The "space of freedom" in Russia: some good news

Under the resurgent authoritarianism of the Putin/Medvedev regime, a “space of freedom” has still remained in Russia: in the print media, to some extent even on the radio (Ekho Moskvy), and of course on the Internet; in independent groups that are harassed if they get too political, but nonetheless exist. There are many reasons to fear that this space has shrunk after the Russia-Georgia war, when Russia’s airwaves looked more like Soviet-style propaganda than at any time since the collapse of Communism. But, as one villainous representative of oppressive state power says to another in Russian writer Evgeny Schwartz’s play The Shadow, “Sometimes, just when it looks like our victory is complete, life suddenly rears its head.” And sometimes, in the most unexpected places.

Last month, Russian prosecutors, acting on a complaint from religious groups, went after the 2 x 2 television channel that specializes in “smart” cartoons, such as The Simpsons and South Park. One of the offenses named in the complaint was the South Park episode “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Special,” in which characters including Satan, Hitler and an anthropomorphic turd named Mr. Hankey perform in a Christmas show. The prosecutors concluded that the episode might be “extremist” since it was demeaning to Christians and Jews.

In the meantime, 2 x 2’s broadcast license expires on October 17, and there was understandable speculation that it might not be renewed. Alarm bells went off, in particular, when Pavel Tarakanov, chairman of the Duma Comittee on Youth Issues, publicly stated that if 2 x 2 lost its license, its frequency could be given to a young adults-oriented channel that would “reflect the government’s position with regard to youth policy.” “We need to raise a generation of 21st Century Russians who are proud of living in a civilized nation, therefore we need our own media conduit that would reach the greatest possible number of people,” he told the Interfax news agency on September 23.

But suddenly, the Russian public, notoriously apathetic in the past few years, rose up in indignation. In late September, there were pickets, flash mobs, and demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the attempts to squash 2 x 2; the September 21 rally in Moscow drew about 700 people, who clashed with the police at one point. The protesters carried signs saying, “Hands off 2 x 2! We do not want censorship!” (which rhymes in Russian — something like, “2 x 2 is here to stay — censorship must go away!”), “Today they came for Kenny, tomorrow they’ll come for you” and “Kenny lived, Kenny lives, Kenny will live!”, a play on the once-ubiquitous Soviet slogan about Lenin. (Russians have not lost their knack for sharp political humor.) In just a few days, the protesters collected 34,000 signatures on petitions to keep 2 x 2 on the air.


Russian protester with a poster: “Today, they come
for Kenny; tomorrow, they’ll come for you.” From EJ.ru

On September 25, the Federal Competitive Bidding Commission on Television and Radio Broadcasting — the Russian equivalent of the FCC, ironically with the Russian initials FKK — voted unanimously to recommend that 2 x 2’s license be renewed. The final decision is up to the State Committee on Communications Oversight, but it is expected to follow the FKK’s recommendation. In the meantime, The Simpsons and South Park will continue to be shown on 2 x 2 except for the “offending” episodes.

The day before this decision, human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek wrote on the EJ.ru website:

Sophisticated opposition activists might wince: vulgar cartoons, ill-mannered youths, aggression in the streets. True, this is not about ideas, or compassion for people who are dying in an unjust war [in the Caucasus], or the struggle for democracy and the future of Russia. And yet these events give cause to hope that not everything is lost in this country, that not everyone in Russia is under the yoke of submission, fear and indifference. People who have nothing to do with politics have come out into the streets to defend their right: the right to watch the TV channel they love. It doesn’t matter if this channel is worthy of universal love, or of the love of refined conoisseurs of quality television. Its viewers want it, and that’s enough reason for it to stay on the air, no matter how revolting it might be to religious fanatics, television aesthetes, or the General Prosecutor’s office.

Perhaps the future belongs to those who, no matter how little they care about politics, come out into the streets to defend their personal choice, their right to live without following the guidance of the authorities — even if it’s only a matter of a TV channel that shows cartoons.

By the way, Podrabinek vastly underestimates the extent to which South Park and The Simpsons are about “ideas.” He’s not the only one. In a verse commentary on the 2 x 2 controversy in Ogoniok magazine, the writer, poet and astute political satirist Dmitry Bykov describes the victory as a bittersweet one:

The days of liberty are now behind us,
And yet here is a fact we can’t avoid:
As long as we can say, “Don’t have a cow, man!”,
Freedom in Russia cannot be destroyed.

Today, we won’t be rescued from oppression
By Pushkin, Tolstoy, or a Joan of Arc;
Instead, it seems, the torch is in the hands of
The Simpsons and the kiddies of South Park.

Bykov describes 2 x 2’s fare as “the usual jokes on all things excremental.” The Simpsons and South Park may not be the Pushkin and Tolstoy of our day, but perhaps Bykov should try watching them. The idea of 2 x 2 as a bastion of freedom (hopefully, not the last) is not that depressing.

More: Some great photos of the 2 x 2 protests here and here.

2 Comments

Filed under entertainment, freedom of the press, Russia

2 responses to “The "space of freedom" in Russia: some good news

  1. Jerry

    Very interesting, thanks. A glimmer of hope?

  2. Olga

    Nice job with the translation, but I just read the Bykov’s original and I have a distinct impression that he’s agreeing with you: he says (I can’t be bothered to translate in rhyme), “Better that they watch The Simpsons and South Park than government youth-oriented propaganda.” He’s also suggesting, it seems to me, that as long as the young people’s minds are occupied with The Simpsons and South Park, they will be harder to brainwash. There’s a hint of an intellectual disappointment that the threat of losing “lowbrow” entertainment is what it took to wake people up, but he also seems philosophical that waking up is a good thing nonetheless.

    (Btw, why is it Stan portrayed on the poster about Kenny? Are they even paying attention?)

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