By Erica Quinones
New York Times Opinion Columnist David Brooks rightfully deemed the week beginning on Feb. 24 as the Week that Awoke the World. As global onlookers watched aghast, the Russian invasion of Ukraine upheaved the expectations of international policy. A war was begot on behalf of mindboggling claims of heritage. Nuclear deterrence was trumped by an outright attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. In an optimistic twist of fate, Ukraine remains standing despite a presumed swift defeat.
The reigniting of war in Europe has shaken the world to its core, leaving columnists, commentators, and commenters shocked. However, in the midst of ongoing chaos, an ever-constant flame of threat grew into a blaze: the silencing of Russian speech.
Within a week of the invasion, over 7,000 Russian citizens were detained for protesting the war in Ukraine; the two largest independent broadcasters in the country were shut down; access to Twitter, Facebook, BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other foreign news sources was cut-off; independent journalists are fleeing for their safety; and the Duma passed a law making the spread of “false information” regarding the war in Ukraine punishable with upwards of 15 years in prison.
As Editor-in-Chief of Echo of Moscow, one of the two broadcasters that went dark, Aleksei Venediktov said to The New York Times, “This isn’t a question of media, this is about freedom of speech in the public sphere…You can’t speak for or against something. That’s a crime.”
As the Russian state fights an international war, attempting to subjugate Ukraine and control the global narrative through flimsy justifications and dangerously salient threats, they are also fighting a domestic war against their own citizens.
Police officers shutting down Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square and detaining anti-war protestors only serves to sever dissenting voices. They seek to create the illusion of national unity and threaten opposition into silence at the threat of their wellbeing.
In a war founded on claims of historical rights, cutting Russians off from social media and foreign news sites denounces any non-state-sponsored perspective and prevents citizens from seeing the horrors inflicted on their domestic and international neighbors.
The state’s information monopoly is nearly complete through the liquidation of Echo of Moscow and the indefinite suspension of Dozhd. With their loss comes the destruction of major sources of independent journalism which have sought to hold the government accountable from both of their beginnings.
By destroying the ability to speak, the state chips away at the citizens’ abilities to “fight against the war,” to use the words of jailed opposition leader Alexia Navalny. It centers publicized discourse in the words, ideologies, and justifications of the state, making private the multitude of perspectives that truly define the public.
As The Washington Post’s editorial board insightfully wrote, “What it really means is that Mr. Putin’s regime has criminalized the truth, and does not want Russians to know it.”
The criminalization of dissent does not mean the end of it. Russians will hopefully continue to protest openly, and there exists an anti-war sentiment in the country, according to Venediktov in an interview with NYT. So, even if public dissent is criminalized, private dissent will hopefully thrive with the help of information dissemination tactics, like the BBC’s broadcasting of shortwave radio dispatches into Ukraine.
These tactics will be one part of undermining the state’s ongoing war against its own citizens; after all, there is nothing the state fears more than speech.
Perhaps this authoritarian fear is, as Jane Coaston wrote for NYT, a lack of confidence in their own rhetoric; knowing that if their speech is responded to, challenged, or mocked, it will crumble. But no matter its origin or justification, it only further reveals the role that dissent, knowledge, and discourse have in undermining oppressive regimes and unjust wars.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Featured Photo Caption: Russians are unable to access unbiased information about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.