Aleksei Simonov on freedom of speech in Russia: “Anything left living in this realm has to be trampled”

posted 5 Jun 2017, 01:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Jun 2017, 01:12 ]
31 May 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Voice of America Russian Service]

The situation with regard to freedom of speech in Russia has not been as bad as it is now since the end of the Thaw in the spiritual life of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Speaking about this in an interview for the Voice of America Russian Service was writer and film director Aleksei Kirillovich Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a member of the Free Speech association, and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Aleksei Simonov noted that the victims in the area of freedom of speech have mostly been journalists. However, they are not the only ones. What is happening affects “everything creative and living” that does not fit the authorities’ notion of expediency. As an example, Simonov cited the campaign of harassment unleashed against the School for Investigative Journalism for journalists and bloggers run by the foundation he heads. In his view, the main reason for the general deterioration in the situation is the atmosphere that has taken shape in the country.

Viktor Vladimirov: Aleksei Kirillovich, please tell us what is happening right now with your foundation and especially with the schools it runs.

Aleksei Simonov: The Glasnost Foundation is quietly performing those few functions of which it is capable today and for which it receives funds. But there have undoubtedly been difficulties with our schools. Let me remind you that we have run them for more than seven, if not eight, years. They have been held in more than thirty cities in Russia. Roman Anin, who now heads up the investigations department at Novaya Gazeta, studied in the first school, as did Elena Kostyuchenkova, a recent Sakharov Prize laureate. That is to say, we have graduated fine young people and generally speaking have not had serious concerns. After all, investigative journalism is apolitical in the sense that its methods are not political in nature.

Viktor Vladimirov: When did your troubles begin?

Aleksei Simonov:
About a year ago, when one of our teachers, Grigory Pasko (who had previously been sentenced to four years for “state treason”), was badly beaten in Barnaul. That’s when it all began. After that there was a bomb threat in Syktyvkar, in the space where classes were held, and then they shut off the electricity there and tried to throw some foul-smelling powder inside. And several young men appeared and explained to the students in untranslatable Russian that they were betraying their own homeland. Ever since, all the schools have been subject to attacks one way or another. In Khabarovsk, there was a raid by nationalists. In Yoshkar-Ola they poured brilliant green on a teacher, as had already become fashionable, and so forth. And the main thing is that the authorities aren’t looking for anyone, even though we wrote complaints to the agencies of law and order. It’s now perfectly clear that the authorities have somehow decided to force us to stop these schools. Nevertheless, their popularity hasn’t gone anywhere, so we’re continuing our work.

Viktor Vladimirov: But what did you do to suddenly become objectionable?

Aleksei Simonov: There got to be fewer other oppositionists; many people were broken. And anything left living in this realm has to be trampled, it goes without saying. That’s for one thing. Second, of course, it all started with Grisha (Pasko), whom they can’t forgive for the fact that he emerged (from prison) basically alive and healthy and remained a functional, active, working member of society, unbroken by his imprisonment and the attempt to sully his reputation. Attacks have been carried out against him twice.

Viktor Vladimirov: How do you assess the general situation with regard to freedom of speech in present-day Russia?

Aleksei Simonov: Detestable. In my memory, there has probably not been a situation as awful as there is now with regard to free speech since the late 1950s and early 1960s. And not because there’s less of it. It’s just that there’s more need of it now, whereas the number of restrictions has increased multifold. Moreover, whereas everything used to be held in check by customs and traditions, say, then now it is held in check by laws, their application, and prisons.

Viktor Vladimirov: Is the process controlled and directed from above?

Aleksei Simonov: I don’t think it all comes from above. In fact, the problem is the atmosphere that has formed in the country. And an atmosphere is formed not only from above. It forms from the interaction between the upper echelons and the lower depths. Hence, a very complex situation has arisen here that (this is my sense) even the upper echelons don’t know how to deal with. It’s not just the lower depths not knowing what to do with the upper echelons. What used to be considered utterly normal suddenly became opposition to the direction the regime is laying down for life and education. This is simply blatant testimony to how the trend has changed.

Translated by Marian Schwartz