The Kremlin. Photo via Flickr user Panoramas
Every month seems to bring a fresh set of bans in Mother Russia. A couple of weeks ago, the government tightened its grip on the internet, introducing a new list of 136 banned porn websites, referring to some obscure agreements that were signed at the turn of the century in Paris and Geneva respectively.
Ever since a bill on internet restrictions that aimed to "protect children from information that could cause harm to their health and development" was signed by Putin in July 2012—basically meaning websites could be "blacklisted" without the need of a court order—Roskomnadzor, Russia's internet watchdog, has been shutting down websites that, in its humble opinion, are unpleasant or inappropriate.
In early April, Roskomnadzor got angry about memes mocking the country's political leaders, and published a statement on their VKontakte (the Russian Facebook) page which reminded everyone that making fun of people is bad (especially if they are rich and powerful), saying: "These ways of using [celebrities' images] violate the laws governing personal data and harm the honor, dignity, and business of public figures."
More recently, the Russian authorities lost their shit after a twerking video went viral on the Russian net. Not only did officials call the dance "vulgar" and "offensive," they immediately shut down the dance school responsible for the outrage and put it under investigation for "perverted deeds." Days after this, three young women received jail sentences for twerking in front of a WWII memorial in the Russian city of Novorossyisk.
The list of new things banned in Russia over the last year goes on, but we'd only bore you if we continued to reel them off. Instead, we reached out to some young people living in Russian to hear their thoughts on the current state of civil and cyber liberties in their country. And whether or not they'll be twerking any time soon.
Sofia, 21, a Fine Art student living in Saint Petersburg
VICE: Hi Sofia, how long have you been in Russia for?
Sofia: I lived in America until I was 14 and have lived here for seven years now.
What do you think of the latest bans over the internet?
Some of these bans are abusive but the West can also be very biased and hypocritical about Russia. I was annoyed to see the anti-Russia article about pornography published by the Guardian, when the UK had its own pornography scandal last December.
I'm against porn bans of any kind, as this is an intimate and private part of our personal lives that shouldn't be regulated, but it should also be taken into account that this decision was ruled in Tatarstan, a mostly Islamic part of Russia.
Did you know about twerking?
Do you twerk?
What did you make of the whole twerking scandal?
I partially agree with the way the government reacted, although I disagree with the authorities blaming the scandal on Western culture. I think many people forget that most of the girls in the video were only 15 or 17… That's why it was such a scandal—twerking is also extremely erotic. Personally I find the thought of parents enjoying their 15-year-old girls shaking their bums around on stage in tiny undies disturbing, so I don't think that making the dance 18+ only in is such a bad idea.
What do you think of the whole political discourse about "Western propaganda?"
I completely disagree with Putin. The West does not hold corrupted moral values. This is an example of typical Russian narrow-mindedness and xenophobia—the things that irritates me most about Russia. Again, I believe this is leftover from Soviet times.
Genya, 27, a Software Programmer Living in Saint Petersburg
VICE: Hi Genya. Have you always lived in Russia?
Genya: I lived in Switzerland for six months when I was 15 and I've been traveling a lot, often to France, Austria, and Italy, but have spent most of my time in Saint Petersburg.
How would you describe the access to information in your country?
I follow Western and Russian news from time to time through the internet and I can say that propaganda is everywhere. Many articles—Western and Russian, but especially American—put a false color on reality to achieve their goals. Journalists sometimes don't have enough information about Russia, but they still write about it and analyze events. In the Russian media there are also critics of the Russian government. So I don't feel, yet, that anyone in particular is limiting my access to information.
How do you feel about internal regulations in Russia at the moment?
I disagree with the course followed by Putin. Russia doesn't have a real independent justice system and it's the number-one problem. We can't win over corruption without an independent justice system. We also have an oligarchic system inherited from the 1990s. And there's no real opposition—apart from some clowns who stand for parties that are not even being considered.
Did you know about twerking?
It's the first time I've heard of this dance. Raunchy flashiness…
Would you like to stay in Russia in the future?
I like my city and I feel comfortable here. But I also feel comfortable in European countries and I think I'd like to get more work and life experiences there.
Related: Young and Gay in Putin's Russia
Jamie Brown, 23, a British Translator living in St. Petersburg
VICE: How long have you been in Russia, Jamie?
Jamie: I studied Russian at UCL in London and am originally from Manchester. I've been here for nine months in total.
Are you worried about these new bans?
Of course! I think that the aim of these successive and increasingly bizarre decrees isn't to restrict people from doing specific things, but to inspire fear and paranoia that comes from feeling like certain forms of self-expression are not tolerated. You can express yourself, but you must be discreet about it. Each successive government move makes more and more people drawn into the game. Slowly but surely, "that doesn't affect me" is turning into "when will this really affect me?"
