(New York, NY) — The Russian government this week issued an order permanently expelling Idrak Mirzalizade, a Belarusian standup comedian, from Russia in retaliation for a joke he made about racial discrimination in the Moscow housing market. Authorities have said they will deport Mirzalizade if he does not leave the country. PEN America today condemned the Russian authorities for this absurd response to a comedian exercising his fundamental right to free expression. 

During a comedy program that aired online in March, Mirzalizade discussed ethnic and racial discrimination against non-Slavic people in Russia’s rental housing market. Afterwards, a right-wing Russian television channel aired an abridged version of the joke without context, along with personal insults against the comedian. Mirzalizade began receiving threats and was physically attacked in Moscow on June 25. He was then accused of inciting hatred by the Russian authorities and received a 10-day detention on August 9, before the order expelling him was issued August 30.  

“The Russian authorities’ action against Mirzalizade is an outrageous and thin-skinned response to a comedy routine. Rather than make any attempt to redress the issues Mirzalizade raised, the government’s instinct is to punish the messenger and censor creative expression, ” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia program director. “We condemn the Russian authorities’ ongoing effort to curb the freedom of expression and stifle conversations that shed light on the most urgent societal matters, such as ethnic and racial discrimination.”

“The decision to ban Mirzalizade from Russia—forever—is yet another attempt by the Russian authorities to quash any form of expression that does not fit their prescribed social and political narratives. Mirzalizade used his platform as a standup comedian to tell a joke that drew on his own experiences living in Russia,” said Julie Trébault, the director of the Artists at risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Humor is one of the most powerful tools we have for interrogating complex issues, sharing our personal experiences, and opening others’ eyes to lives that are different from ours. That’s exactly what Mirzalizade did, and we call on the Russian Interior Ministry to reverse his expulsion immediately.” 

The expulsion comes amid an intensified crackdown on independent media in Russia. In recent months, numerous media outlets, including Meduza, Proekt, and the Insider, were labeled as either “undesirable” or “foreign agents,” which significantly limits or essentially prohibits their ability to operate in Russia. 

PEN America follows the developments in Russia concerning freedom of expression and artistic freedom through its Eurasia program and leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.