Censorship and Free Expression in Modern Russia

Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Ilya Danishevsky

Chief Editor, Vremena Publishing House; Author, Tenderness for the Dead

Anna Nemzer

Editor, TVRain (Dozhd)

Maria Stepanova

Founder, Colta.ru; Coauthor, Relocations

Ludmila Ulitskaya

Author, The Big Green Tent

Kimberly Marten

Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University

Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten leads Vremena Publishing House’s Ilya Danishevski, TVRain’s Anna Nemzer, Colta.ru’s Maria Stepanova, and author of The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya, in a discussion on the Russian government’s increased involvement in the world of media and the arts. As prominent figures in the Russian literary world, the panelists share their experiences as artists working under an increasingly activist government.

This meeting is cosponsored with the PEN American Center.

(Note: Ms. Ulitskaya’s and Mr. Danishevsky’s remarks are made through an interpreter.)

NOSSEL: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Suzanne Nossel. I’m the executive director of PEN American Center. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. So pleased to see all of you.

I have been a member of CFR for almost 20 years. I started as a term member right after law school in the late ’90s and became a full member in 2000. And during that time I’ve had two stints in government, in the Clinton administration and the Obama administration. But until I came to PEN three years ago, I really had never dealt with the cultural dimensions of foreign affairs and diplomacy. And I think Russia offers such a prime example of where this takes on real importance, at a moment where the discourse in Washington about Russia is solely focused on security issues—the very tough challenges in Ukraine, Syria, Iran—and where Putin looms so large that it’s almost impossible—


NOSSEL: —sorry—almost impossible to see beyond him, and where there’s such a concentration sense of frustration, we see it as PEN’s role to widen the aperture and to get people focused on what’s happening in the Russia that goes so far beyond Putin.

And over the last couple of days, as we’ve brought this delegation here in New York—we’ll be going to Washington with them tomorrow—it’s often come up that they represent part of the 14 percent of Russians who are not in the 86 percent that, at least according to the polls—whether we can trust them or not I don’t know—support Vladimir Putin. And I see it as our job at PEN to keep the channels of communication with that 14 percent open. And we’ve talked here in this report, “Discourse in Danger,” about how difficult that’s become.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, who you’ll meet in a moment, said earlier today that during this trip she’s felt like it’s their 14 percent talking to our 14 percent. And I don’t know exactly what distinguishes our 14 percent or who else is part of it, but I want to say I’m proud to be part of it, Ludmila, and I’m very proud to bring you to the Council on Foreign Relations today.

Pleased to introduce our good friend, Kim Marten, with great expertise, who will be moderating this session. Over to you, Kim.

MARTEN: While people are getting settled, let me welcome all of you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “Expression, Creativity, and Culture in Putin’s Russia.” I want to thank Suzanne Nossel for her support of this meeting, her co-sponsorship of this meeting. Also, her colleague Isabel Burton, Carrie Beakey (sp) here at the Council, and also my colleague at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Dr. Ronald Meyer, who helped share some of the writings of this group with me and helped prepare me to be the moderator today.

Well, it turns out that Putin—Vladimir Putin spoke at Columbia in 2003 as part of the World Leaders Forum, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question from the audience. And I said, “Mr. Putin, your opponents would argue that you are limiting freedom of expression in Russia,” because by 2003 it was already clear that that was the direction things were going. “What would you say in response to your opponents?” And I figured he would say, oh, it’s a lie, we’re not limiting anything. And instead, he gave a very interesting response: he said, of course we’re limiting freedom of expression. When we had total freedom of expression in the 1990s we had chaos, and it’s my job as president to bring order to our society. You can talk about freedom of expression in your comfortable democracy, but remember it took you several hundred years to get here; we’re just at the beginning.

Well, we have four speakers with us today who do not agree with Mr. Putin’s assessment of the necessity of freedom of expression today in Russia. You have their full biographies in your program, but let me just briefly introduce them to you.

On my far left is Ludmila Ulitskaya, who had worked throughout her careers as a geneticist, a playwright, and a theater director. But she’s best known as a prize-winning novelist. Her most recent book was published in the United States in November. It’s called “The Green Tent.” I’m about halfway through the book and I love it. It’s fabulous, and I recommend it to you all.

