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These are the tough questions facing Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. They are of course nothing compared to what Ukrainians face as their country is brutalized, their cities destroyed, their people raped and murdered. But these are still important questions for the future of both countries and the world in general.

These are questions of ethical, family and national obligations. These are matters of personal risk, strategy and tactics. These are questions about the best way to speak through silence.

Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian media that has longest resisted the new censorship regime, is a powerful, if too brief, example of how silence can be turned into discourse. He did so, strangely enough, apparently agreeing to be silenced.

On March 4, just eight days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Putin signed into law a law criminalizing the “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the military forces of the Russian Federation.”

Images and news of Russian brutality in Ukraine have been condemned as “feki” (false), a term borrowed from English that suggests not only deception but also the influence of what the Russian government likes to call “foreign agents”.

Already under extreme pressure from the authorities, and now threatened with 15 years in prison under the new law, most independent Russian media have either ceased operations or moved them abroad. Those that continued to operate had their websites blocked.

For about a month, however, Novaya Gazeta adopted a different strategy. He continued to report on the war using the official euphemism “special operation”, accompanied by comments in parentheses that “you know what we mean, but we have no right to say it. “.

Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Maria Ressa for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression”.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/ZUMA

Censorship and nonsense

Far away in Aotearoa, New Zealand, I watched this game of cat and mouse with the authorities as the paper tried to continue its work while strictly complying with new censorship laws.

Throughout March, Novaya Gazeta ridiculed official lies. The Russian government had insisted that there were no conscripts among the invasion force. One headline reported that Russian conscripts were withdrawn from Ukraine “where they had never been”.

Novaya Gazeta deployed an equally absurd use of blanks to silence any mention of the war:

When asked if he was ready to stop the ___, Putin replied “no”.

When journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupted a live news program on Russian channel One to display a sign protesting against war and official lies, Novaya Gazeta reported this brief perforation of official reality by showing an image of the sign. ‘Ovsyannikova with all the words blanked out except the line “Don’t believe the propaganda.”

Like the blank signs used by some Russian anti-war protesters, the erasure spoke loudly about Russian censorship and propaganda.

In its March 16 print issue, Novaya Gazeta went further in uncovering the sign:

NOPE ___

Below the cover image with this text was the title “The Zombification Was Shaken Live on Channel One”.

Again, the triple deletion of the word “war” arguably spoke even louder than Ovsyannikova’s original sign. Like the viewers’ minds zombified and brainwashed, he had been erased.

The volume of that silence was confirmed by the reaction to the cover image. After its release, Novaya Gazeta reported that newsagents refused to sell the issue and copies were returned to their offices.

As the month progressed, owning a copy of Novaya Gazeta became more dangerous. On March 27, a St. Petersburg news site reported that a protester had been arrested and that police had also become interested in an elderly woman in the vicinity who was in possession of a copy of Novaya Gazeta.

Appearing on a news site that usually toes the government line, the article was itself another muted disruption in the darkness of reality. It showed images and a video of artist Yevgeniya Isayeva, dressed all in white, standing on the steps of a building on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg and pouring red paint on herself while repeating the words “my heart bleed”.

Novaya Gazeta’s front page headline was also visible in the video:


The article reported that police abducted Isayeva within seven minutes. Police asked the elderly woman to put away her copy of Novaya Gazeta, but she was not detained.

On March 27, owning a copy of Novaya Gazeta was not yet illegal. But the next day, Novaya Gazeta received its second official warning and was forced to close. Despite his meticulous efforts, the dance with censorship – the newspaper’s attempt to speak through silence – had come to an end.

A flower laying ceremony in memory of Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov.

A flower laying ceremony was held on the 12th anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in 2009.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/ZUMA

Silence as discretion

Russian writers and artists living abroad who oppose the war also have a thwarted relationship to speech and silence.

Kuzmin – the Latvian poet whose words I started with – focused on helping Ukrainian refugees and translating and disseminating Ukrainian poetry. This includes the work of Serghiy Zhadan, the poet, novelist and musician from Kharkiv, who for years has been writing poetry in response to Russian aggression in Donbass. Kuzmin pleads for prioritizing Ukrainian voices over Russian voices in this time of war.

Other Russians living abroad reject this view, insisting that their work must continue regardless of the war and that the silence of Russian culture is useless.

“Should we shoot ourselves in the leg out of solidarity? What is the advantage of this? asks director Kirill Serebrennikov, who sees no contradiction between his opposition to the war and his high-profile directorial work.

Sunday June 12 marked the 30th annual celebration of Russia Day. That day, a protest sign was unveiled on the banks of the Moskva in front of the Defense Ministry building in Moscow. “Today is not my day,” he would say.

The statement is true for Russians who oppose the war both outside and inside the country. Many outside the country recognize that now is not the time for their voices to dominate. Those inside lack the strength and numbers to stop Putin’s bloody war mad train.

Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for his journalism, has found another way to emphasize that today is not the day for journalists, artists and writers Russians.

As he first announced in March, he is celebrating World Refugee Day, June 20, by auctioning off his Nobel medal and donating the proceeds to help Ukrainian refugees. Muratov’s act once again transforms self-sacrificing silence into protest speech.

In August 1991, hundreds of thousands of Russians protested against the coup attempt by Soviet extremists. By comparison, the only protesters now unfurling signs on Russian streets to be arrested and taken away may seem utterly insignificant. Like the small group that unfurled banners in Red Square in August 1968 to protest the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, today’s protesters are likely to have little or no effect this year or next. , maybe even this decade or the next.

But let’s hope that, like the Red Square protest more than five decades ago, today’s efforts to speak through silence will be heard, if not now, at least in years to come.

Jacob Edmund, English teacher, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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