Do you twerk?
I don't, but the Russians aren't bad at it—I think the government is aware of this, otherwise they might have been able to brush it off more easily.
As a "Westerner" living in Russia, do you identify such a thing as "Western propaganda"?
If there's such a thing as "Western propaganda," then it has a lot more to do with representations of Russia in the West than the infection of Russia with the West's values. The coverage of Russia in the UK is almost always hyperbolic, and often hypocritical. But yeah, I think Putin does evoke a 150-year-old theme in the hope that it will provide him with a sort of moral immunity. Anything can be put down to "Western propaganda," whether it's the rumors of the little green men or the "Western project" of sexual liberation.
Do you see yourself living in Russia for a while still?
I plan to stay here for a considerable amount of time. I moved here because of work. It's a pretty beautiful country and an exciting place to be; fashion is alive, music is alive—these things are recognizable to anybody. But you can also find many of those uniquely Russian characteristics—the culture is very different, and this is sometimes misunderstood. Even after I leave here, I can't ever imagine stopping to visit—as long as I'm allowed to.
Daniil, 26, a Computer Engineer Living in Saint Petersburg
VICE: Where are you originally from, Daniil?
Daniil: I was born and bred in Russia. I'm a Saint Petersburg guy, but I spent some time in Kazan in my childhood. Then I came back to St Pete's.
What do you think of the fact that some websites are getting "blacklisted?" Is it abusive?
It feels like the Russian government often tries to handle things that really don't matter, like blacklisting some "non-grata" websites. The more accurate word is "stupid," rather than "abusive." But sometimes I'm afraid that the government might take some braver steps, and shut down things that actually matter—like YouTube, Google, and so on.
Are you mad that Russia is basically trying to eradicate twerking?
I don't think the government will actually put a veto on twerking as a dance move… That'd be insane and technically impossible. (And I hope you don't believe everything that appears in the Western media!) I don't consider this a problem at all.
How do you perceive Russia's cultural relations with the rest of the world?
Cultural exchanges are the most exciting thing about life for me, so I'm completely against cultural isolation. Unfortunately, Russia is making a beeline for that at the moment.
Do you think some European values might have a bad influence on Russia?
I can't name a really corrupted thing from Europe that could "infect" someone, except maybe the tradition of colonizing other countries. I don't think there's such a thing as "Western propaganda"—are clean streets, DIY concepts, and caring for ecology the "dirty values" the government has in mind?
Do you intend to stay in Russia in the future?
Yes. It's my culture, and I seriously believe that this country has huge potential. I hope things will get better, but we need to work hard on them.
What would make you consider moving?
If it becomes impossible to consume cultural goods from other countries, or if the government decides to become isolated from the global internet, or if I'm no longer able to say what I think and do what I want, then yes.
Ekaterina, 24, a journalist and MA student in Human Rights and Democratization Living in Rostov-on-Don
VICE: Hi Ekaterina. Where are you originally from?
Ekaterina: I've spent most of my life in Rostov-on-Don, in southwest Russia, very close to the border with Donetsk in Ukraine. Right now I'm doing a short exchange in Minsk for my degree, and I previously graduated from Leeds University in broadcast journalism.
What's your opinion on all the bans?
It's always easy to ban things or create a fuss about something if you want to distract ordinary people from real problems that are happening within the political system or the government. That's what these laws are about to me: the anti-gay law, porn restrictions, etc. Of course, it always becomes a "juicy" story in the media.
As a journalist, do you think there's space for freedom of expression in Russia?
When people can criticize their government, you can call it a democracy—at least they can discuss it. But when there's no access to information and no freedom of speech it clearly means they cannot feel safe and secure in their country. It hurts seeing people being punished for having their own opinions. Let's call it a dictatorship, not a democracy, at least.
How do you see relations between Russia and the West right now?
I'm sick of these black-and-white distinctions; the world is more complicated and multidimensional than that. Russia is not the world's biggest evil and I want people to understand that. Neither is the West. Sometimes I just want to scream: "It is politics, people!" Every time I travel abroad I feel a certain stigma towards Russia and Russian people. People always ask: "So what do you think of Putin?" What do I think? Well, as most people in Russia, I simply want peace.
Do you see yourself living in Russia for the next ten years?
After meeting people and making foreign friends, I realized that, after a while, people stop caring about your nationality. In the end, some were even telling me their perception of Russian people had changed. Of course, we're not zombies who drink vodka 24/7, dance with bears and don't feel the cold. I honestly love my country and I'm proud to be Russian, but traveling has made me turn into a "global citizen." Plus, I really want to work as a foreign journalist. There are many new horizons I want to explore.
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