On her right, next, closer to me, is Maria Stepanova, who is a prize-winning poet, essayist, and journalist. Some of her poems center on what ordinary life is like for women. And, in addition, she founded an independent online journal called OpenSpace.ru and transformed it into the crowdsourced site in Russia Colta.ru a few years later.

Anna Nemzer, a novelist of the next generation in Russia, and next on the stage. Her first English-translation book, by the way, will be published in the United States in 2016. She’s also chief producer of news broadcasting at Dozhd, the independent television station known as Rain in English. Dozhd openly covered the 2011 political protests against Putin, and has faced some difficulties ever since. And she’s also working on a project to collect materials about freedom of expression in Russia in the 1990s.

And last but not least, to my immediate left is Ilya Danishevsky, a poet, a writer, and a publisher. He’s chief editor of the Vremena publishing group, and he calls this a space for a network of authors who write outside of the dominant state-sponsored discourse. In 2016 he will be publishing books by the Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin and by leaders of the Pussy Riot punk protest group. He also directs the Anhedonia (ph) Project, which produces research on institutions of violence in modern Russia.

So what I’m going to do is start the discussion today by asking each of our panelists just very briefly a question or two, and then promptly at 1:30 we will open it up for discussion to Council members. We will need to end promptly at 2:00, and so let’s move forward. And I would just remind everybody that this meeting today is being livestreamed, it will be recorded for prosperity, so we are all on the record.

Let me start by asking a question of Ludmila, who is the chief of the delegation. I’m loving your book, “The Green Tent.” And “The Green Tent” focuses on many intertwined stories of intellectuals and dissidents and artists in the Soviet era, and how they interact with each other and interact with the state, including the KGB. Can you give us your sense, is what’s happening right now in Russia similar to what you were writing about in Soviet times, or is it different? And if it’s either similar or different, what are the implications of that for the intelligentsia and freedom of expression today in Russia?

ULITSKAYA: I just had a point in my life. Quite recently I discovered with great surprise that people of the next generation, let’s say the generation of my children up to 40 years told, these people are very suspicious toward dissidents. Many of them seem to believe that dissidents of the Soviet times are responsible for the state structure that has emerged today, and which is to the liking of very few people among those who might communicate with these 30- and 40-years-old children.

When I realized that, I took it as a certain challenge. I thought it my duty to write a book in order to tell the dissident generation, to tell how difficult their path had been, the path toward freedom. This was a generation, postwar generation. Some of them had fought in the war. And this drama of people who returned from the war and who expected to see a new world, a postwar world, all of a sudden they found themselves in a Stalinist world, a very difficult, closed world. And their dream of freedom was being realized little by little. The dissident movement gained momentum. And it is this generation, the generation of that time—1960s, ’70s—I wrote my book so as to build this bridge between our generation and the younger generation.

MARTEN: Terrific, thank you.

The possibility of emigration is a theme that is repeated over and over again in your book. And we know that there is concern today about the outflow of the intelligentsia from Russia abroad. Do you think that that outflow of the intelligentsia to the broader world today will have an impact on the future of Russia? Or is it different from the emigration of a previous era?

ULITSKAYA: Personally, I have never been in emigration, although as most people of my generation have confronted this idea. They’ll leave their families. There’s a certain lifestyle. Nevertheless, we changed our minds and decided to stay in Russia. But we went through a very difficult time breaking off with the people who left because the people who emigrated in the 1980s said farewell to those who stayed forever. This was like a funeral when we realized that our friends—these are our friends whom we are seeing for the last time—the idea of meeting them ever again never occurred to us.

Today’s emigration is totally different. The world has changed drastically since then, and people, by taking this step, do not cut off forever this opportunity of coming back. The fact that people are leaving Russia today—well, my circle includes mostly scientists and scholars. I am a geneticist by background, and these people who are preparing to leave, they are engaged in more creative activities because in Russia today science is very poorly financed and funded. I really hope that, given a change in the situation, these people will come back home and will work in a free country sometime in the future. So today emigration is not so bloody—such a bloody process as it was in the past.

MARTEN: Great, thank you.

