Russia's officials are reverting to old instincts: When in doubt, forbid.
MOSCOW — The spirit of protest is coming awake again in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of Russia's revolutions. It's a city where artists and writers have been bucking censorship for centuries. Today they're railing against the spirit of zapret, the Soviet-era Russian word for "ban" that has remained firmly embedded in the collective cultural memory despite the nearly two decades that have passed since the end of the USSR.
But unlike the dissidents of the past, today's activists are not plotting to foment violent uprisings by murdering a tsar. They have a smarter and more humane plan.
Recently I listened as a group of young Petersburgers discuss the recent country-wide bans on swearing in public, on smoking, on the adoption of children from the United States, and on so-called "gay propaganda" (basically meaning any positive statements about homosexuality). Gathered on an open balcony at Pushkinskya 10 Art Center, the heart of the city's contemporary art scene, they also talked about the disappearance of their favorite festivals and court trials against opposition activists.
Frustration with the government's decisions was palpable. A few weeks ago, St. Petersburg police arrested a poet for reciting poetry at a street protest organized in support of political prisoners. His offense? There was one curse word in the last line of the poem.
But that's not the worst of it. Inane bans and restrictions are bombarding Russia's provinces. To prevent unspecified "chaos," the Krymsk city authorities forbade people from having their own independent day of memory for victims of a flood that took lives of 168 people and destroyed 72 thousand homes last July. A popular cultural festival in Perm failed to take place this month as scheduled, since authorities decided that the festival "threatened the stability of political situation in the country." Authorities say "no" tothe most harmless initiatives. Just last weekend, thousands of Russians trying to celebrate Ivan Kupala night, a popular traditional holiday, found out that it was forbidden to swim naked and jump over fires, since the Orthodox Church is aggressively fighting against Russian pagan customs.
The voices on the balcony grew louder as the conversation heated up. "Back in the 1990's, I felt like St. Pete was a European city," said Lena, an intelligent, skinny girl in glasses. "Now it feels like it's on a different planet. We're living in a police state." Two lesbian girls next to me seemed more amused than upset by the news. "The state is trying to ban hugging, kissing, and cursing," said Natasha, a girl with lilac and black hair. "Their laws will never stop us from having fun, loving, or feeling free." To prove it, she rattled off a long list of gay clubs in the city.
Similar scenarios seem to repeat themselves in St. Petersburg every few decades. Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin irritated the tsar's secret police by supporting the Decembrist revolt and pronouncing anti-government statements. (Even today, there are still some Russian censors who are trying to "cleanse" his words.) Nicholas II responded to Pushkin's mockery of senior officials by exiling him from the capital. A few decades later the young Petersburg writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent seven months behind the bars of the Peter and Paul Fortress for joining revolutionary circles. The police put him in front of a firing squad -- then changed their minds at the last minute. In Soviet times, the city's writers and musicians went right on producing forbidden works for decades despite the threat of the gulag.
Censors ruled out certain words. The KGB silenced groups and gatherings. The police arrested people for piercings, tattoos, or colorful punk hairdos. But the result was always the same: The mechanisms of repression only inspired artists to come up with more sophisticated ways of encoding their messages and spreading their thoughts around the country.
It was only in the late 1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, that we could finally buy once-forbidden literature or watch Antonioni movies at the Spartak cinema. By the time Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev came to work for St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the Art Center had become internationally famous for its avant-garde art exhibits, its so-called Parallel Cinema shows that experimented with pseudoscience, and its kvartiniki (from the Russian word for "apartment"), rock music concerts held in squats.
Today Pushkinskaya 10 is not quite as unusual as it used to be. St. Petersburg is booming with subculture venues, galleries, concert halls, cafes, and clubs of all flavors. (Natasha's list of St. Petersburg gay hangouts contrasts sharply with the situation in Moscow, for example, where there's really one good gay club left.)
There's a wind of anarchy that hits your face the minute you arrive in St. Petersburg, and this appears to be just the thing that has irritated legislators throughout time. The laws recently passed by deputies of the St. Petersburg municipal assembly ban swearing in movies, literature, or media -- not to mention "homosexual propaganda" and cats making noise at night. One of the most creative authors of banning strategy, Vitaly Milonov, explains that the laws are necessary "to defend the rights of majority." Once again Russia is split into those who are keen on forbidding and reporting violators to police and those who cannot in good conscience obey the bans.
Minorities have never found support in Russia; the law against "gay propaganda" has exacerbated growing homophobia. A few days after our meeting on the balcony, Natasha and her girlfriend witnessed a violent scene: A large crowd of enraged anti-gay protestors attacked an LGBT protest on Marsovo Pole, throwing stones, eggs, and bottles filled with urine at the small group of activists.
Russian artists, writers, and poets make fun of officials and their policies, but so far, at least, they don't have to resort to writing their texts in code. One of the most popular modern writers, Dmitry Bykov, devoted a poem to the subject of deputy Milonov's views on gays in his sarcastic series documenting Russian politics. The poem was recited on national television.
St. Petersburg poets have their own strategy, which is partly reflected in a book by Edward Lukoyanov entitled We Want Some Cultural Terrorism and Preferably Right Away. The author's friend Pavel Arsenyev -- the man who was arrested for reciting a poem with one swear word -- explained to me how the writers are planning to react to the "absurd environment" created by policymakers. "The forms of ironic protest are growing more popular," Arsenyev said. "The laboratories of art will produce new ironic tools to respond to what to our mind makes no sense."