THE BLOG

Clampdown on Free Speech in Russia Might Be Temporary

18/03/2014 10:59 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 10:59 BST

It must have been very awkward for western media to report the clampdown on independent free-media outlets in Russia, as for many years they have been saying that there were none...

Nonetheless, what's happening now with LentaRu, TV Rain, Kasparov's blog, news portals Grani.ru and Ej.ru, is so extraordinarily unbelievable, that's why I refuse to do exactly that: believe that it can be for long.

A prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny is under house arrest with a ban on interviews and internet access, including the shutdown of his blog. Navalny tried to go around the ban by tweeting under the name of 'Navalny Offline' but the authorities did not appreciate his cheek. He is under the arrest for two months, enough time for passions around Crimea and Ukraine to calm down...

Apart from the media clampdown, the assault on free speech by the common public, is even more worrying, and must not be here to stay. Especially, when it is rumoured it could have professional consequences, like it was the case with Professor Zubov, whose alternative view of Putin's foreign policy almost cost him a job at the prestigious MGIMO University in Moscow.

A well-informed historian and an editor of two volumes of the "History of Russia, XX century", with about 150 scientific papers under his belt, Mr Zubov published an article "It has already happened" that appeared on the website of the "Vedomosti" newspaper on March 1. He compared the actions of the Russian authorities with the accession of Austria to the Third Reich in 1938 and warned of the dire consequences, in particular Russia's economic chaos and isolation from the rest of the civilized world.

"We all know that the final vital decisions within the Russian institutions are not made by the rectors... It's definitely the case for the leading and most prestigious Moscow universities such as MGIMO, RUDN or MGU. Academia is heavily influenced by the current affairs and the course of the leading party," says Arseny Kruglov, expert on education and academia in Russia for Carfax Education.

"I am sure that in the case of a regional university or if the person was not as famous as professor Zubov than we would not even know about his dismissal. In this case there was no way to hide this fact," says Mr Kruglov.

Vladimir Putin's spokesman said TV Rain had crossed a moral red line with the poll about Leningrad in the Second World War. It seems the same principle applied to Mr Zubov, although later withdrawn. The Nazi theme is a sensitive, if not forbidden, topic in the country that defeated the Nazis half a century ago. In any case, it is certainly not up to the State to comment on moral red lines and micromanage. It should allow its citizens to grow up and think for themselves. They don't need total control and Putin's worry about their morale. They can cope. Really. He has to let go.

"Government wants to send the message, but they cannot hold the grip for too long. Russia has moved on too far from what it used to be. It's used to freedom in the internet, and people do not have to hide in the kitchens to discuss things like they did in Soviet times," says Mr Kruglov.

Culturally Russia is a conservative country, and that's unlikely to change. There will be moral red lines, and there is nothing wrong with that if people choose to adhere to them. But Putin cannot be a moral judge. It would be foolish of him to give more food for songs like "Putin will teach you how you must love your Motherland," as a new song by Pussy Riot goes...

When the fuss about Crimea dies down, the grip on the freedom of speech must lessen, and the self-imposed iron curtain must go up. I might be in the minority but I am optimistic that it is going to happen.