So may I move on to ask Maria a question? In a recent essay in a European journal called Transit, you argue that there is a global cultural trend of people looking to the future not with hope, as they used to look in the past when they believed in progress, but instead with disillusionment and fear. And you talk in that essay about how you think that relates to the current situation in Russia. And I’m wondering if you can share that with us, and also talk about what that means for Putin’s popularity, in your view?

STEPANOVA: I will—I will try to give a kind of an explanation. And firstly, I have to apologize for my clumsy English.

The thing is, people all over the world are having, in my opinion, more difficulties with facing the future than they did 20 years ago, for instance. And to understand it, you have to look at the Hollywood production, for example. It always mirrors what is going on. And you can see that any film, any movie that is dealing with a close or a not-so-close future is about a catastrophe. And it is maybe even more so when you’re speaking about Russia. And the Russian history over the last hundred years or even more is a history of constant catastrophe. Something awful is always happening.

And what happens to the population when it sees that—when it is afraid to look into the future, when it sees that its present time is somehow flawed? It looks back into the past. And what does it seek in the past? There is no exact, precise point of consensus. There is no point in the Russian history that all the population agrees about—not about the Russian Revolution, not about who was Joseph Stalin and what does he mean for us now, not about—not about Lenin, not about Peter the Great, about—not about anything, in fact. And it is a complicated way of viewing your own history. You don’t have a history as a line. You have a history as layers and layers of unknown things then you can—that you can rewrite and revise as you feel more comfortable for today. And that’s the way we are viewing the past.

But still the past seems, for us, to be the only rail that we kind of own. It is cozy. We know it. And so all the big cultural or historical or even political projects of current Russia are shaped in the forms we already know. And as you know, the slogans of “Novorussia,” the slogans that we’re pushing forward, or at the Ukraine, were shaped by the past models. And the words people were using when they were trying to describe what is going on also were borrowed from some very old vocabulary like banderofs i faschisti (sp), it’s the language of the World War II. And it is strange because this reality of the past is a reality we are breathing with.

I will finish with a story. I’ll try to make it as short as possible. It is a story that was told to me by a psychoanalyst who is working with a wide clientele, so to say, in Moscow. And what she noticed is that her clients are people of different ages, different generations, different gods, different social levels, but they all are seeing the same kind of dreams. They are dealing with catastrophe of different kinds. And the dreams are always going along the same lines.

And one of them interested me the most. It does like that. The person who is seeing the dream is a woman of considerable means. She is a copy writer in a big advertising agency. She is in her 30s. And what she’s dreaming is the authorities are issuing a new law, and now everyone who loses his passport is going to be persecuted. He is going to be killed, say, putting it in simple words. And just accidentally, on that very day she loses her passport. So she’s coming back to her family, breaking the news, and everyone is desperate, of course, and her boyfriend doesn’t know what to do. Her father is crying. But her—but her mother, who is the wise one in the family, she’s saying keep calm, keep calm, they will not kill you—they will not kill you, they never do. They will just send you into an exile and that will be the end of it. And then, buzz, the doorbell rings, and here is the shooting squad, and they are taking her away. But luckily, no, the mother was right, they didn’t kill her. They are putting her into the skotski (ph) vagon. It is also the term from a distant past, from Stalin’s time, when prisoners were transported in the special type of carriage, made for transporting the cattle. And she’s sitting on the floor of this skotski (ph) vagon and trying to look out very small window, and what she sees are endless plains covered with snow. And what she’s feeling, or what she’s thinking, is that’s what I—that’s what I’ve always expected. I was born for these things to happen to me. I always knew that, that my Moscow childhood, my not-so-bad school, my first kiss, my student’s years, what they used to be is just kind of a fake. It doesn’t mean anything. It was not about me. It was like a film. But now my real life that I was born for, now it starts.

I think that that dream is kind of a key to what is happening in contemporary Russia, not at the surface but deep inside. And this is a point of real consensus that unite us, all levels, of all stratas of the Russian society, from the last schoolboy to maybe people in the Kremlin, to Putin. People are afraid to look into the future. They have no explanations, no analogies for the future than the ones you can find in the past. And the only thing we really need is the ability and bravery to start our story anew, not looking back.

MARTEN: Thank you, Maria.

