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Putin, Ventriloquism and Free Speech

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The Russian government has gotten back into the story business. This is bad news for people who like to tell stories of their own, but good news for people who like to tell the same old stories.

It would be easy to look at the series of repressive measures adopted by the Russian legislature -- restrictions on Internet and television content, laws against blasphemy, redefining non-governmental organizations as "foreign agents", banning so-called "gay propaganda" -- as a return to the bad old days of Stalinism. That's a simple story to tell, but it's neither accurate nor helpful.

Both American commentators and Russian homespun philosophers like to imagine Russia returning to an age-old pattern, or to assume Russia functions according to a special law of physics: an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and a Russian leader tends to lead to tyranny. Russia gets comfortably summed up in 140 characters or less for Twitter, when it actually needs the scope of ... a sprawling Russian novel.

Some background: Perestroika (1986-1991) was the high-water mark of public discourse. After decades of censorship (often skirted by samizdat), the Kremlin had completely lost control of the national narrative. During the 1990s (which has become one of the most hated decades in Russian history), Yeltsin's spin doctors were primarily concerned with keeping an increasingly frail drunk in power and keeping the Communists out. The total lack of media oversight did not lead to the vibrant public culture for which liberals longed, but rather to a free-for-all of lurid entertainment that kept chasing after a continually-sinking lowest common denominator.

Putin's first presidency put forward a new narrative: the president and his team had saved the country from impending collapse. The government took over the largest television outlets, but kept a respectful (or perhaps disdainful) distance from print, cyberspace, and the public square. This new narrative had two important advantages: it was credible (high oil prices had led to greater prosperity) and it was minimal (Russian sovereignty had to be asserted and protected--no more, no less). Putinism was a ubiquitous doctrine that was almost entirely free of any real content. Freedom of speech was guaranteed by the same mechanism that had facilitated it in the previous decade: universal indifference. The people in power cared little about what anyone said, because no one else cared, either.

It's a truism in storytelling that sequels are usually worse than the works that inspired them, and Putin II is no exception. Faced with a vibrant public protest movement for the first time this millennium, the authorities have managed to whittle away at free speech while also broadening an arguably democratic, even populist base. Never before has any Russian leader so cleverly exploited the long-simmering tensions between educated, urban elites and the wider public that loathes them. Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall summed up similar hostility in a throwaway line: "Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here." Change just a few words, and he could have been talking about Russia and its capitals.

The pro-Putin talk show hosts and commentators on state television quite casually demonstrate the new policy of ventriloquizing majority opinion as democratic rule. This is where the new restrictions on expression come together with the regime's attempt at creating a cohesive, all-encompassing narrative. Democracy is now defined not as a system that protects the rights of minorities, but instead ensures the power of the majority to make them submit.

The problem now with dissenting speech is less its content than the fact of dissent, and the fact of the assertion of a minority point of view. So now the government is moving towards the adoption of a single history textbook for the country's schools, while squeezing out the one remaining independent television news channel on the flimsy pretext that it lacks patriotism.

All of this is not about simply imposing the government's will on the population; it's about exploiting public fears and prejudices so that that the government and the people are seen to be speaking in one voice. Russia's leaders are simply telling their constituents a story that they are perfectly happy to hear.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and PEN American Center in conjunction with the Sochi 2014 Olympics. The series is part of our Impact Sports initiative, which examines the intersection of sports and social good. The posts in the series critique the Russian government's censorship laws. Read all posts in the series here. To find out more about PEN, click here.

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