Sign up for weekly updates

Snowden, Pussy Riot, and anti-gay 'propaganda': Discussing free expression in Russia

Russia's recent anti-gay 'propaganda' law has been hitting the headlines around the world, but it's only one of a number of laws that have placed a choke-hold on free expression. Seeking to broaden my understanding of what's going on in Russia and why it's following this repressive trajectory, I recently spent some time interviewing four Russians - three journalists and a film maker. I interviewed each separately, but have grouped their answers into one article, so that their responses might be compared and contrasted. Although each of them is highly-critical of Putin's Russia, they have their own individual perspectives on current events.

The Interviewees:

Andrei Nekrasov: a prize-winning film maker, journalist and playwright. Among his most famous documentaries are Disbelief, which explores the allegations that the Russian FSB were behind the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999, and Rebellion: the Litvinenko Case, whose subject - ex-FSB agent turned whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko - was assassinated in London in 2006. Nekrasov has received death threats in Russia because of his work. He received the Oxfam Novib/PEN award in 2011.

Oksana Chelysheva: a journalist, author and human rights activist. She has written for numerous publications, including Novaya Gazeta (for which her friend, murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya also worked). She was the editor of the Russian Chechen Information Agency, part of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society, an NGO that monitors human rights violations in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus.

Maria Plieva: a prominent journalist, blogger and human rights activist who has worked for a variety of publications including the independent South Ossetian newspaper, 21 Seculare ('21st Century'). Following death threats related to her work, she left South Ossetia in 2011.

Jenny Curpen: a journalist and activist. She has written for a many publications including Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy. She has been harassed and threatened for her work, and was arrested at the 6 May 2012 protest in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin's inauguration. She recently fled Russia.


Since June 2012, we have seen a raft of legislation passed in Russia that restricts freedom of expression: 18 months ago, laws were passed that re-criminalised defamation and forced foreign-funded, Russian NGOs to register as 'foreign agents'; and in June 2013, the infamous 'anti-gay propaganda' law was passed, as well as a law making blasphemy a criminal offence. Why these laws, and why now?

Andrei Nekrasov: The regime is at a certain stage - it's getting old. It needs an emergency injection of support at any cost, even at the cost of these scandalous laws. These laws are popular in Russia because there's a deep culture of conservatism in the country and Putin needs the support that comes from this ideological element. Before, he didn't need it because the economy was strong, and he was young and quite exceptional. But the crisis of 2008 hit Russia very hard: the golden days are now gone and the leadership doesn't have an heir or much of an idea about how to continue. There's also a lot of in-fighting among the elites: look at the Moscow mayoral contest. Although it might not look it, Russia is very isolated culturally, especially outside the big cities. It's not Europe, it's not the West, though it wants to be in material terms.

Oksana Chelysheva: The two laws (anti-gay propaganda and anti blasphemy) were only passed because the State Duma has no independence. It's a quasi-democratic body that follows orders from the Kremlin. In itself, the homophobic law and the public attitude towards it is complicated. It's not just the Russian Orthodox Church that is clearly against LGBT views being made public, but also Muslims who have a similarly negative attitude. All that aside, before the passing of this law and the state-run propaganda surrounding it, there weren't many cases of hostility towards sex-minorities. However, the hostility has increased since the law was passed. I have come across several cases where criminals have tried to justify their crimes by saying that their victims were LGBT.

Jenny Curpen: The state is forever trying to strike a balance between its desire to maintain a positive image in Western eyes and loyalty to the Russian conservative nationalist and ultra-religious community, which is Putin's electoral base.

So where is the media in all of this? What is kind of public debate is going on, politically and journalistically, in Russia?

AN: You can intellectually argue against Putin. You can even draw parallels between 1933 Germany and Russia, and it will be published - but it doesn't have much influence. In Russian society there are a lot of intellectuals, a lot of people who can quote philosophers and Russian classics, but Russian political culture is very simplistic. Intellect and culture and politics are completely separate. Putin controls everything including access to primetime TV, and that's what most people watch.

There's a firewall in Russia between intellectual humanist arguments and politics. And therefore the only hope is people like artists - like Pussy Riot - who talk about politics and history and modern Russia. That's why it's so important to support a group like Pussy Riot.

