By Daniel Balson, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International USA.
If truth is, indeed, a casualty of war then satire is surely a casualty of tyranny. Earlier last month, Russian movie theaters were slated to begin screening The Death of Stalin, a 2017 satirical film that depicts the Soviet dictator’s death and the power struggles it precipitated. The Kremlin didn’t get the joke. Russian authorities’ willingness to violate human rights is legitimized by their censorship of history. Government officials clearly fear that allowing Russian citizens to have an open discussion about their past may open uncomfortable questions about their present. On January 23rd, Russia’s Ministry of Culture banned the film’s distribution. When a movie theater flouted the ban, police arrived and forced the proprietors to reconsider their independent streak.
Modern Russia has a tortured relationship with Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s former dictator who killed millions of his own citizens through forced labor, starvation, and outright execution. For many, he remains a potent symbol of Russian military might and glory, having led Soviet Union in its defense and eventual victory against Nazi Germany. Yet following the collapse of the Soviet system, brave human rights defenders began to document his appalling crimes. In a yearly event organized by the Russian non-governmental organization Memorial, Russians gather in central Moscow to read the names of Stalin’s victims. From ten in the morning to ten at night, they read name after name, listing compatriots of every conceivable ethnicity and profession. They never make it even halfway through the list.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is no Stalin. He appears uninterested in building the kind of omnipotent security apparatus that would enable Stalinist repressions. Still, Putin has found political value in rehabilitating the Soviet despot’s legacy. Last year he described Stalin as a “complex figure,” and condemned attempts to “demonize him”. The rehabilitation campaign is working. As documented by the independent Levada Center, a Russian polling organization, Russians’ view of Stalin have grown more positive year by year.
It’s hard to imagine that Putin’s extensive human rights abuses would be possible were Russia permitted a full reckoning with its Soviet past. An October 2017 report by Amnesty International documented how Russian prisoners endure brutal treatment at the hands of authorities, transported to distant penal colonies in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet GULAG forced labor system. Russian authorities in Crimean peninsula, an internationally recognized territory of Ukraine occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014, have systematically persecuted the Crimean Tatar minority. The community was deported en masse by Joseph Stalin in 1944 and is broadly hostile to Russia’s occupation. In retaliation, authorities have arrested Tatar human rights defenders like Emir-Usein Kuku and others, and deported them to Russia to face trial by military court in contravention of international law. The NGO Memorial has itself faced a campaign of violence and intimidation for its work to document and publicize human rights offenses by the state. This month, the head of its office in the Russian republic of Chechnya was arrested on baseless drug charges. Memorial’s office in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia was set on fire by masked men.
To challenge Putin’s human rights abuses, the United States can help those who challenge his grip on history. Russian archivists, researchers, activists, and journalists are working to uncover past crimes and hold accountable present-day perpetrators. The U.S. can amplify these brave voices by helping them obtain the skills and training they need to do their work and providing them with political support when necessary. At the same time, U.S. must set an effective example for how it responds to speech it dislikes. President Trump’s frequent attacks on the media hamper U.S credibility on freedom of expression and find an eager audience in the Kremlin. Russian officials have taken to directly mimicking Trump’s language about journalists. Similarly, Congress’ decision to withdraw press credentials from Sputnik and RT, two media outlets funded by the Russian government, was misguided. The move has done nothing to stop these outlets from editorializing on the U.S. legislature but it provides convenient cover to Russian censors.
Eventually, the Russian people will have the opportunity to wrestle with their past independent of what their conclusions might mean for the Kremlin. Until then, however, there is a cruel logic in the Kremlin’s willingness to silence free expression and satirical depictions of Russia’s past. Deep down, they may fear the joke is on them.