Russian PEN: Protesting Anti-Protest Legislation
News this week that Russian authorities had arrested more protestors and that teams of investigators raided the homes of blogger Aleksei Navalny, television star Kseniya Sobchak, and other prominent opposition voices is further proof of an intensifying struggle over freedom of expression in Russia.
Navigating this treacherous terrain is the Russian PEN Center, chartered in 1988 and an important defender of the freedom to write in the post-Soviet era. Among Russian PEN’s most important campaigns were efforts to challenge the jailing of Grigory Pasko and Aleksander Nikitin. The center paid a stiff a price for its activism when then-President Putin sought to impose exorbitant land taxes on the organization’s central Moscow offices. For more than five years, the center was tied down in court with its assets frozen by the state.
Now that Putin is president again, he is once more demonstrating his authoritarian bent by targeting the country’s growing protest movement. It is a movement in which writers have played an especially prominent role, with Russian PEN board members Boris Akunin and Ludmila Ulitskaya among those who have spoken at public rallies and led “test strolls” to challenge threatened bans on public gatherings. Putin’s United Russia party rammed legislation through the Duma last week that imposes fines of up to $9,000 on participants in unsanctioned demonstrations and $18,000 on protest organizers. In response, Russian PEN issued the following open letter to Putin:
We, the members of the Russian PEN Center, an international human rights writers’ organization, are protesting against the so-called “Laws Regarding Congregation”—passed in the darkness of night by the State Duma and speedily approved the following day by the Federation Council of Russia—which increased fines a hundred-fold for causing a disturbance at a street rally.
This rushed, poorly-thought-out document—passed through the efforts of representatives from “United Russia,” the only party managing to establish a parliamentary majority last December—will only create further division in our society and bring it to the brink of civil war.
By limiting freedom of speech and contradicting many other rational Russian laws, this “law” also infringes on the Russian Constitution, of which you yourself are the guarantor. It gives free reign to lawlessness, and to what is referred to in contemporary language as an “outrage” that has a multitude of other negative consequences.
That is why we call upon you, as the president of the Russian Federation, to veto this “law,” which benefits only those who are determined to turn our great country into a police state at war with its own people.
– The Executive Committee of the Russian PEN Center
This letter, and similar appeals from inside and outside Russia, fell on deaf ears, and last Friday Putin signed the bill into law. Stay tuned for more from Russia and Russian PEN. Meanwhile, check out this great piece by Masha Gessen, author of the Putin biography The Man Without a Face, on the latest developments.