That is real freedom, under which the law protects a fool’s speech just as much as a genius’s. Whether he is in fact a fool or a genius is up to the reader, not the judicial authority.
THE FIGHT FOR FREE SPEECH
We in Russia can only grieve over our cannibalistic legislation, which can send someone to prison or impose an unimaginable fine for discrediting the regime, denying the results of World War II, spreading fake news, or insulting state symbols.
In Moscow, a student was expelled from the university because next to his social media avatar was the slogan “I don’t need war.” A participant in an antiwar demonstration in Kazan was fined 30,000 roubles because she was holding a poster that said, “I love my papa.” In Moscow, police arrested a 10-year-old schoolgirl for having an avatar with yellow and blue colors. Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] has demanded that the media write about “mobilization efforts” using information from official sources exclusively. An administrative case was opened against the rapper Oxxxymoron over his calls for secession in his song “Oida.” These are only a few examples of “free speech” in Russia. There have been at least several hundred similar instances nationwide.
Our former brothers in the socialist camp are also drawn to the Russian experience.
In Latvia, the National Council on Electronic Mass Media has stripped the Dozhd television channel of its broadcast license for depicting the map of annexed Crimea as part of Russia, applying the word “our” to the Russian army, and a TV anchor’s inappropriate concern for the needs of the Russian occupiers.
In Ukraine, the Security Service has opened a case over the fact that during a religious service in one of the churches of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra a song was heard with the words “The peal is floating, floating over Russia, Mother Russia is awakening.” In Belarus, a journalist was sentenced to four years in prison for “discrediting the state” in videos he had shot. In Turkmenistan, the courts have subjected citizens using VPNs to an administrative law conviction and 15 days’ in jail.
A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY
Virtually all instances of restrictions on free speech and the expression of opinions have been justified by the interests of national security. This universal justification is used successfully in all countries, from the most brutal despotisms to the most enlightened democracies. The only difference is that in reinforced concrete dictatorships the country is always under siege, the enemy is always at the gate, and the threat to national security is permanent and even familiar, whereas in democracies threat pops up occasionally and does not linger for long, as a rule.
But what threat is it to Turkmenistan if its citizens are reading critical comments about their government through a VPN? This may be a threat to usurpers of power but in no way to a country and its security. What real threat does Latvia incur from the television airing of a false geographical map of Crimea retouched in accordance with someone’s ideological demands?
Naturally, you can construct a long conspirological chain of evidence and come to the conclusion that a carelessly expessed opinion is bound to lead to the country’s occupation and eternal enslavement. That a song sung or a book read will inevitably reverberate in a future military defeat. That the only reliable way to protect yourself from future bloody misfortunes is to stop the performance of dubious songs and the reading of banned books at the root.
We’ve already had all that, and not that long ago. In those splinters of the Soviet Union where the Soviet model of governance has been retained, this kind of practice is not at all surprising. They always have executors ready to go to work. The countries that have rejected Soviet rules still retain the habit, in complicated situations, of using simplistic Soviet methods. Habit is second nature, as we know. There’s no getting away from it. Rather than debate something and try to prove something, it’s easier to club someone over the head and gag them.
By the way, it wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look. Aren’t today’s lovers of prohibitions former members of Komsomol, people who dream of hiding their Komsomol past and like genuine neophytes try to prove their own reliability by going overboard?
Translated by Marian Schwartz