Anna, if I could move on to you, you’ve been the chief news producer for Dozhd, for Rain Television. What are some of the challenges that you have faced with freedom of expression? And do you think you’re going to continue to face those challenges, and do you think you’ll be able to continue to overcome those challenges?

NEMZER: Yes. Well, I’ll start with a story. Maybe some of you know it, but still.

Two years ago, there was a big scandal around the TVRain because we published an opinion poll about the siege of Leningrad. And there one of the questions was considered to be an insult for war veterans of Second World War. And it was the very beginning of our disaster because, you know, I can’t say that there was a special quote from someone to—somebody to somebody who would say just shut them up, no, that was the—that was an example of how censorship in Russia works now. Because I’m sure that nobody—I’m sure that there wasn’t such a call or, that is, this kind of conspiracy I’m totally not interested in. But all cable operators started to turn Dozhd off, the TVRain off. All the advertisement disappeared immediately. All the landlords just refused to renew our rental contract, and the new landlord just refused to deal with TVRain. And so TVRain had to move to some underground studio, and then to another studio. And so the TV channel lived two movings in, say, two months, which is incredible experience for a—for a big TV channel. And the prosecutor’s office started its check. And so Dozhd learned to live only by subscription. And, well, I can’t say what’s going—I don’t know anything about the future, but it is the best example of how the censorship works in Russia now because it is much larger than we used to think about it.

MARTEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your project on the 1990s? You are here sort of as a representative of the younger generation in Russia. Do you think that the younger generation in Russia today is similar to the generation in the 1990s? Do you think that they will be politically active? What is your assessment of your own generation and how that relates to previous generations?

NEMZER: Yes. Then, again, I will start with my agenda and with my pain. You know, the—our situation with history is rather interesting because we have—as Masha said, we have no agreement until public discussion about our past. And from one hand we have the grand narrative, the official version of history, which tells us, for instance, that Stalin was an effective manager; or, for instance, that ’90s was a horrible decade—wreckage ‘90s, there is a cliché—that was time of darkness and murders and drugs and so on. From the other hand, we are trying to say that Stalin wasn’t an effective manager at all and that, for instance, ’90s was—they were the only decade in, say, all Russian history, the decade of freedom, of total freedom, which Russia have never experienced, actually. And it is important for us to speak about it, and it is important for us to call our project the museum of ’90s because there is no chance that an actual—an offline museum of ’90s could appear in contemporary Russia.

And speaking of generations, you know, I think that we all had a wonderful chance, and I am really—I appreciate it very much because this decade of freedom gave us a whole bunch of opportunities. It’s very difficult to compare the situation with nowadays because I don’t know anything about the future, you know. And the opportunity of freedom is great, and I can’t—I don’t know what are we waiting for and what is waiting for us. But, you know, I think that—well, I am repeating myself a little, but being a guinea pig is—has its advantages, and we are part of an interesting experiment. And we can observe it, we can describe it, we have a lot of reflections, so these are good news.

MARTEN: Good. Thank you.

So let me move on to Ilya. Ilya, you are in the process of publishing materials by opposition figures in Russia. Can you tell us about some of the challenges that you face and what you sense is about going forward about those challenges?

DANISHEVSKY: Officially, the Russian culture is reduced to three concepts: nostalgia, fear, and—(inaudible). We say that the entire cultural opinion and those who serve culture are mortally ill with self-censorship. We’re not talking about state pressure that is being brought upon books. Unfortunately, Russia cease to be literature written, and is off the radar. The history of books is a thing of the past, and many are being suppressed. We are dealing with numerous cases of self-censorship, when sales—when the stores say we are afraid of selling your books. We have seen something like this happening to Russian cinematography, when movie theaters show—are afraid to show Zvyagintsev films, “Leviathan,” for example.

In other words, objects of culture must be curtailed and sharp angles must be put out. Everything must be polished and must shine because Russia wants to have a beautiful past, beautiful present, and a beautiful future. That’s the idea. So that’s the party policy: no voice should be allowed to express its opinion; everything finds its expression in propaganda. I think there are many who support sincerely what propaganda says. In other words, it’s called self-censorship.

MARTEN: Can you just give us a few words about your Anhedonia (ph) Project, where you are studying the institutionalization of violence in Russia?

