PEN International with the Free Word Association and St. Petersburg PEN has released “Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech 2012-2018.” The report presents a broad picture of what is happening in the Russian cultural space and is the first attempt to assess mass media, the Internet, as well as theater, cinema, publishing, libraries, and all other spheres that involve speech. Dozens of human-rights activists and members of civil initiatives worked on the report. Many of these facts were known, writes Lyudmila Ulitskaya in the Foreword. “However, when all the facts—both those that have become the themes of loud public actions and publications and those known only to a small group of people—are brought together, impressions change.… While reading this text, you understand that this is not a chain of random events, but the very logic of today’s life in Russia. This document provides a horrifying picture of the relationship between the state and civil society, the state and the individual, the state and the artist.”

Freedom of speech, guaranteed by the new Russian constitution of 1991, ratified under then leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and in the new Law on Press (1990), which did away with censorship and declared the right of citizens to disseminate information freely and establish independent media, was subjected to subsequent limitations both in legislation and in practice. Lawsuits against criticism in the press, attacks on journalists, and murders, most of which have not yet been solved, and economic pressure on independent media became part of daily life back in the 1990s. The space for free discussion has been narrowing consistently for a long time. But after the protests in the winter of 2011–12, the annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia and the start of the “information hybrid war,” the limitations on the press took on a systemic character. This report analyzes the latest changes in legislation on freedom of the press; almost all of them were passed hastily, without taking into account expert opinion or public discussion. The vagueness of formulation and absence of expert analysis have stymied the legal community and have given rise to a universal practice of selective punishment that is applied only to critical and independent voices.

Examples include:

§ the Law on Countering Extremism, according to which almost any critical statement can be considered extremist and generating hatred;
§ the Law on Insulting the Feelings of Believers;
§ the “Yarovaya Package” (Irina Yarovaya is the deputy who introduced the amendments) that limits the Internet and requires telecom providers to store content of all personal communication, amendments to the law on personal data, according to which state officials and decision makers are accorded privacy;
§ and amendments to the law on foreign agents so that it now applies to media organizations that get financial support from international donors.

Dozens of bloggers and ordinary users of the Internet were subjected to persecution including arrest for innocent “likes” and reposts.

The report presents several important cases resulting from excessive law enforcement: Ukrainian director and screenwriter Oleg Sentsov, given a long sentence of terrorist activity in the Crimea; Zhalaudi Geriev, a correspondent for the opposition Kavkazskii uzel, serving time in Chechnya for possession of narcotics (his colleagues believe he was set up, as planting drugs is a traditional trick of the special services); director of the Ukrainian Library in Moscow Natalia Sharina, who spent a year under house arrest on charges of distributing extremist literature (the case fell apart, the charges shown to be falsified); the director Kirill Serebrennikov and his colleagues at Studio Seven, who are under suspicion on charges of embezzling state funds; the historian Yuri Dmitriev, who spent a year behind bars on faked charges of distributing child pornography.

The report has information on censored films and plays, exhibitions vandalized by Orthodox religious fanatics, censorship in book publishing, and the list of “extremist literature,” which periodically includes Russian masterpieces and world classics. The materials reveal a picture of the daily absurdity that is inevitable if there is no real dialogue in society. In fact, the goal of the report, as its authors said at the launch at the Memorial International Center in Moscow, is to promote dialogue, to begin the conversation between state and society.
In his presidential campaign, Grigory Yavlinsky spoke of the need for this conversation. The important independent mass media—Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd TV, Tomsk TV2, Svobodnyi Kurs in Altai, Novyi Fokus in Abakan, 7×7 in Karelia—and dozens of regional human-rights organizations also call for dialogue.

The recently published report by the Committee of Civil Initiatives on the state of Russian society proves that there is a demand in the country for exchanges of ideas. Many Russians are no longer willing to count on the “strong arm” and the state, preferring instead to create primary forms of self-organization to deal with their own problems. They no longer believe propaganda, do not want to support wars they do not understand—and that are bankrupting them, but they do want to be heard, and they are ready to take risks and support reforms if that will lead to change. This is new, just a year ago there was nothing like it. “People do not want to be fed, they want to be respected, that is the main thing,” said one of the authors of the report, Anastasia Nikolskaya, a docent at the Russian Academy of Economy. “They want to be talked to as equals, not as children, and for their opinions to matter. They do not want revolution, they want freedom and change.”

For many years, a majority of the Russian public delegated decisions on the most important issues to the state, without going into details. Freedom of the press was not one of the issues that worried the ordinary citizen. Apparently, the situation is changing. More citizens are supporting independent media, contributing to social and human-rights online sites—citizens’ donations paid the huge fine levied on the human-rights publication 7×7—and collecting money for Novaya Gazeta. A recent event that upset many was the astronomical fine given to The New Times, 23,000,000 rubles (over $350,000); crowdfunding paid the fine in just a matter of days. The publication was the first victim of the amendments adding media to the list of foreign agents; the fine, the biggest in the history of Russia, sounded like a death knell. The sum collected is a clear signal to the authorities, one that many had not expected. The signal was heard: Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov congratulated editor-in-chief Yevgenia Albats on the trust her readers place in her.

I would like to believe that these words will be followed by long-needed action. It is important for the conversation between state and society to start as quickly as possible.

The authors of “Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech” and other writers and journalists are following developments and organizing discussions and fundraising events for the defense of Sentsov, Dmitriev, Serebrennikov, and all others who need protection. They believe they will succeed and that freedom of speech, glasnost, and the concern of citizens will bring the nascent changes closer.