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Freedom and Restriction of Speech in the Context of Counter-Terrorism in Russia

Dmitry Dubrovskiy, Executive Director, Ethnic Studies Program, European University; Chair, Department of Modern Ethnography, Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg; and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Kennan Institute

Date & Time

Jan. 22, 2008
10:00am – 11:00am ET


A number of legal restrictions on free speech have been enacted into law in Russia in recent years on the pretext of national security and combating extremism, reported Dmitry Dubrovskiy, executive director, Ethnic Studies Program, European University; chair, Department of Modern Ethnography, Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg; and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Kennan Institute. Speaking at a Kennan Institute lecture, he asserted that these new laws are being used to stifle political opposition and to censor mass media.

Russia has a long tradition of official censorship, Dubrovskiy observed. In the tsarist era, censorship was employed by the state to defend state security in the "public interest." Restriction on free expression continued and expanded during the Soviet era. It was only in the 1980s during perestroika that restrictions on free speech began to be eased. As the country transitioned into the 1990s, freedom of speech was greater than ever before. While this did result in a great deal of debate, the mass media was controlled by feuding business oligarchs. This period coincided with a rapidly declining economy, in which the vast majority of Russians struggled. Dubrovskiy observed that as a result of this economic collapse, most Russians believe that freedom of speech does not bring tangible benefits, and it is therefore less important than political and economic stability.

While the Russian constitution provides for the freedom of speech of Russian citizens, it does not guarantee it as strongly as the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. The Russian constitution prohibits "propaganda or campaigning" intended "to incite social, racial, national, or religious hatred and strife." Dubrovskiy explained how these prohibitions have been codified in the Russian criminal code, citing legislation purportedly intended to combat extremism, but which is used in practice to prosecute political opponents or undesirable speech:

• Article 282 prohibits the incitement of hatred or enmity "if these acts have been committed in public or with the use of mass media." Dubrovskiy cited the case of Stanislav Dmitrievsky, who was prosecuted for writing an article critical of Russia's handling of the Chechen war. Dmitrievsky was charged with extremism, in part, for not capitalizing the "p" in a critique of "Putin's regime," although in the Russian language a name is not usually capitalized when used as an adjective, Dubrovskiy noted. Experts in philology testified that this non-capitalization was intended as extremism.

• Article 280 prohibits "Public Appeals to the Performance of an Extremist Activity and Public Justification of Extremist Activity," including through mass media, Dubrovskiy stated. Under this article, the human rights organization Memorial received a prosecutor's notice for disseminating a paper written by a mullah about the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is categorized as a terrorist group by the Russian government. According to prosecutors, Memorial was guilty of "deliberate use of religious authority [the mullah] to achieve political goal," and that the paper was tantamount to justifying extremist activity.

• Federal Law No. 114-FZ defines extremist materials as documents or information intended to call for or justify extremist activity "aimed at the full or partial destruction of any ethnical, social, national, or religious groups." Dubrovskiy reported that political journalist Andrei Piontkovsky was charged under this law for two books he wrote. Expert testimony arranged by the prosecution claimed that his books were "forming a perverted and wrong understanding of the Russian people, religious groups, and its representatives, and is agitated hate on this basis."

• Article 319 prohibits "public insult of a representative of authority during the discharge by him of his official duties, or in connection with their discharge." An internet newspaper, Kursiv, was charged under this article for writing critically of new Russian pro-natalist policies and comparing Putin to a phallus.

• New amendments to a variety of Russian laws further prohibit distribution or mass reproduction of extremist materials intended for further dissemination. Also prohibited are "public and deliberate false accusations of the authority during the discharge by him of his official duties in criminal activities listed in the Law against extremism activity." The grassroots organization "Voice of Beslan," which was established to pressure the Russian government to investigate the conduct of authorities during the Beslan hostage crisis, was charged under these amendments for accusing the Russian government and investigating agencies for failing to investigate the attacks properly and lying in court.

Dubrovskiy stressed that these examples demonstrate the difficulty of objectively defining extremism and extremist activities. The Russian government has the power to make such determinations, he observed, and is using that power to define speech that it does not like as "extremist." He noted that the government is successfully finding experts willing to testify in support of their claims, thereby providing a basis for these cases and in effect helping the government to restrict the freedom of speech and academic inquiry. Finally, Dubrovskiy said that he expects these cases to intensify in scope and frequency during the current Russian presidential election season.


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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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