DANISHEVSKY: That’s a very important story, or rather a fantasy which I like to retell. Once I imagine what would happen to an artist who had appeared at a performance of Abramovic (ph), what would happen if an artist came dressed in their pajamas to protest against the war in Ukraine. I imagine what the state would have done with him—not even the police, but the society that could be observing this performance. The society that supports the party line would simply kill this artist because he is trying to defend the truth of the word. So they will start looking for those guilty.

Recently in (Manas ?) there was an exhibit of censorship that insulted the activists. So this exhibition was held in (Manas ?) and the main exhibition the whole of the Russian Federation. What are the consequences? No consequences. It just happened.

I call it institutionalization of violence in contemporary Russia. Probably say part of the human life, but there are no mechanisms to say people in a situation of domestic violence. There’s no exit from this situation. People must clench their teeth and wait for the glorious future. There’s no LGBT problem in Russia; it’s all happening in Europe, in America. There’s nothing like that in Russia, so there’s no problem. There are no drug addicts in Russia. Nobody has cancer in Russia. Russia is a certain country that is divided between its present and its past, and literature is the final determinant, collecting the past and reflecting the history that has no more life. This is reflected in contemporary literature as dead discourse that continues to self-duplicate, has no life, and probably that’s the reason why it is of no interest in the West.

MARTEN: Thank you so much.

At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. I think you have a rich number of questions and topics to raise. I would just remind everybody once again that this meeting is on the record. We are being livestreamed and recorded. There are also press and media representatives here. And I would also remind you to please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, if you are able, and then state your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak.

And, Andrew Nagorski, I saw your hand first.

Q: Thank you, Kim. Andrew Nagorski. I spent time in Russia in the ’80s, ’90s, and more recently, and it’s very good to hear from the 14 percent. But let me pick up on the 14 percent.

First of all, you never know in societies like this what the real—what you really represent, you know, in terms of society. I always remember Vaclav Havel in ’80s, when he was a dissident playwright, would say to foreign correspondents like myself, yeah, one vote—one word of truth in a totalitarian state or authoritarian state can mean more than 5 million votes in a democracy. And the implication of that—which would prove to be true in Czechoslovakia, of course, in Poland, and elsewhere—was that even your small circles have an effect on all sorts of people that you may not detect. So my question is, how do you—do you feel you are reaching out beyond sort of the artistic/intellectual circles in Moscow? And is there a connection, for instance, with the truckers and other groups who have very real grievances? And are—or is the divide still huge? And can you bridge those divides?

MARTEN: Great question. Does anybody here want to tackle that? (Laughter.)

ULITSKAYA: For me, this is quite a challenge to answer this question because I—my books are printed in large numbers and they are much higher than I thought I might enjoy when I started my writer’s career. And I had a feeling that I’m writing for the people of my milieu, my level of education, my worldview. And then I discovered that many people are reading me. I was very surprised, and it was a great joy for me. So it’s very, very difficult to estimate where what you’re writing is reaching. And I think we have a great group of readers, society of readers, even though we complain about the fact that readership is shrinking, and that’s a universal topic all over the world. But as an author, I don’t think I can complain because I have quite a large readership, quite a large audience. And I don’t think that truckers in their cars where they are freezing in their cabs are reading books by Ludmila Ulitskaya, but I will allow that in a certain time they might read my books or books of the people who are today not writing from the order of the government.

STEPANOVA: I have just a few words. I think that it is absolutely important not to underestimate the 14 percent because, speaking in terms of the Russian population, 14 percent is millions and millions of people. And those are the people we know something about. We know that some of them are reading the books of Ludmila Ulitskaya. And some one of them are watching not only the federal channels, but also the Dozhd, and they can make their comparisons and take decisions.

I always believe in the will and power of minorities, just because the minorities are the ones who are changing the face of the world. So maybe in terms of the future 14 percent means no less than 86 (percent).

MARTEN: So it’s very difficult for me to see out into the audience. I will try to call on a variety of people. I saw your hand next, sitting there. Yes?

Q: Maria Snegovaya, Vedomosti, Columbia University, and The American Interest. Dear colleagues, thank you very much for your very interesting presentation.

