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PEN/Opp explores russia

Credits Text: Ola Larsmo Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Jesper Waldersten December 19 2013

The headlines in the Swedish newspapers are at the time of writing dominated by the news that Swedish Neo-Nazis have attacked a peaceful demonstration against racism in one of the suburbs of Stockholm, resulting in the stabbing of two of the demonstrators. The incident will linger on in the public’s consciousness for a few days, only to soon be subsumed by the general feeling of unease we all carry with us—an unease sprung from the violent and growing right-wing extremism and nationalism in large parts of Europe.

Among the European countries Neo-Nazism is said to be strongest in Russia. One of its victims was the sociologist Nikolay Girenko who was shot to death in 2006 in St Petersburg. The years before he was murdered he had profiled himself as an expert on the growing Neo-Nazism and the ultra-nationalism in Russia, and he was often called on as an expert to witness at court proceedings concerning hate crimes. More than any of his contemporaries he early on understood the danger of the expanding hate culture targeting minorities—be it Caucasians or some other Russian ethnic groups, Russian Jews, or sexual minorities. Girenko was one of the brave people who dared to speak up concerning the destructive development in his home country and who for this has had to forfeit his life. Other names on this list could be Anastasia Baburova and Anna Politkovskaja.

The murder of Nikolaj Girenko reflects the escalating right-wing extremism in Russia—but the point is that it could just as well have happened in any other country in Europe. The development in Russia is essentially connected to things happening in other parts of the continent. Not to be able to see this is to deliberately make oneself unintelligent. It is therefore not a strictly Russian concern when laws in the country are implemented to criminalise an open public discussion about homosexuality and other “non-traditional” ways of living together. Nor is it merely a Russian concern when laws are implemented against blasphemy and when to critique religion is regarded as a crime. The latter parallels the Soviet regime’s criminalization of people’s religious faiths—the same but reversed.

It is not easy for an outsider to understand the developments in Russia. It is possible though to recognise patterns and strategies from other parts of the world and from other historical periods. For example, to recognize how those in power align themselves with the scorn directed towards minority groups who are being constructed as scapegoats. The laws passed in June this year forbid “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships.” Not only do these laws obviously function as a way of once again marginalising homosexuals and other “non-traditional” persons who, during the nineties, saw their rights being strengthened in Russia (then a country that was just opening up towards the world), but now it has become a crime even to talk about people who have chosen other ways of co-habiting. This latter crime has come to be regarded as a threat to the fundament of the Russian state. As if an illustration were necessary of how the restricted freedom of one group immediately results in the restricted freedom of another, the Russian Duma passed a law that makes it a criminal offence to “violate religious feelings.” This law was motivated by a need to after hand label the crime that the three members of Pussy Riot have been evicted of for a few minutes of Punk singing in an almost empty Cathedral.

There is a great deal to learn from this Russian example: if your freedom is encroached upon, then mine will soon be too. If such laws as those described above could miraculously be heaved, and Russia thereby be freed to continue to build a democracy worth its salt, then the air would of course be easier to breathe even here far away from its borders.

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