On freedom of speech

While talking with my Russian teacher today about the “Innocence of Muslims” video, I said that in the US we generally have a very expansive view of freedom of speech (in principle, if not always in practice). While few people think it’s a good thing to deliberately offend religious people, even so most of us support the right to say critical and even stupid things.

My teacher said that might be unwise, that she believed some sacred things perhaps should be off-limits. She offered two sayings in explanation:

Предугадать нам не дано, как наше слово отзовется. (It wasn’t given to us to predict how our word will resound.)

Слово–не воробей, вылетит–не поймаешь. (A word is not a sparrow, once it flies away you can’t catch it.)

Note the emphasis here–on the power of the word. Her critical stance toward free speech didn’t mean she thinks it unimportant, or that she believes censorship is great. Rather, knowing that speech is very powerful, but that its effects may be unpredictable and uncontrollable, she suggests that as a society, we should be more cautious and respectful. Just allowing anyone to say anything, all the time–that’s chaos, not freedom.


Is the opposition even about Putin?

One of the most striking differences I noticed between the opposition march last Saturday (September 15) and rallies I went to last spring was what appeared to be a difference in focus. Before it seemed nearly everyone was wearing the white ribbons of the “citizen protest” movement and the most popular slogans were “Russia without Putin!” and “For fair elections!” This time, the march had a distinctly more red hue.

Russia with Putin | Russian without Putin
The main enemy is the capitalist system!

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Juvenile Justice pickets

Right now the Russian Duma is working on legislation to develop a juvenile justice system. Some Russians, including but not limited to groups on the conservative and Orthodox end of the activist spectrum, are concerned about the possibility that juvenile justice will give the state new reach into families. The creation of new “rights” for children, they fear, may be just an excuse for government to snatch children out of their families.

Today several individuals were picketing the Duma with signs asking legislators to protect families and the institution of parenthood by voting against the legislation. (Pickets of more than one person require a permit, while individuals are officially allowed to demonstrate freely.) I spent some time talking to one older woman (not pictured) who was asking passers-by to write to Putin himself to demand that he oppose the law. Occasionally she saw a lawyer or legislator she recognized walking past us, and called out for them to vote against the law. This law will destroy families, she told me, then asked if I had children. I answered no, not yet. Imagine you do, she continued–this law will allow the government to come at any moment and just take them away, and you won’t even know where they are.

Another word on gay rights (hint: the word is still ‘propaganda’)

Earlier this year, St. Petersburg joined several other Russian cities by passing a law banning homosexual propaganda directed at minors. Since then, exactly what that means for LGBT activists–what counts as propaganda–has been unclear. Can they hand out pamphlets about famous historical figures who were gay? Are rainbow flags propaganda? What about a feminist literary journal including poetry and essays with LGBT-related content?

Not recommended for viewing by individuals under 18 years of age.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation seems to have slightly clarified the law’s reach in a case brought in connection with the propaganda law in Archangelsk:

Запрет пропаганды гомосексуализма не препятствует реализации права получать и распространять информацию общего характера нейтрального содержания о гомосексуальности, проводить публичные дебаты о социальном статусе сексуальных меньшинств (via RosBalt)
The ban on propaganda of homosexualism* does not preclude the exercise of the rights to receive and distribute information of a general character and neutral content about homosexuality, to hold public debates about the social status of sexual minorities (rough translation mine)

In other words, LGBT groups can hold public events, advocate for equal rights, wave flags and so on, according to the court. The activist quoted, Igor Kochetkov, describes his impression of what the law actually forbids:
Оказывается, это только прямые публичные призывы к несовершеннолетним вступать в гомосексуальные отношения. Случаев такого рода “пропаганды” лично я не встречал.
It turns out that [propaganda] is only direct public calls to minors to enter into homosexual relationships. Incidents of that kind of “propaganda” I, for one, have never seen.
This seems in line with the fears expressed by proponents of such laws–they seem to worry that expressions of homosexuality in the public sphere will attract young people to homosexuality. From this point of view, though, the court has clarified nothing about what ‘propaganda’ is or is not. Merely allowing a ‘gay pride’ parade to exist on the street is propagandizing homosexuality. Among those I’ve talked to who are opposed to LGBT rights, many have used the example of a parade as precisely what they’re concerned about. They often suggest it would be better to have more order in public spaces, to have some limits on what it considered acceptable for the public–and especially for children–to see (or be confronted with) when they’re out in the city or watching tv.
On this level, then, I don’t know that the court has resolved the basic conflict over who should be allowed to be visible in the public sphere. One person’s political expression is another person’s propaganda.
*I retain “homosexualism” here rather than the more neutral “homosexuality” (гомосексуальность) because it seems to carry a similar negative, distasteful kind of tone in Russian use as in the (now kind of archaic) English term.


Anecdote without commentary

One of my language teachers shared the following anecdote yesterday (paraphrasing here):

An old man goes to church every day. Every day, he kneels before the altar and prays: “Oh God, why don’t you make me rich? I’ve been poor all my life, and it’s been so difficult. All I want in life is to be to win the lottery, just once. Please, oh Lord, I beg you!”

One day, all the saints and angels adorning the iconostasis finally cry out to God: “Please, oh Lord, give this man what he wants! He’s been begging for so long, and we’re tired of hearing it!”

From on high, God replies: “I’m not opposed to it, but he has to at least buy a lottery ticket!”