Some Russian writers and independent journalists assert that incumbent Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin is doing an excellent imitation of long-dead Soviet party boss Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the country’s steady decline during a period known as the Stagnation Era.
“The atmosphere in society does remind me more and more of what we lived through in the ’70s and ’80s, where the focus of our lives was our conversations in the kitchen, where we talked about what was happening in the world, listened to different foreign radio stations, read the books that our reporter friends might have brought us,” acclaimed Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya said during a January 27 appearance in New York City. “Maybe the saddest part of [Putin’s Russia] is that that atmosphere comes back.”
The event, sponsored by the PEN America group, examined political realities in Russia and the creation of state-centric narratives. “The most frustrating thing for me is that, well, our Soviet experience actually doesn’t help us,” another speaker at the event, Anna Nemzer, an editor at Russia’s TV Dozhd, said. While some say “we are working not for today, and not for tomorrow, but for the day after tomorrow – all that I know tells me that it doesn’t work, and I hate it, actually. I hate it.”
One aspect of contemporary life that is distinctive from the Soviet era, according to mediator and writer Masha Gessen, concerns taboo topics for public discourse. Whereas the Soviet era tended to be reticent about what would get someone in trouble, the current Russian government’s red lines – including public discussion of suicide, drug usage, and material potentially “harmful to children” – are very clearly stated. Nonetheless, given the ad-hoc enforcement of their own rules – allowing publication of occasional reports on Russian soldier deaths, for instance, but banning books like Art Spiegelman’s anti-fascist Maus – “we can’t glean much from that list [of banned topics],” Gessen said.
The January 27 discussion dwelled at length on the role of censorship, both self-censorship and the state-enforced varieties. Maria Stepanova, an editor with Colta.ru, noted the rapid return of the “internal editor.” And Ilya Danishevsky, chief editor at the Vremena publishing house, which works with authors challenging official narratives, detailed the role the Internet has played in allowing broader society to marginalize those who dissent from official narratives.
“The Russian space … distills itself, for me, into two things: fear and solipsism,” Danishevsky said. “If we’re using the Internet, that means that one part of the society suppresses another. They made this part of society marginalized and pushed them into the total silence zone. And this is the zone I feel myself in when I wake up in the morning.”
The event was timed to coincide with the publication of a PEN America report on freedom of expression in modern Russia. As the report states: “Freedom of expression has been one of the worst casualties of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 15-year assault on democratic institutions and values.”
The panelists echoed the report’s findings – especially as it pertained to the feeling that independent media, independent publishers, and independent voices in Russia were endangered species. “We’re like the last animals of the Ice Age,” Stepanova said.