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THREATS TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN POST-SOVIET RUSSIA

Dailey Joseph M.
(USA)

I begin this essay about threats to freedom of expression in post-Soviet Russia with this assumption: Americans and other Westerners are ill prepared to understand the Russian experience with freedom of expression or the absence thereof. The Russian experience is different from that of Westerners, who are raised to embrace naturally and comfortably ideas such as these expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and import information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers (Article 19)." *

Twenty-first Century citizens of Western democracies may feel such ideas are obviously correct, but little in Western experience prepares us to understand life in a society that has been forced to live without the enforcement of such ideas. Little prepares Westerners to understand that such life could give rise to a conversation like this between Russian prisoners sentenced to years of hard labor, years of confinement and hard living that might very well kill them:

"...I'm here because of my poems." "How's that? Your poems against the government, were they?" "No. Independent of the government, so they took offense." "About God, eh?" "About God too." "Yeah. They wouldn't like that."

    Ratushinskaya, Irina. Grey is the Color of Hope. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. page 12

Today's Russian society embraces and struggles with democratic ideals; simultaneously it struggles with a wide range of burdens: capitalism, oligopolies, kleptocracies, devastated economies, devastated health care systems, devastated environments and an unstable nuclear technology. Not only are Americans and other Westerners ill prepared to understand Russian experience and Russian wisdom, we are -- with few exceptions -- bound to misunderstand. The cultural and experiential differences that distinguish us are too great. Yet Westerners must not give up on their own attempts to understand Russian experience. Also, they must not assert that -- under their own power and without much Russian help -- they can understand Russian culture, experience and struggle.

My assumption may be incorrect, but I doubt that it will prove to be so. The CIA was unable to predict the end of the Soviet Union. American businesses were unable to understand post-Soviet Russia as a marketplace. Well intentioned Westerners were unable to see that Western laws and business codes would not neatly be transferred into a Russian environment. They attempted to transplant legal and business codes that they believed would improve Russia's situation, but, as Marshall I. Goldman saw it in 2003, "… an unusually large number of such efforts have so far proven to be futile or even counterproductive." Goldman likens transplanted laws and business codes to liver transplants that are rejected. They are alien entities and they are likely to remain alien. Goldman, Marshall I. The Piratization of Russia: Russian Reform Goes Awry. London: Routledge, 2003, p. 33) We would be foolish to assume that those episodes were only anomalies Based on such indicators of Western confusion over the systems at work in post-Soviet Russia, we should believe that, without the aid of an on-going dialog with Russians, we are likely to misunderstand a variety of Russian experiences to include their attempts to establish freedom of expression as an essential element of democracy.

This essay's goal is to articulate a parsimonious explanation of threats to media freedom, an explanation that would be accurately stated and reasonable to a Western observer. The explanation offered is a picture of the way the relevant events look to one American. It is important to remind ourselves of that fact and to remind ourselves that a Western orientation may foolishly turn away from Russian orientations and explanations. By themselves, the ideas expressed here should be seen as incomplete at best. Coupled with Russian responses, however, there may emerge a dialog which will prove useful to the understanding of both Westerners and Russians. Absent Russian responses, this essay must be viewed as suspect. As I have asserted earlier, Westerners are ill prepared -- without much Russian help -- to understand Russian experience and Russian wisdom.

Freedom of expression has been the cornerstone of all democratic reforms in Russia during and since the advent of Glasnost. Prior to Glasnost, Russia had been historically the home of savage and inexorable repression of expression. The recent story of new freedoms of speech and of the media is also a story of a conflict between the new freedoms and historically ingrained habit, between a new freedom to express ideas and the old willingness to take extreme measures to stop what are seen as undesirable communications.

The system of media freedom in post-Soviet Russia has been shaped by its ideological and economic environment. Russia has undergone a rapid change from a communist system with its related Leninist-Authoritarian ideology and state-owned enterprise to a democratic, multi-party, free-enterprise system which borrows freely from Western systems and also retains much that is traditionally Russian. While Russia's constitution expresses a protection of freedom of expression, it does so in ways that differ from the American system. Stated abstractly, threats to freedom of expression in post-Soviet Russia arise - in part, but substantially -- from Russia's long affinity for authoritarianism, during the communist period and going back in an almost unbroken tradition to Ivan the Terrible. This paper argues that authoritarianism can be seen to threaten media freedom in at least two distinct arenas: 1) in the legal conduct of the government, and 2) in some of the legal conduct of individuals and enterprises outside of the government. This paper examines legal threats to media freedom in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, and it sets out to locate the roots of today's authoritarian practices in Russia's history. The term legal threats identifies elements that do not break the law in the sense that they will stand no chance of ever being prosecuted as illegal.

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