My question is about the importance of autonomous organization to support the civil society in Russia. And I can see that the event has been organized by PEN America, and you may have heard that PEN Russia in the end of last year had a big split among its members because PEN Russia refused to support quite justified discontent of some of the members regarding the violation of free expression in Russia. And instead of signing certain kind of petitions in support for media freedom and press freedom in Russia, PEN Russia—the leaders, the rulers of PEN Russia tried to silence those people. And that resulted in a lot of people being excluded of the organization or just leaving the organization. So I was wondering if you could just comment on that. And what have you—how do we—how do we force at least the international organizations to help us with the problem that we face in Russia? Thank you.

MARTEN: Does anybody want to address that question?

ULITSKAYA: I think that, again, I will have to take this one. The point is that, you see, each person—and I’m not talking about organization, I am talking about each person having a limit of what they’re capable of. And at that limit, before that limit, a person is free and fearless, and at a certain limit he or she starts to be a bit afraid. And fear is a very powerful feeling, and it’s ingrained in Russia deeply, and it hasn’t been totally aired out during those 20 years that have passed after the end of Soviet power.

The essence of the conflict was that one part of PEN Russia thought that PEN Russia is protecting human rights, but not a political organization. And I evidently thought that you could not draw that line, and that human rights activity is interjecting with a political activity. And I’m a big hater of conflict. I left PEN and I left the situation at the status quo.

I think that this conflict will perhaps end on itself with time, and I think that with time the composition of PEN will go from more conservative and perhaps older in age to younger, more modern people. And I don’t think that this conflict should be seen as something dramatic. This is life of any organizations, where from time to time changes of certain kind happen, and they are natural ones. I don’t think that we need to dramatize this.

MARTEN: Thank you, Ludmila.

Pat Cloherty.

Q: I can’t stand.

MARTEN: You can’t stand up? That’s OK. Can we bring Pat a microphone anyway?

Q: Pat Cloherty. I’m a venture capitalist who has spent a little bit of time in Russia.

Anyway, I was interested in a kind of contradiction across your presentations. And I have to refer to something in my past which definitely happened before anybody in the room was born, and that was when a congresswoman from Oregon—I was at the Library of Congress, and she said for me to try to answer the question, “Do state ways make folk ways, or do folk ways make state ways?” And each of you has—Anna, you spoke of some direct, if subtle intervention in your business, with dramatic consequences. And, Anna, you spoke of kind of a terminal fatalism of the Russian people. And then, Ilya, you spoke about self-censorship. So, on the one hand, you have individuals ensnaring themselves in repressed behavior, and on the other hand you have the state doing it, and then you have the vast drama of the—of the Russia psyche, which we all know from literature. And I would be interested in—I mean, is Russia trapped in its own historical problem? Or can—I mean, how do you work your way out of this kind of thing, from the individual and the state mutually feeding one another?

MARTEN: That’s a great question, Who would like to address it? Maybe somebody who hasn’t responded to a question yet? No?

NEMZER: Well, a short notice. I think that—I’m absolutely sure that everything depends on our personal—on our personal characters. And some of them are historical optimists, some of—some of them—some of us are not. And I once said that I am a historical hypochondriac, so—(laughter)—and I’m always very much afraid of any generalization and of my own statistics, because I have a lot of it. And I just begin to make some great generalizations, and then I just like, no, I won’t do it. And, well, it’s not actually the answer to your question, but it’s kind of my idea that appeared in my mind while you were talking.

MARTEN: Does anybody else want to say anything?

STEPANOVA: Well, you know, your question belongs to the range of what I would call unanswerable questions because—eternal questions. It is something we have to face every day and try to answer it, and facing the—our inability to answer. But maybe there is but an answer by the way, and this way is knowledge—is that freedom of expression we’re already discussing and are discussing, because when you are making things, when you are bringing evidence, when you are bringing things to light, when you are making things visible, considering everyday news or your own private experiences in different fields, or our big common experience—the historical experience, the experience of living in hard times—this is—this is something to work with. And when you are starting to work with something, you have to know your material and you have to know your tools. That’s why it is so important to engage in educational programs, for instance, in modern Russia. That’s why it is so important to support the freedom of expression in modern Russia—everywhere, but in Russia maybe especially.

