Tag Archives: censorship


‘Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?’ sang my fellow Ottawan Alanis Morissette. Of course, the really ironic thing was that Morissette didn’t understand the meaning of ironic. Nevertheless, her words often come to mind when thinking of developments in the United States, especially when they involve Russia. For when it comes to matters Russo-American, the cup of irony truly runneth over.

Take, for instance, the purge of conservatives from social media following the riot in Washington a couple of weeks ago in which a mob of supporters of now ex-president Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building. As anybody who has been even remotely following American politics for the past four years will know, Trump and his supporters have been repeatedly accused of being puppets of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Expelling them from social media is thus portrayed as in part a liberation of the United States from years of Russia disinformation and behind-the-scenes manipulation.

But where have these purged conservatives gone?

One answer is that they have fled from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and all the rest of them, to the messaging app Telegram. Indeed Telegram has been making hay, portraying itself as the home of free speech, and inviting people to defect to it en masse. Adverts have been popping up on my computer screen, showing a deleted Twitter symbol alongside the words ‘Leave Censorship’, followed by Telgram’s symbol and the words ‘Choose Freedom’, and then the hashtag ‘#LeaveTwitterJoinTelegram’.

But what is Telegram? It’s a Russian app, that’s what. And it’s doing really well from the media purge in America. This week the number of Telegram subscribers passed 500 million, with tens of millions having joined in just a couple of weeks.

From a Russian point of view, the irony is sweet: suddenly, America is the home of censorship, and Russia the home of free speech. More broadly, the irony lies in the fact that the assault on Russian disinformation has driven tens of millions of people into the hands of the Russians. You kinda gotta laugh.

And it’s not just Telegram. Also involved in this story is a conservative rival to Twitter which goes by the name of Parler (I’ve heard people pronounce this as ‘parlour’, but Americans don’t speak French any more than they do irony, so I guess we have to forgive them). Founded in 2018, Parler attracted conservatives who felt that Twitter was censoring them, and to that end it advertised itself as a bastion of free speech.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Parler had somewhere around 2 million users, making it something of a minnow on the social media scene. Nevertheless, it was deemed sufficiently objectionable for the rest of the internet community to gang up to shut it down, first throwing it off the various app stores from which people downloaded it, and then denying it access to any computer servers.

So what has Parler done about it? According to today’s news, it’s moved to Russia, finding a new home on the servers of the Russian tech company DDoS-Guard. It expects to be back online and operating again by the end of January.

Heh, heh, heh. Just a few weeks ago, left-wing conspiracy theorists were claiming that Parler was a Russian asset. Well, guess what? It wasn’t, but then you shut it down, and now it is! How’s that for irony?

Now, I want to be clear about one thing. I’m not a fan of the sort of right-wing nutjobbery which got Trump and so many of his supporters thrown off social media. I don’t follow those kind of people, have never used Parler, and don’t intend to. Sadly, the internet is in part a beautiful source of wonderfully useful information and in part a cesspool of rotten filth. I can see why people want to do something about the latter.

But part of what makes the cesspool is the fact that the internet encourages people to self-isolate among those who share their own out-of-the-way beliefs. At least if they are all together on the same platforms, there’s a chance that they might be subjected to some alternative points of view now and again. But that changes once you boot them out. At that point, you don’t actually shut them up. As we’ve seen above, they just find somewhere else to go. But now they’re by themselves even more than they were before. How that is meant to help make things better, I really don’t know. I fear that it will just add to embittered sense of persecution that lies behind so many of America’s current political problems.

Meanwhile, as American social media rips itself apart, Russian internet providers are raking in the profits. It’s ironic, don’t you think?

Land of the absurd

‘Ukraine bans its Eurovision entrant’. It’s the kind of line an absurdist novelist might come up with. But it’s actually the title of a story in today’s BBC News, and it’s an indication of how truth is sometimes more absurd than fiction. On Saturday, Ukrainian singer Maruv won the competition to represent her country at this year’s Eurovision song contest, but she was almost immediately stripped of her victory.  Maruv often sings in Russia, and was told that she would not be allowed to continuing do so. Even when she agreed to cancel her next tour there, discussions of her Eurovision contract collapsed due to other terms which Maruv considered amounted to ‘censorship’. She complained that, ‘I am not ready to address [people] with slogans, turning my participation into the promotion of our politicians. I am a musician, rather than a bat at the political stage.’ According to the BBC,

In a statement, the state-funded UA:PBC said: ‘The performer representing Ukraine … also has commmitments of becoming a cultural ambassador of Ukraine and delivering not only their music but also expressing the opinion of the Ukrainian society in the world.’ … The TV station was backed by politicians, with the Ukrainian Culture Ministry saying that ‘only patriots who are aware of their responsibility’ should be allowed to sing at Eurovision.

I had thought that Eurovision was a singing competition, but I stand corrected. During the TV show to choose Ukraine’s song at this year’s contest, singers were quizzed by the host on their political views concerning Russia. As a report by AP notes,

Maruv was grilled about her Russian shows during the national finals in Kiev over the weekend. Similarly, another entry, a duo of twins from Crimea, were put on the spot by the host and asked whether they consider Crimea to be part of Ukraine. ‘Depending on your answer, you can either bury your own career or that of your mother,’ the host said, referring to the women’s mother who is a judge in the Russian-controlled Crimea.

What a nauseating statement by the host. But all credit to the twins. As AP records, ‘One of the sisters was brought to tears and said she would always stand by her parents if she were forced to choose between them and her career.’ Don’t expect her to get the contract to replace Maruv.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has transferred its culture wars and censorship proclivities over here to Canada. The cinema chain Cineplex is planning to show the Russian blockbuster T-34 which, as the title suggests, is all about the Second World War and, if the trailer is anything to go by, shows a lot of heroic action as Soviet warriors smash up Nazis with their T-34 tank. It seems like a fairly boiler-plate war movie. But the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) is having none of it. According to the UCC website:

The T-34 tank was the weapon used by Soviet Communism to keep captive the peoples of Eastern Europe for four decades. Together with its Nazi German ally, at the beginning of WWII, the Soviet regime invaded and subjugated eastern Poland, the Baltic States and several other independent east European states. As Soviet forces rolled east on T-34 tanks in the second half of World War II, they systematically committed myriad war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass rape, extrajudicial murder and ethnic cleansing. … That the current Russian regime, which funded this film, seeks to pay homage to this murderous history, speaks only to its own embrace of imperialism, aggression, and belligerence.

A letter sent to Cineplex by the UCC elucidates further:

The film uses a narrative of World War II heroism to inspire a crusade of ‘true’ Russians against ‘fascist’ enemies. This is representative of the pro-Russian disinformation we see around the world … We call on Cineplex to review the film in question and to listen seriously to the concerns expressed about the film and its producers. Please do not allow your company to be used as a means to amplify Russian propaganda and reconsider the decision to screen T-34 at your theatres.

There are some common threads running through these stories. In the first place, what should be entirely cultural activities, or simply pure entertainment, has been politicised, and in a rather unpleasant way. Second, the reaction to unwanted messages is to resort to censorship. And third, this kind of stuff makes the would-be censors look like fools and tends to backfire. The Eurovision publicity will no doubt help sell lots of tickets for Maruv’s next Russian tour; and an attempt to block the showing of T-34 in San Francisco actually led to it being shown in a bigger cinema and even more people seeing it than would have done otherwise. T-34 doesn’t sound like my kind of movie. I hadn’t planned to go to it. But now I will. I’m guessing that the Nazis lose.



Stalin, Paddington, and the Press

What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.

Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.

The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.

The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.

This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.

This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.

Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.