The Blog

First They Came for the Cheeses and No-One Spoke Out - Russia's Banning Mania

On top of existing prohibitions on "undesirable organisations", on numerous public demonstrations, on gay pride rallies and on materials said to "promote" homosexuality, Russia's recent restrictions are faintly ludicrous and distinctly sinister.

A pair of British historians' books, Italian Parmesan, the news website Reddit - is there no limit to the things Russia wants to ban?

On top of existing prohibitions on "undesirable organisations", on numerous public demonstrations, on gay pride rallies and on materials said to "promote" homosexuality, Russia's recent restrictions are faintly ludicrous and distinctly sinister.

Access to Reddit has been restricted in Russia on the grounds that the site hosts pages where drug cultivation (magic mushrooms, marijuana) is discussed. OK, so governments around the world commonly launch "crackdowns" or "wars" on drugs (often with disastrous results: think USA, think Iran), but... well, it isn't this actually rather ridiculous? Can't people search other parts of the internet for their marijuana info? How is restricting Reddit going to deal with the issue? Meanwhile, the county's information regulator Roskomnadzor has also been issuing threats to Google, Facebook and Twitter over data retention. Is this really a crackdown on internet companies...?

On the issue of parmigiano - and numerous other "hard European cheeses" - this was of course put on an import sanctions list as part of Russia's retaliation over EU sanctions against Russia due to its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. The ban's been extended for another year. In a recent piece of political theatre, the authorities in the town of Belgorod stage-managed the bulldozing of piles of cheese in front of the TV cameras. An act of "fromagicide" that's er, ripe for satire. "The Russian government launched a brutal crackdown on cheese Thursday ...", began one Wall Street Journal story. To borrow a line from a colleague in my office, all that was apparently left after this little stunt was a huge pile of ... de-Brie. Ahem. No, the cow is definitely not laughing now (not that it ever was), and various groups in Russia have criticised this wanton destruction of food, saying it should at least have been given to some of the 16million poor people in the country.

And then there's the two British historians - Antony Beevor and John Keegan - who've attracted the attention of the Russian authorities. In the city of Yekaterinburg an official dictact has gone out instructing all schools and colleges to scour their library shelves for books by the pair and "prevent access" to them. The reasoning - if you can call it that - is that their work supposedly distorts the history of the Second World War and is "imbued with the propagandistic stereotypes of Nazism".

Beevor's in no doubt that the real problem is that he's written about the Soviet army's mass rapes of German and other women. In his introduction to the harrowing anonymous diary recounting one woman's experiences in Berlin after the Soviets entered the city in April 1945 (A Woman In Berlin), Beevor reminds us that that the estimated number of women raped by marauding Soviet soldiers in Germany in 1945 was a staggering two million. And this doesn't even include Polish women or even Soviet women who'd been transported to the Reich as slave labour. In Berlin alone the number of women raped by drink-sodden Soviet soldiers is thought to be 95,000-130,000. Fear of the night-time "hunting parties" wracked the entire city, and desperate female Berliners rubbed dirt into their faces to make themselves less attractive (not that this helped), with many resorting to becoming concubines of individual soldier-rapists who they believed could protect them from the massed gang-rape raiders. Many others committed suicide to avoid rape, or indeed did so afterwards. There were massive numbers of abortions.

This dark underside - one of many - to the Great Patriotic War is however becoming near-taboo in modern Russia. The Soviet army, which had indeed endured terrible losses in its epic defeat of the once-mighty Wehrmacht across hundreds of miles of Eastern Europe, also raped and looted as it went. But - appears to be the thinking of officials in Yekaterinburg - it's better to ban books than allow people to learn of such sacrilegious realities.

As Amnesty Ukraine's Bogdan Ovcharuk points out, banning "extremist" books is the start of a slippery slope. Russia and Ukraine have each been indulging in tit-for-tat book and film bans (new fan of Vladimir Putin Gérard Depardieu is included on Ukraine's blacklist, which rules out any revivals of The Last Metro or Jean De Florette in the arthouse cinemas of Kiev for the time being ....). Ukraine risks a descent into illiberalism with its book bans. Russia seems already to be well on its way.

With its mania for banning things, Russia has begun to look petty and ridiculous - but also sinister and vindictive. The other day it was... 50 Ukrainian ducklings that were intercepted, "euthenized and then burned". The cheese-flattening antics have tended to get a laugh (smile and say formaggio) but it's actually all rather unfunny. After all, what's amusing about watching Russia slip further and further into a new era of authoritarianism?