MARTEN: Can I follow up on that question, take the privilege of the moderator? We are a group that specializes in American foreign policy, and there are some American foreign policy experts who believe that we need to cooperate with Russia at the moment on so many different things—in Syria, in North Korea, in the Arctic—that we should not be so much focused on human rights in Russia. Do any of you have a sense of what you would like the United States to be doing in terms of supporting freedom of expression? Is there a role for the United States? Or should the United States, as a—as a country, just focus on power politics? Does anybody have a response to that? Anna?

NEMZER: You know, I think that our purposes are too different, because I sure have some issues with Putin and sure I would be very glad to have USA on my side, but—(laughs)—well, I’m afraid that’s not that level of discussion that we’re—every of us are interested in, so.

MARTEN: OK. Anybody else? Ilya?

DANISHEVSKY: I think that’s maybe the fourth or fifth time that we are speaking in front of an American audience, and each time we are using different words and we are finding ways to formulate issues that we deal daily.

Speaking about help, perhaps yes, we need help, but we need to also have a diagnosis that would be exact. And we’re now trying to diagnose and decide what’s going on currently.

ULITSKAYA: And also, two years ago I was in Ukraine, and it was the end of Maidan. It was a very—a time of very complicated relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, and we made a gesture of free will and also a wish to have a constructive conversation with our basically compatriots. And it was a very difficult conversation because Ukraine has freed itself from the power of the golden loaf. It’s a funny story, because when people have basically got to the residence of President Yanukovych, there was a golden loaf of bread. So it was a gold loaf of bread that somebody gave him, and that became a symbol of this cultural level of the person who ruled over a fairly significant, large country. His toy was a golden loaf of bread.

And of course, we needed to start a relationship and to restore a relationship. The conversations were very hard. But at the end, we came to the point that the only sphere where we writers, journalists, people who are related to culture, where we can work, this is exactly the cultural zone. And we have—came up with a program. We published a certain amount of books. The idea of those books was to explain to each other positions and vision of the situation, and this is all that we can do today. That’s not a lot, but do believe me that it takes a lot of work and it needs to be done.

And then we’re talking about the situation of relationship between Russia and the United States. I think the model should be the same. It is in our power, in our possibilities. We have culture. We can work with cultural materials. And we’re happy, we’re glad when we can bring, for example, in American literature. We can write forewords for American books and we can introduce each other culturally to each other. And today, personally, for me, I don’t see any other opportunities. But I never miss this opportunity to do this.

MARTEN: Thank you. Now you do want to speak? No? OK. Thank you, Ludmila.

Yes. There’s the microphone.

Q: Yes. I’m Jim Zirin.

And I wondered if any of you would care to comment on the status of historically discriminated-against minorities in Russia—women, Jews, gays, others. And how free do you feel to—how free do you feel to treat these subjects in literature, either in fiction or in nonfiction, and how freely distributed your views might be?

MARTEN: Good. That goes back to the minorities question that was talked about earlier. Ilya?

DANISHEVSKY: As I have said, in the official Russian culture those topics are not discussed, and the topic of minorities on the Russian agenda is not there. And LGBT is practically criminalized in modern Russia. In terms of women, I think there are a lot of controversy. I think Masha might be talking about Russian feminism, and perhaps that would be more productive.

STEPANOVA: Well, what makes the—what makes the problem so complicated is it is not as simple as there is state that oppresses the minorities, that pushes the LGBT or other types of minorities out from the—out of the visible field. It is—it’s somehow a response with a view of majority, who is getting more and more conservative, more and more conditionalized. And while I can—there is an example.

In my editor’s practice, we had call to write a lot about what is happening in modern Russia. We deal with different types of problems in Russia and abroad. We are—we are writing about migrants. We are writing about LGBT. And last, not the least, we are writing about home violence. It is a very important subject in Russia. And there are figures, and the figures are frightening. And we were writing about it, and more or less some articles were wide read. But when we decided to publish a kind of a manual telling the women what to do in some concrete cases—if you are getting beaten by your husband and it is not happening in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where you have a small but working amount of shelters, where you can get some help from the psychologist. What can you do if you are getting beaten in Izhevsk, for instance? I was sure, and while speaking about it in—while frank terms of reading audiences, which is also important because your audience is your figures, is your life—I was sure that this kind of article is so important, it is so necessary, that it will be maybe the most-read piece for weeks and weeks. And its audience was like 3,000 of readers, comparing it with the usual amount of—or usual column gets 20,000. Your big report gets 100,000. So no one wants to be involved. No one wants to notice what is happening. No one wants to—everyone wants to ignore the simple fact that their future is already there—and, yes, it’s a dark kind of future.

