Category Archives: freedom of speech

Demonizing the Putin regime?

Sean’s Russia Blog has a post (based on an article by Mark Ames) lambasting Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt of disregarding facts in a rush to conclude that the mercury poisoning in France of Karina Moskalenko, lawyer for the family of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was probably an assassination attempt linked to Russia. It now appears clear that Moskalenko’s poisoning was an accident, due to the fact that the previous owner of the used car she had bought in August had broken a thermometer in it. Sean accuses WaPo of being “vociferous in painting Russian (sic) and Putin as a neo-Evil Empire” and, with Ames, laments this “incessant demonization.”

Was there a rush to the judgment by the WaPo editorial page? Sounds like it. Is there a tendency, after a string of unsolved murders of Russian politicians and journalists who were on the wrong side of Putin’s favor, to see the long hand of Putin behind every suspicious death or illness? I’m sure there is. To be honest, I would prefer to believe that Putin was not involved in any of those murders, if only because the thought that the de facto leader of a nuclear power with a population of nearly 150 million is capable of common, naked criminal acts of the worst kind — not just bending the law for what he sees as the common good, but plain and simple crimes — is a little too scary.

However, it seems to me that the Putin (now, Putin/Medvedev) regime needs no demonizing. Exhibit A: The horrific treatment of Vasily Alexanian, the terminally ill ex-Yukos lawyer who is currently in prison on charges of embezzlement (widely viewed as a tactic to pressure him into testifying against his former boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky). Alexanian has AIDS and cancer, and is reported to be virtually blind. Russian law requires him to be released due to the state of his health (and also because the statute of limitation on his alleged crimes has now expired). Yet he is still in a prison hospital, for no apparent reason than the Putin clique’s maniacal vendetta against Khodorkovsky and Yukos. The latest news in his case is that the government is now willing to release him — on 50 million rubles (about $1.6 million) bail. You can’t really demonize people who do that. They’ve done a fine job of demonizing themselves.

Sean Guillory, who writes Sean’s Russia blog, sincerely loves and cares about Russia, and that is, of course, a good thing. Unfortunately, I think this often leads him to see justify criticisms of Russia’s government and society as Western maligning of Russia. In discussing the Litvinenko poisoning case two years ago, Sean lamented the Western media’s readiness to paint Russia as “some sort of abnormal society.” Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it’s not so abnormal as to have a government that poisons its critics. But is today’s suppression of the opposition rallies in Moscow the mark of a “normal society”? How about the fact that none of these rallies were mentioned on the television news? How about the fact that there has been no news coverage of the massive protests in Vladivostok (not directly political, since they have to do with new tariffs on the import of used foreign cars, but still directed against the authorities)? Is that “normal”?

And something else I found jarring, reading Sean’s October 23 post on the Moskalenko case:

Westerners should be more cautious in making Russia’s “fierce critics’” every word sacrosanct. We might recognize that some of these people are victims of their own paranoia and self-deluded sense of importance. They are not martyrs, saints, or saviors. No matter how much they want us to think they are.

Are all fierce critics of Putin’s Russia saints or wise men and women? Of course not. (Eduard Limonov, for instance, is a nut and a narcissist.) But the dismissive tone toward people who are taking substantial personal risks in taking on a repressive machine grates. (Does Sean have any reason to believe Moskalenko has delusions of grandeur? I would say that in her case, paranoia is not an irrational reaction. Even the paranoid have enemies — but, by the same token, even those who have real enemies are sometimes paranoid.)

I find it deeply offensive when the likes of LaRussophobe shower the mass of the Russian people with dehumanizing contempt for their submission to Putin and their indifference to human rights violations in Russia. It’s easy for someone who has never lived under a dictatorship, and never endured the chaos, uncertainty, and privations that came with freedom after that dictatorship’s collapse, to pass high-handed judgment on people who are grateful to have a semblance of a normal life. Easy, and frankly revolting. (Besides, how many Americans — living in a democracy — protested slavery or segregation?) However, it’s also … shall we say, not very attractive to heap scorn on people who are willing to do the heroic work of challenging an authoritarian state, from the comfortable perch of someone who is very unlikely to ever be in their shoes.

