Roland Elliott Brown is a London-based Canadian writer.
One hundred years after the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg and laid the foundations for the isolated empire known as the Soviet Union, it is more difficult than ever to reconcile Russia's austere and authoritarian image abroad with the globalized reality of President Vladimir Putin's hometown.
The former imperial capital, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 to force Russia to face Europe, is now the country's liberal bubble. Its dazzling contemporary art spaces and exotic hipster eateries recall Berlin. Alongside Gogol and Dostoevsky, its handsome bookshops offer translations of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and comic-book anthologies from Marvel and DC. The late Ray Bradbury, too, seems to be undergoing a Russian renaissance, as his whole oeuvre – including his anti-censorship classic Fahrenheit 451 – is out in shiny new paperbacks.
When I arrived in St. Petersburg in November for one of my occasional sieges upon the subtle and magnificent Russian language, I found, somewhat to my surprise, a place where everyone seemed to be talking about freedom of speech. Mr. Putin, who is not above appealing to lofty ideals where Kremlin interests are concerned, was calling U.S. demands that the Kremlin-backed TV channel RT register as a "foreign agent" an "attack on free speech."
As I settled in with a Russian family, my host, a woman in her 50s, asked (without reference to RT) whether it was true that freedom of speech was in decline in the West. (I had to admit there was some evidence of that.) In my language classes, I was invited to compare Russian and Western styles of government and to contemplate such questions as "Are you sure that democracy and free speech exist? Why?"
Now, much of what you hear about Russian censoriousness is true. By the criteria that journalism-advocacy groups and human-rights organizations lay out, Russia imposes heavy restrictions on expression. According to Reporters Without Borders, Russia ranks 148th for media freedom, whereas Canada comes in at No. 22. Human Rights Watch has assembled a damning report, entitled Online and On All Fronts, which tells of escalating restrictions since 2012.
But the question need not be relative, and as I made friends in St. Petersburg I noticed that some of the very liberals one might expect to find at the sharp end of Kremlin policies were keen to weigh their experiences against outside prejudices. While restricted speech and tendentious state-backed TV are part of the story, so is a generation of young Russians who find their information online and put their legal freedoms – enshrined in article 29 of the Russian constitution – into practice.
One such person is Irina Chekhovich, a 23-year-old English teacher at a technical university and a minority-rights activist. "Europeans feel sorry for me, living in Russia," she said. "They say, 'Oh, you poor girl, no freedom of speech, no rights.' It's a bit humiliating. I don't feel I'm restricted in any way – for now."
Ms. Chekhovich cites her work with a project called the Human Library, which aims to fight social stigma by connecting curious people, known as "readers," with speakers from lesser-known corners of Russian society, known as "books." Among the books, she says, have been a sex worker, a former prisoner, people from religious minorities and gay and transgender people. Even though Russia passed a much-criticized law against teaching minors about homosexuality in 2013, she says, St. Petersburg still has an open and active LGBTQ community. And at the university where she teaches, her adult students know about her work. A few have even chosen to get involved.
She also cited an example of Russia's (semi-) open society in action. In a YouTube clip of an October news conference, journalist Stanislav Kucher – a sometime consultant to Mr. Putin on human rights and civil society – challenged the President over what he called an atmosphere of "creeping obscurantism" in the public sphere that was driving young people out of the country. He pointed to the cases of Kirill Serebrennikov, a popular, opposition-oriented theatre director facing charges for allegedly embezzling government arts funding, and Tatyana Felgenhauer, a liberal radio journalist who had been seriously injured in a knife attack. Mr. Putin's seemingly plausible arguments about why these cases had nothing to do with free speech more or less knocked Mr. Kucher flat. When I told Ms. Chekhovich the exchange seemed a bit stage-managed to me, she said she felt stung. She thought Mr. Kucher was brave. Again, she admitted she was a little sensitive about outside criticism of the Russian scene.
Olga Polyakova, a local activist and entrepreneur, laid out a few more ambiguities. "Freedom of speech is a constitutional right, so the President cannot say that we don't have it," she said. "But the authorities are getting more and more strict. They don't have enough goals to develop democratic institutions."
Ms. Polyakova says her rights were violated when she was arrested along with hundreds of others at an unsanctioned anti-corruption rally in June. She spent 12 days in jail. She also notes growing restrictions based on an emerging "politics of propaganda" whereby the "propaganda" of homosexuality, drug use and a nebulously defined "extremism" are all proscribed. Yet even if growing restrictions reveal an official "propaganda course," she said, Russian civil society is also growing. People in her social circle are taking greater interest in how Russian institutions work, and her trial inspired her friends to visit a courtroom for the first time.
Contemporary Russia resembles not a bit the communist empire founded by Lenin 100 years ago, and as I discovered when I visited Palace Square on the evening of the Bolshevik anniversary, the centenary was of such little significance to Russians that barely a soul was there. But I did find Yulia and Leonid, two young IT professionals, chatting about history with some tourists. Before I left in December, I caught up with them for tea.
"In the Soviet Union, you had rules," Yulia said. "But in Russia, you just know that suddenly, selectively …" – "Randomly!" Leonid chimes in, anticipating her comment – "something can happen that is terrible from the point of view of human rights."
The main issue in today's Russia, Leonid says, is really whether a particular instance of expression causes someone with power to respond. And in this regard, it's not much easier for a Russian to reconcile the perils and freedoms of Mr. Putin's Russia than it is for a foreigner.