So we are trying our best to face what is happening and to inform the reading public on it, but sometimes the public, it’s—the choice—staying deaf and blind is the public’s choice.

MARTEN: Thank you.

I think I saw Bill Luers’ hand.

Q: Yes. I’m Bill Luers, and I was living in Moscow in the ’60s, and I knew a lot of the—of your ancestors that you’ve written about, Ludmila. (Laughter.)

And I—they knew what the limits were. The police kept them followed all the time, and the samizdat was the way to communicate. But they knew what they were pushing up against, and they were clearly defined objects. What are the limits on you? Do the—do the police harass you? Do the censors call you up? Do you know what your limits are? Do any of you go to (consiglieres ?)? Try to compare—maybe, Ludmila, you are the one to do this—compare what—how your situation today differs from the—from the ’60s in terms of your dissidents?

MARTEN: Does anybody want to address that question?

ULITSKAYA: You know, among my friends and even close friends I count Natasha Gorbanevskaya, who came out in 1968 on the Red Square, then Soviet troops came into Czechoslovakia. I was friends with Yuli Daniel, who was one of the first ones to publish his works out in the West. And even though I was a junior member of ’60s generation and I primarily was washing dishes in the kitchen and was listening in to the real people talking about important topics, but nonetheless this was my world, and I have known a large number of the people from that circle, from that milieu. And Natasha, my friend, I wrote a book about her after her death. She was a kamikaze. She was a person who, during Soviet times, was carrying on such dissident work, was a person who knew exactly that he is going to go to prison, he or she, that they would have to face large, significant challenges. Now then we express our disapprovement of what’s happening out on the street, what’s happening—what’s going on with a government policy, we do not think that we are going to be arrested and sent to a camp. It’s not something that we would like, of course, but we are still living in relatively non-dangerous times. But we know that from time to time writers and journalists and film directors, they are arrested, and it’s a difficult world to interpret, but perhaps maligned. But they sometimes have to respond to a different crime, the crime that they didn’t commit. Sometimes drugs are put in during searches, some sort of a(n) unfair situation is created.

The other part is that killings did happen. There are killings of people such as Nemtsov, a very charismatic, a very bright person who perhaps could have, on the next circle of our history, could have been a candidate for presidency because he possessed very significant, very bright qualities. So Russia is still the same, but the concentration—the concentration of violence towards people who think differently are not as high. And I am grateful to Mr. Putin that I am talking in front of you here and I will return back to Moscow, I most likely would not be arrested on the border. Had I been thinking about such an outcome, I would have thought whether to go or not to go here. So Russia is Russia, and many parameters of Russian life do continue. But it’s not Stalin’s times. We do not have mass repression. There are focused, separate repressions.

And I think that PEN, organization that exists for that purpose, and in Russia they exist to protect writers, to protect artists, to protect people who might be targeted by the government, by the power. It doesn’t always happen that way. Now the movement, I think, is more shallow because it becomes—it gets scary. It’s more scary now than it was yesterday, and I can be here to attest to that.

MARTEN: Thank you, Ludmila.

And I’m afraid we’re at the witching hour of 2:00, so that’s all the questions that we can take. Please join me in thanking our fantastic panelists. They really got us thinking about new things in new ways. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


CFR experts discuss Iran’s attack on Israel and the escalation of the conflict. FROMAN: Well, thanks very much. Thanks, everybody, for joining. And thank you to our six senior fellows here who’ve …


The election date for the world’s largest democracy is set to begin April 19 and last six weeks. What would the results of a third term for Prime Minister Modi mean for India’s economy, democracy, and position in the Global South? 


The response to the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore—from a deadly tanker collision—demonstrates the resilience of U.S. supply chains despite fears of costly disruptions.