Summer 2005

Fear and Self-Censorship in Vladimir Putin’s Russia

‘One bargains with oneself. How much can I sacrifice before I lose respect for myself as a journalist?’

By Masha Gessen
In January 2005, The Boston Globe published an article by Masha Gessen, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, Russian-American journalist, and author of “Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace,” published in 2004. In it she described the increasingly repressive climate in which journalists work in Russia. Part of her story focused on a decision she would soon confront at the independent magazine, Bolshoy Gorod, where she works as deputy editor. We asked her to give us an update on what her magazine decided to do and why and explain the consequences. That follow-up article accompanies the reprint below of her original story, with permission of The Boston Globe.

On Monday, December 20, 2004, Russia celebrated Secret Police Day. Once an obscure date, it has acquired a high profile in recent years, with banquets, speeches by highly placed officials, and commemorative banners all over Moscow. This year the celebrations marked the 83rd anniversary of the founding of VChK, which has since had many acronyms, of which KGB is the best known in the West.

That same day, in two different courtrooms—one in Moscow and one in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk—judges handed down two verdicts. One concerned seven members of the radical National Bolshevik Party, a once-marginal organization that has emerged as the country’s best-organized opposition group, who in August took over the office of the minister of health to protest a bill then pending in Parliament. All seven were sentenced to five years in prison—for an act of civil disobedience. In Krasnoyarsk, another member of the same party, Andrei Skovorodnikov, was found guilty of using his personal Web site to insult President Vladimir Putin. His sentence: six months in prison.

The second of the two verdicts was, in a way, the more frightening. Officers of the FSB (the current acronym for the Russian secret police) showed up at his apartment the very day he created his Web site, in February 2004, before almost anyone had seen it. What’s more, the prosecution’s case relied not only on content that was actually posted on the site—apparently, a collage of Putin’s head atop a naked woman’s body, with the caption “Putin is a fag”—but also on articles critical of Putin that were found on the hard drive of the computer they confiscated from his home.

I am the deputy editor of an independent magazine called Bolshoy Gorod (Big City), a Moscow biweekly that covers both urban life and national politics. The day after the verdicts, the editor and I were planning our first issue in the new year, an important one for us because we are launching a redesign. And we had a problem: The two verdicts were the most ominous political events in months, the definitive indication that Russia had entered another age of state terror. How do we give these events their due without risking getting shut down ourselves?

In the last five years, Putin’s government has systematically eradicated a variety of political freedoms, turning back Russia’s attempts to build a democracy. A report released on December 20, 2004—coincidentally, the day of the two verdicts—by Freedom House, the U.S. human rights organization that monitors and advocates political freedom around the world, downgraded Russia to “not free” status, making it the only country that year noted for its backward movement.

Russia no longer has the usual tools of democracy: a free media (a handful of independent print publications that rarely reach outside of Moscow cannot compete with the state television monopoly); free elections (Russians are no longer able to directly elect local governors or members of Parliament); or an independent judiciary (in essence, judges at all levels now serve at the pleasure of the president).

The Verdicts’ Message and Self-Censorship

The message of these two verdicts is that, in an important sense, we have returned to the late Soviet period, the Brezhnev era. At that point, Soviet terror was not total: Many people read and distributed samizdat publications, for example, and many more listened to “Voice of America” and other foreign broadcasters that used shortwave frequencies to get information to the Soviet people. But every once in a while, someone was imprisoned for one of these transgressions. The late Soviet regime was far more economical than the Stalin regime: Its leaders seemed to understand that, to keep the country in line, they didn’t need to imprison tens of millions of people. They just needed frequently to punish a few people at random.

The Putin regime has adopted a similar strategy. Since Putin came to power, the state has taken over all television channels. For a time, print and online media, which reach comparatively few people, were still allowed to function. Recently, though, the editor of Izvestia, the Russian daily of record, was fired on orders from the Kremlin. Crackdowns on newspaper distribution systems have driven circulation down significantly. Individual journalists have been threatened, attacked and, in at least a few cases, apparently killed. The prison sentence for Andrei Skovorodnikov sent the message that no media outlet, no matter how small, is immune to the Kremlin’s unfriendly attention any longer.

So we had a problem. How would we write about the two verdicts handed down on Secret Police Day? We did, after all, want to attract attention to our first redesigned issue. Just not the wrong kind of attention.

