(New York, NY) – A draft Russian law that would require independent cultural and educational programs to be “licensed” by the Russian government poses a dire threat to freedom of expression, cultural education, and international cultural exchange, PEN America said today. 

The draft law, also known as #1057895-7 or “On Amendments to Federal Law: Regarding Education in the Russian Federation,” builds a rigid framework for federal oversight of all educational activities, requiring broadly-defined “educational outreach programs” to go through an official vetting process. Additionally, any organizations that partner with or hire international organizations or nationals would need to obtain special permits.

The draft law passed its first reading in December, with the second reading originally scheduled for February 8. However, after widespread expression of concern from the country’s cultural and educational sectors, the Russian Duma has extended the process, with the deadline for legislators to submit amendments to this law pushed back to February 15. 

“This proposed bill would drastically increase the Russian government’s ability to regulate any type of educational activity and severely limit artistic freedom,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “The bill’s definition of such activities is also so broadly defined that it could apply to any cultural program seeking to engage the public. In all, this bill paves the way for Russian authorities to arbitrarily censor and restrict any cultural and educational activities that they disapprove of or deem to be a threat.”

“The Russian government’s latest attempt to exert control over nearly all cultural and educational output poses a dire threat to the free flow of information and ideas,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia program director. “This isolationist bill appears to be yet another attempt to undermine civil society and cultural organizations in Russia, making them dependent on government approval for any collaboration with international partners or for any of their public-facing work. The proposed government approval process would not only create a bureaucratic nightmare for cultural and educational actors, but would also foreseeably be used as a political cudgel that Moscow could wield over artists, curators, educators, and others.”

On February 8, over 1,000 educators, artists, cultural workers, and researchers from across Russia wrote an open letter claiming that the draft law would constrain international exchange, infringe on numerous constitutional rights and freedoms in Russia, and foreseeably result in the censorship of valuable educational work. 

The law was first registered and sent to the chairman of the Duma in November, alongside a slate of other legislation that would broaden the number of organizations and individuals required to register as “foreign agents,” which PEN America has previously said constituted a targeted attack of free speech and free expression in Russia.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC recently released A Safety Guide for Artists, which offers practical tools to help artists navigate risks and features an interview with Russian artist and activist Masha Alekhina about her experience being jailed for criticizing president Vladimir Putin. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.