Putin Crushes Internet Expression
Back in the days when Vladimir Putin was first launching his crackdown on Russian mainstream media, killing and arresting reporters and publishers and seizing or shutting down publications, the Russia apologists rationalized his actions by claiming that the Russian Internet was free and always would be, and would counter any state propaganda. It’s now clear that these statements were made simply ruse to induce the defenders of free speech to drop their guard and allow Putin to take over mainstream media unchallenged. It worked like a charm.
And now we can clearly see how utterly false these statements were as Putin systematically exterminates the Runet.
Last week Putin announced that he would ban any Internet business from operating within Russia unless it maintained all of its data inside Russia as well, where Putin can easily control it and have unfettered access to the personal information stored within it. He was already moving to directly regulate bloggers by making them register with the state as soon as they achieved a significant audience share, so Putin is attacking Internet content from both sides at the same time in a vicious pincer movement.
Technology expert Andrei Soldatov says that Putin doesn’t even have to implement the new legal measures, merely passing them into law will deliver a devastating chilling effect throughout the Runet: “The people working for these companies become frightened of what could happen and start being cautious, they start voluntarily cooperating with the authorities.”
Such collaboration with evil is a consistent theme throughout Russian history. During the time of Stalin, Russians could be relied upon to turn in their neighbors in hopes of winning the favor of the totalitarian regime for themselves, and not once during his decades in power did Stalin ever face a significant public backlash even as he murdered millions in his gulags.
Indeed, Putin’s Goebbels, Dmitri Kiselev of state TV, openly (and proudly) admits that Putin is the new Stalin. Putin has certainly adopted Stalin’s messianic outlook, recently declaring that he feels he has the right to intervene anywhere in the world on behalf of “those people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community. They may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.” And he is even pushing forward a host of regulations to restrict artistic speech, exactly the same as Stalin embraced.
Conventional journalism capitulated to Putin long ago. But the Internet was supposed to be impervious to such attacks. That’s what we were consistently told as Putin placed broadcast television and newspapers in a neo-Soviet chokehold. In fact, it was all nonsense. Putin has easily moved to crush Internet expression and has seen little if any opposition. The main defender of Internet freedom, Alexei Navalny, has been prosecuted and is currently languishing under house arrest, banned from expressing himself the Internet in any way.
When Putin crushes freedom of expression, he dramatically restricts the flow of information. When he does that, he blinds his country to the basic facts about the real world, just as his Soviet ancestors did. This means they can’t react appropriately to facts on the ground, can’t innovate and can’t compete. He forces his nation to languish in backwardness and failure simply to maintain his own personal power.
You’d think this would upset the people of Russia. After all, their economy has descended into recession, their wages are pitifully small compared to those of Europe or the U.S., and even their life expectancy lags far behind the developed nations.
But it doesn’t. Because Russians are not like Westerners, they are not prepared to believe that they deserve anything better. Instead, they choose to believe that the only recompense they can expect from life is to make people in other countries just as miserable as they are by forcing them to live under Russian rule as well.
This is why Russians have taken such open delight in the prospect of their tanks rolling through their neighbors in Ukraine, and whey they were so overjoyed to see their tanks rolling into Georgia in 2008. Unlike advanced societies, Russia is remarkably homogeneous, such that there is little diversity of opinion (one important reason why Russia is so lacking in innovation and progress). Therefore, we see virtually no dissent.
Two disturbing recent surveys from Russia’s most respected pollster, Levada, showed that only a third of Russians (Russian-language link) get news and political information through the Internet, while an equally large group never uses the Internet at all. Half the country believes that state-operated TV is the most reliable source of news, and that same portion, a clear majority of the nation, supports Internet censorship -- in a land only three decades removed from Soviet totalitarianism and collapse!
In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan boldly declared on behalf of his fellow Americans:
We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
What the world needs now is an American leader who can issue a clarion call to the neo-Soviet dictator in Moscow in regard to the virtual wall he has thrown up that separates his fellow citizens from the Internet. Barack Obama ought to be that man, he’s certainly the most wired president in history and has a Twitter feed with millions of followers.
But Obama won’t be that man. He’ll be the man to pursue Jimmy Carter’s policy of appeasement and craven cowardice, the man to encourage Putin to be even bolder rather than to pull back. All that Russia and the world can hope for is that Obama will be replaced by an actual American president rather than just a pretender.
History hangs in the balance.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.