Russia’s censorship machine grinds on

November 26, 2022
New winds are blowing in the sails of the Russian government’s censorship crusade. Meanwhile, vague language in an anti-LGBT bill risks inflicting collateral damage across the country’s book publishing and film industries.  
Censorship is nothing new in Russia. But since Moscow launched its war against Ukraine, Russian authorities have been as active as ever in going after anything that runs counter to the official narratives spun by state media and the Kremlin.

According to Russia’s constitution, censorship is illegal. Yet authorities easily ignore constitutional provisions and contrive phony justifications for limiting public access to certain artistic works or simply banning them outright. Meanwhile, some in Russia are ready to defend censorship regardless of what the constitution says. State duma deputy and co-author of a new anti-LGBT bill, Nikolai Burlyayev, argues that a “state which cares about future generations has the right to have its exacting criticism and strict judgment,” adding that censorship can be justified if grounded in Christian morals.

As Russia.Post wrote back in August, musicians openly speaking out against the war have found themselves in the crosshairs of authorities for their political views. Most have had concerts canceled, while some have been forced to pack up and leave the country all together. In October, the pop icon Alla Pugacheva created a buzz when she left Russia after authorities began investigating her for "discrediting" the Russian military under new wartime censorship laws. Against the backdrop of these crackdowns on dissident musicians, the Kremlin is undertaking efforts to create a pro-war, ethnocentric pop culture.

Recently, the government has been taking aim at artists and artworks that are not so much at direct odds with official messaging on the war in Ukraine as they are with the larger narrative of Russian exceptionalism Kremlin spin doctors are using to generate feelings of pride and unity at home.

For instance, in mid-November Russia’s Ministry of Culture revoked screening permissions for the documentary film Golod (Hunger) about the mass famine that gripped the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The ministry stated that its decision was based on “numerous complaints from citizens” that allegedly described the film as “inappropriate for screen.” According to Golod’s scriptwriter, Alexander Arkhangelsky, the letter of revocation from the Ministry of Culture claimed that the film “contained information, the distribution of which is prohibited by Russian law.” But as Arkhangelsky noted, the film is based entirely on historical documents from archives and quotes from experts. In reality, Russian authorities were likely unhappy about the film’s negative depiction of the early Soviet period and the government’s handling of the famine, as well as the attention the film gives to the reliance on foreign aid – namely from the United States – among famine-stricken Soviet citizens.

“What kind of law forbids us to talk about the fact that there was a famine in 1921-23? That more than five million people died? That the world (by no means all, by the way) looked beyond ideology and showed empathy to suffering inhabitants of Russia? And thanks to this more than ten million people were saved. This is a betrayal of one's own history, a betrayal of family memory," Arkhangelsky told journalists at Radio Liberty.

In response to the de-facto public ban on the film, Arkhangelsky said he and the other filmmakers behind Golod were determined to screen the documentary in museums, universities, and art exhibition spaces throughout Russia. They also plan to upload the film on YouTube.

Besides blocking Golod from theaters, in early November the Ministry of Culture also canceled the 9th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art just days before its opening due to the "discrepancy between the level" of the exhibits and the status of the site chosen for the exhibition – the Tretyakov Gallery. Among the works that the Biennale team planned to show visitors were portraits of Donetsk residents, a work about “peaceful skies,” and a project on the demolition of Soviet monuments in the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a theater in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, removed the award-winning play Zuleikha Opens Her Eyesfrom its repertoire. The play is based on the bestselling novel by the Tatar writer Guzel Yakhina, which tells the story of a Tatar peasant woman who experiences years of Stalin-era repressions. The novel was such a success following its publication in 2015 that it was even turned into a television miniseries for the state-controlled Channel 1. In late February, Yakhina spoke out against the war in Ukraine, which the Ufa theater mentions in its official statement explaining the play’s removal.

“The theater is designed to promote the common spiritual values ​​for the Russian people. The author of the novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, Guzel Yakhina, stated: ‘The news of February 24, 2022 crushed me. My world has not turned upside down, but simply - it was destroyed.’ But a world in which neo-Nazis and fascists have been killing our brotherly people for eight years is unacceptable for us cultural figures. Today, our soldiers, among whom are our colleagues - cultural workers of the institutions of our republic - defend a world without Nazism,” read the statement.

Despite the removal, in recent months, Yakhina’s books have remained on sale in bookstores throughout Russia, along with the works of other authors critical of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine, such as Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov.

Speaking of books: Russian book publishers say that vague language in a new bill, which seeks to prohibit the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations" among people of all ages in Russia, puts approximately 50% of the books they publish at risk of confiscation by the authorities. Oleg Novikov, who heads one of Russia’s largest book publishers Eksmo-AST, told journalists at RBC that the books which might be impacted by the bill include nearly all the works of the cult novelist Viktor Pelevin and a biography of the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. (For a larger discussion on the topic, see Vladimir Kharitonov’s recent piece for Russia.Post). Likewise, Novikov said that he was unsure how and on whose dime publishers will be expected to check book manuscripts for compliance with the new law. Representatives of Russia’s film industry also worry that an excessively broad interpretation of the new bill, if passed in its current form, could mean a ban on dozens of popular movies and television shows.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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