By Vladimir Kozlov
Illustration by Nika Harrison
Over the last few years, quite a number of books have been banned in Russia, primarily on the grounds that they allegedly advocate extremism or drug abuse. However, some people have been pointing out that law enforcers can, using this approach, ban nearly any book quite arbitrarily.
Among those books banned in Russia by court decisions are titles such as Ron Hubbard’s works and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Based on decisions by local courts, a blacklist has been compiled, and is constantly being expanded. Currently, it includes more than 700 titles, though those are not only books but also leaflets, newspapers and online resources.
“From the legislator’s and law enforcer’s viewpoint, the bans do make sense; that’s what the law on extremism was adopted for,” Vladimir Kharitonov, an editor at UltraKultura, a controversial publisher that recently resumed operation, told PASSPORT. “From the common-sense viewpoint, the bans don’t make sense, but common sense has nothing to do with the law.”
According to Kharitonov, censors are primarily focused not on particular titles but on entire topics, which indirectly leads to self-censorship on the part of publishers. Still, it is often difficult to understand the logic behind authorities’ decisions to ban a particular book.
“It is hard to predict in advance if a particular title is going to be banned or not,” said Kharitonov. “For instance, Ron Hubbard’s books are banned. He was quite an unpleasant person and the creator of the Scientology sect, but hardly an extremist. So is Hitler’s Table Talk, which is more of a historic work than ‘propaganda of fascism’.”
“When we began discussing the issue, the main anti-heroes, against whom censors were up in arms against, were Hitler and Hubbard,” said Kirill Martynov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, who moderated a discussion on banned books at the Moscow International Book Festival last summer. “We predicted that the situation was going to deteriorate and that censors would enjoy adding more and more titles to the [banned book] list. That’s exactly what is happening. Among well-known people whose works have been most recently banned in Russia is Mussolini.”
According to Martynov, the ban couldn’t technically stop anyone from reading a book, as it might be found on the internet. But censors seem to be trying to establish control over web resources as well.
“Quite recently, there was a case in Komsomolsk-on-Amur where prosecutors demanded that a court should force a local internet provider to block users’ access to YouTube because of some extremist video uploaded to it,” said Martynov. “The provider has appealed the verdict, so it doesn’t have to execute the order yet.”
“The censorship is now operating [more subtly]: if you are banned from reading Hitler, you would be able to read him, but you may face problems accessing YouTube, for instance,” he went on to say. “Many of those who don’t see the danger of censorship also prefer not to notice such indirect consequences.”
Over the last few years, UltraKultura was among the publishers most severely hit by bans on distribution of certain titles. Launched in 2003, the publisher immediately stirred up controversy by publishing the novel, Skins: Russia is Waking Up, by former skinhead Dmitry Nesterov, and Russian translations of several foreign books dealing with such subjects as terrorism or illegal drugs.
Soon the publisher found itself in trouble with the law as an investigation was opened into the publication of the Russian translation of Adam Parfrey’s Allah Dislikes America, which, as investigators claimed, was instigating religious hatred. That case failed but some time later, a local court in one Russian city ruled that the book Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine by James B. Bakalar and Lester Grinspoon was promoting the use of illegal drugs, and all printed copies were seized.
The publisher argued, however, that all it was doing was just providing the reader with alternative information that was vital for the understanding of complex issues.
“Alternative literature should create some balance to the mainstream, to make [the readers] use their brains,” Alexander Kasyanenko, who used to be the art director at UltraKultura, told PASSPORT. “In a situation when a book on the medical value of marijuana is banned, all that the reader is left with is mainstream literature, in which both good and bad characters smoke weed from time to time. There is no discussion, so it is impossible to figure out what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’.”
Kasyanenko added that if, for instance, the medical use of cannabis were legalized in Russia, as is the case in some other countries, people here wouldn’t be ready for that because of lack of information on the subject.
The bans on some of UltraKultura’s titles largely contributed to the fact that the publisher suspended operations in early 2008, though another reason was the death of its founder and editor-in-chief, Ilya Kormiltsev. However, earlier this year, UltraKultura said it was back in business.
Kasyanenko said the publisher is publishing some titles and finding alternative distribution channels, regardless of the existing bans or of copyright issues.
“If there is a book that people need,” he said, “There are two options. Either the book will not be translated [into Russian] and published here, or it will be translated and published without properly observing the copyright.”
He added that the publisher chooses the latter option and is prepared to pay the rights holder a 20 percent royalty, which is twice as much as it is normally the case, and that Parfrey has already agreed to that scheme.
Meanwhile, even though more and more titles are banned and intellectuals are raisings concerns about the issue, mainstream publishers are apparently not yet worried. “Officially, large publishers have not expressed any concern [about the banning of books] because for them it is much more important to maintain close relations with law enforcers,” Martynov said. “And that has an impact on the fate of their titles—I don’t remember any title by [major publishers] Eksmo or AST being confiscated or banned. And most authors seem to be content just to talk in their kitchens about moving back to the Soviet Union.”
“The problem is not that the government bans some very harmful and bad book,” Martynov concluded. “The problem is that absolutely any book can be banned. Works by Marx and Lenin could be banned for ‘instigating the overthrow the existing regime’; the Old Testament for ‘instigating religious hatred’ and so on. We have to fight not for the removal of a particular title from the blacklist but for the abandonment of such lists altogether, to eliminate that opportunity for the abuse of power.”