JC: [The biggest threat to free expression in Russia is] state regulation of the whole media; added to that there are the restrictions on the work of NGOS. The state not only violates freedom of speech in the field of journalism, but also the freedom of individual citizens to speak out. These restrictions also affect the regulation of social networking sites and personal blogs.

Maria Plieva: When Putin became the President of the Russian Federation for the third time, he began a legislative war against our remaining freedoms. On 1 July 2013 they closed PublicPost where many journalists, human rights defenders and activists were able to publish their work. Officially, the website was closed for economic reasons - the Sberbank ceased to finance it. But one of editors-in-chief said that various high-ranking people in the government had said openly that the director of Sberbank was 'crazy to finance this anti-Putin media.' It was was telling that the website was called 'Anti-Putin' rather than, for example, 'opposition', 'independent' or 'critical'.

In my opinion there isn't enough independent mass media in Russia. There are only two or three news agencies, such as Ekho Moskvy, Radio Liberty, The Caucasian knot. There are also the independent newspapers, such as Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant, and the television channel, Dozhd (, which is only available to those who have satellite.

OC: The main problem in Putin's Russia is the authorities' fear of the people and its readiness to use violence to crush dissent. The gap between the authorities and the people is widening, not only because the ones who are close to the ruling circles benefit at the expense of the rest of the population, but also because the ones in power prefer to move all their assets abroad - they're not concerned with how Russia will turn out in 10 or 20 years.

In my personal view, this descent into autocracy started in 1993 when Yeltsin gave the order to use violence against the Parliament. It paved the way to his choosing Putin as his heir. All our other innumerable problems are the direct consequence of that. However, this year is one of the most difficult as the attacks coming from the authorities are better coordinated, and what before were extrajudicial ways of dealing with critical voices have now been turned into laws.

In 2012, three members of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, were handed two-year prison sentences following their performance of a 'punk prayer' at a cathedral in Moscow. Their convictions and harsh sentencing were globally condemned. Was there much sympathy for them in Russia?

AN: Very little. Even the political opposition's original response was 'Stupid idiots - how can they do that in a church?' And ordinary people - even members of my own family, who are liberal and intelligent - regarded it as an insult to our spirituality. [For many Russians] feminism is considered something for those who can't get a real man. Also, for many Russians, you can criticise the government, but you don't ever touch spirituality.

MP: In my opinion, Pussy Riot's political action-protest was very extravagant - and personally, I like the extravagance - but it was also very useful to Russian society. Even if many condemned them for dancing in the cathedral, they made a big, positive contribution to the Russian protest movement.

Do you think that the rough treatment Pussy Riot received was a way of appealing to a conservative sentiment in Russia, of shoring up support?

AN: Exactly. It was completely calculated - Putin is very pragmatic. He is consciously on a collision course with the West and with liberal ideas. And it's a win-win situation for him. The fact that the West supports Pussy Riot is seen as evidence that the West is against us, proof that they want to corrupt us morally. This creates clarity in the minds of a very confused nation which doesn't know where it's going. [The conviction of Pussy Riot] is a way of creating a new ideology - a conservative spirituality, differentiating us from the West.

Russia gave asylum to Edward Snowden, yet it has dealt ruthlessly with home grown whistleblowers, such as the murdered former FSB agent, Alexander Litvineko. The parallels between Litvinenko and Snowden are clear: both started out as idealistic, patriotic young men, but were branded traitors by their respective governments following great acts of conscience (in Litvinenko's case, after exposing both the FSB's assassination programme and its alleged responsibility for the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999; in Snowden's case, after speaking out about the NSA's vast spying and private data collection).

AN: Litvineko was a real hero - he was extremely courageous and he was killed for what he had to say. No-one disputes that, although the regime says that he was traitor. His life had a profound trajectory: he was a completely ordinary man who joined the FSB for sincere reasons, who sincerely believed that he was fighting for his country; then he saw that it was all a lie and realised exactly how dangerous it all was. His death was all about freedom of speech - he wrote books, blogs and he was killed for that.

So why did Russia give asylum to Snowden? Was it just playing politics?

MP: Snowden is a little bit of a riddle for me. On the one hand I want to say that he is a brave person, because he wasn't frightened of the powerful American intelligence service. On the other hand, I don't think he said anything extraordinary. I don't know - he decided to stay in Russia, where the intelligence services don't just listen to everything, they actually use this personal information to persecute and blackmail members of the opposition, journalists and human rights activists.