The verdicts were covered by other media, including at least one television channel (the most liberal of the three state-owned national networks), and one daily newspaper even quoted the “fag” line. But as a magazine, we would want to do a more in-depth story, one that would analyze the dire implications and consequences of the verdicts. At the same time, there was also a temptation to play the story down a little, so that only the alert readers would see the significance of it.

This is how self-censorship works. One bargains with oneself. How much can I sacrifice before I lose respect for myself as a journalist? Can I respect myself if I don’t give a story the play it deserves because I’m afraid? Can I respect myself if I kill a story because I’m afraid? Can I respect myself if I force the reader to look for the truth between the lines because I’m afraid?

And does it matter whom I’m afraid of? One can be afraid of the FSB, organized crime, the police. And one can also be afraid of the fears of others—companies who will pull their ads, for example, or investors who will pull their money because they fear the association with a risk-taking publication will cost them dearly.

Earlier this year, I reported a story that I found both ridiculous and very, very sad. The Russian edition of GQ, the men’s magazine, had run its traditional “Man of the Year” contest. Some 26,000 readers had voted, and the winner was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon, philanthropist and political activist whose Yukos oil empire has been expropriated and who has been in jail for over a year on charges of tax evasion that are widely seen as politically driven. His well-publicized trial has sent a message to all Russian entrepreneurs, warning them that they will suffer gravely if they ever happen to displease the Kremlin. The publisher of Russian GQ banned the publication of Khodorkovsky’s name in connection with the contest, forcing his editorial staff to falsify the results. According to staff members, someone actually had to fly to Italy, where the magazine is prepared for printing, to replace the offending page.

One remarkable aspect of this story is that the magazine’s publisher, Bernd Runge, is a German national who has little to fear personally from the authorities: He doesn’t even spend much time in Russia, since his turf includes other Conde Nast publications in Germany and Africa as well. But Runge has an intimate understanding of how the new Russia works. He hails from East Germany, and he went to college in the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, two major German magazines published multipart exposés showing that Runge served as a Stasi (the East German secret police) agent during the Soviet period. Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, issued a statement affirming his confidence in Runge and calling the revelations “irrelevant” to today’s realities.

Deciding What to Publish

As it turns out, though, the instincts of a former Stasi agent are very EDITOR'S NOTE
See "Editorial Dilemmas at an Independent Magazine in Moscow" to learn about the decision her magazine made.
relevant indeed in today’s Russia. I am not yet sure how we will solve the problem of covering the two verdicts. I do, however, know that just a few months ago I would have considered the very question of a story’s potential risks, whether to myself or the publication I work for, a deeply offensive one. But I have a personal stake in the decision: If I lose my job because I write or assign a story that gets the magazine shut down, I may never work in this country again.

In the late Soviet period, some people rejected such choices altogether and went to work as street-sweepers and boiler-room operators. Most, however, tried constantly to strike a balance. I have spent years trying to figure out how they made the balance work and have recently written a book about my own grandmothers’ quests for what they often called “a decent compromise.”

One of my grandmothers, Ruzya, was educated to work as a history teacher. But when she graduated from college, she decided she could never use her skills, knowledge and charm to lie to children. So instead, she became a censor, telling herself that censorship was mechanical work that someone else would be doing if she were not. When my other grandmother, Ester, was 20, she stood up to the secret police when they tried to draft her. Five years later, when she was out of a job and her young son was suffering from malnutrition, she accepted a job as a translator for the NKVD (another acronym for the secret police). She then failed her medical exam, which saved her from becoming a uniformed officer of the secret police.

Ester got to have a heroic narrative, while Ruzya, who is now 85, is still deeply ashamed of the work she did half a century ago. But while my grandmothers’ decisions were intensely difficult and informed, above all, by a desire to stay a moral course, the choice was hardly theirs at all.

In the book, I concluded that there is no such thing as a decent compromise. When I started researching it, about eight years ago, I never thought my grandmothers’ lessons would have a direct application for my own life. But in the days after Secret Police Day 2004, I face a choice: Commence the search for a decent compromise or go work in a boiler room. This was the nature of choice in the Soviet Union, and it is becoming the nature of choice in today’s Russia. If one does anything at all—edits a story, for example, or kills one—one is in some way becoming an accomplice of the regime.

For merely being mindful of the limitations of freedom inevitably makes one also an enforcer of these limitations. But the penalties for not being mindful, for refusing to play by the rules, are too grave. Just ask the young man in Krasnoyarsk, who dared insult the president.


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