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Filed under freedom of speech, Russia, Russia bloggers

Russia: Freedom springs eternal

Via Robert Amsterdam, an article from The Economist about acts of civic courage by ordinary Russians: a juror in the Anna Politkovskaya murder case going public to dispute the judge’s claim that the jury has asked for the trial to be held behind closed door (causing the trial to be opened to the public and the media again), drivers in Moscow taking over a special lane reserved for high-level government officials. And there’s more.

On December 5, the Basmanny district court in Moscow — a court whose past actions have made it a synonym, among Russian dissenters, for a kangaroo court doing the government’s bidding — acquitted writer and political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky of charges of “extremism.” The charges against Piontkovsky, a pro-Western, outspoken critic of the Putin regime, were based on the prosecutors’ conclusion that his book Unloved Country contains incitement of ethnic hatred and “statements demeaning to Russians, Jews, and Americans.” (No specific examples were given.)

Three experts from the Russian Federal Center for Expert Witnesses concluded that nothing in Piontkovsky’s book could be interpreted as incitement to hatred or violence.

Said Piontkovsky (alas, Russian link only):

The FSB and the prosecutors, armed with the new law on extremism, tried to conduct a show trial and create a precedent for criminal prosecution for criticism of the government.

The highly professional conclusion of Andrei Smirnov, Olga Kukushkina and Yulia Safonova, buttressed by scholarly arguments, has knocked — for a long time, I hope — this “punishing sword” out of the hands of the repressive machine.

The official conclusion of these three remarkable and courageous professionals should be disseminated by the media as much as possible. It is our small Magna Carta, a charter of freedoms — a first step toward the restoration of freedom of speech traitorously stolen from society by the KGB lieutenant colonel who fancies himself “the father of the nation.”

And there’s more. On December 6, the half-hour comedy show ProjectParisHilton on Russia’s Channel One, in which four comedians discuss current events, included a segment on Putin’s December 4 televised “question and answer session” with the people that was virtually an overt parody of the Vladimir Show, with the comedians offering to field audience questions that “Putin didn’t get a chance to answer” and giving Putin-style vacuous answers. (Video to come, once I have a chance to add subtitles.)

In the meantime, another video. As Russia officially celebrated the 15th anniversary of its post-Soviet Constitution — ironically, just as this constitution is about to be hastily amended to extend the presidential term from four years to six — Medvedev’s speech at the anniversary conference at the Kremlin was interrupted by a heckler. No less remarkably, a report on the incident was broadcast on television, though only on a local St. Petersburg channel.

Before we get all optimistic, the next day Dobrokhotov — an activist with the opposition group “We”– lost his job as the host of a weekly one-hour debate program on the “Moscow Speaks” radio station. The station chief claims that this was a planned layoff affecting all free-lance workers at the station. Interestingly, Dobrokhotov seems to give this explanation some credence, saying that the chief has always been candid with him in the past and that his participation in public protests has not previously affected his job. Still, the timing in suspicious at best.

On Sunday, “marches of dissent” are planned in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Stay tuned.

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When atheists attack: The "War on Christmas" redux

Okay, I hate to admit it when Bill O’Reilly has a point in his latest “War on Christmas” crusade (see here, here and here on its previous installments), but this time, he does.

At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a “Holiday tree” and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)

The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

More on the story here.

According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state’s policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display “regardless of that individual’s or group’s views.”

Here’s the problem. The atheist display doesn’t simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.

A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.

Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a “God Hates Fags” placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype — which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America — that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.

If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists “believe in nothing.”

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Filed under Bill O'Reilly, Christmas, freedom of speech, religion, religious freedom