AN: From the Russian point of view it would have been completely impossible to send Snowden back to the US, because that would be yielding to pressure. One major factor in Russian behaviour is pride. That's what keeps Putin going, not anti-Americanism. The Russian people don't know and they don't care about the details of the case. Snowden is basically a tool for Putin so that he can act important, so that he can create a semblance of a super power. [The message is]: 'We are strong: if Snowden needs protection, he comes to us.' This cold war parodying is very useful to Putin's politics.

JC: In my opinion, there are three global players involved in the history of Edward Snowden: the USA, Russia and Europe. Snowden made a move against 'Fortress America,' the 'defender' of human rights. He encroached on the sacred - he allowed himself to doubt the purity of American democracy and forced others to question it. His homeland will never forgive him for that. Russia needs Snowden to tell the whole world that America is not perfect, that its democracy is not the most democratic.

However, it seems to me that the main dialogue was with Europe, the chief custodian of basic democratic values. Europe takes most of the political refugees from Russia, Putin's elite keep their money in European bank accounts, and, if Putin makes too big a mistake, he will be in Hague one day! Giving asylum to Snowden says to Europe: 'I respect European values, I share your views on the rights and freedom of the individual.'

OC: I regard Snowden as an idealist who believed that his actions would benefit the people. He is like quite a few other idealists, who can be convinced that the political opponents of those powers that they are exposing might be better and fairer. From what I have read, it looks like Russia has used Snowden in her political games against the West. Saying that, I don't find the final decision to let him stay in Russia appalling - anyone has the right to ask a third country for protection and in Snowden's case there was no other possibility.

The unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers and hounding of journalists in the US, the NSA scandal, the revelations that European nations have also been involved in wholesale mass surveillance of their own citizens, the recent targeting and detention under anti-terror law of Glenn Greenwald's partner at Heathrow Airport....the list goes on. Have other nations lost all credibility when it comes to demanding that Russia should respect human rights? Do NGOs like PEN International or Amnesty have any influence at all?

MP: I think some NGOs can have a little influence in some cases. I think that Western countries will always have some influence in Russia for a two reasons: firstly, Russia is a member of the UN and Security Council and so is obliged to consider the opinion of its political partners; secondly, European countries are the main customers for Russian oil and gas exports - here, certainly, they can influence political decisions in Russia in the sphere of freedom and human rights.

JC: I would say that unfortunately they don't have influence. But maybe that's for the best. No one except the Russians themselves can improve the human rights situation in Russia. The whole World remembers what the USSR's policy of isolation led to, and a closed system cannot last forever - sooner or later, it will eventually destroy itself from within.

OC: What is needed is proper attention given to the entire range of problems that we are facing: political reprisals, curtailment of freedom of speech, a de-facto ban on freedom of assembly, further toughening of repressive legislation and increasingly dangerous propaganda. Any attempt to focus on one problem at the expense of the others - such as the homophobic legislation - is going to be counterproductive. It is vitally important now to strengthen media connections between Russia and the outside world, and to persuade the chief editors of the media leading outlets to give more attention to Russia: more attention is needed for the growing number of political prisoners. And no matter how unresponsive the Russian authorities might look, or rather, pretend to look, statements on particular cases or individuals do remain an efficient tool that can influence the situation. It is essential to put more pressure on your politicians so that they raise urgent issues during their interaction with their Russian counterparts.

AN: It's the support of cultural freedom rather than engaging in the power struggles around the next leader/heir that's important. The political route leads us back to the Cold War. There's little hope that progress will come from the political class: they're obsessed with economics and are all very right wing - what's important to them is the exchange rate. And there's no hope in political opposition, which is basically Putin's creation. Often the West looks for allies within that circle, which can only create another Putin figure, but with better PR - look at Alexei Navalny (a critic of Putin and an opposition Moscow mayoral candidate): he's a racist and a xenophobe, and xenophobia is the next big problem in Russia. The way forward for NGOs is cultural engagement, supporting cultural projects: theatre, film, arts. The only hope is away from all the politics - like Pussy Riot.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post, under the headline "Edward Snowden, Pussy Riot and Gays in Putin's Russia."

Latest Tweet:

Turquie : la justice bloque près de 3,000 articles en un an. @EFJEUROPE @France24_fr

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.