February 7, 2014
On the eve of the Olympics, 217 authors sign open letter in protest of Russia’s anti-gay blasphemy and propoganda laws
by Julia Fleischaker
The leadup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have had no shortage of controversy. Unfinished hotel rooms. The killing of stray dogs. The looming threat of violence in the form of black widows and toothpaste tube bombs. The Russian ambassador’s response to the perfectly timed Pussy Riot publicity tour.
PEN‘s Out in the Cold campaign addresses one of the most upsetting developments—the draconian Russian laws regarding homosexuality and the expression of homosexuality that have been enacted in the last 2 years. They write that “punitive new laws such as the ‘blasphemy’ law, the gay ‘propaganda’ law which restricts the ‘promotion of a gay lifestyle to minors’ and the recent re-criminalization of the defamation law are part of a regressive crackdown on freedom of expression in the country. These laws are severely curtailing free speech in Russia; penalties include cripplingly harsh fines and disproportionate prison terms.”
With the Olympics Opening Ceremony happening on Friday, more than 200 prominent authors have signed an open letter calling for the repeal of these egregious laws.
The story of modern Russia is the story of dramatic, almost seismic change. Russian voices, both literary and journalistic, have always striven to make themselves heard above the clamor of their nation’s unfolding story – commenting on it, shaping it and, in doing so, contributing to the political and intellectual shape of the world far beyond their country’s borders.
But during the last 18 months, Russian lawmakers have passed a number of laws that place a chokehold on the right to express oneself freely in Russia. As writers and artists, we cannot stand quietly by as we watch our fellow writers and journalists pressed into silence or risking prosecution and often drastic punishment for the mere act of communicating their thoughts.
Three of these laws specifically put writers at risk: the so-called gay “propaganda” and “blasphemy” laws, prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality and “religious insult” respectively, and the recriminalization of defamation.
A healthy democracy must hear the independent voices of all its citizens; the global community needs to hear, and be enriched by, the diversity of Russian opinion.
We therefore urge the Russian authorities to repeal these laws that strangle free speech, to recognize Russia’s obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights to respect freedom of opinion, expression and belief – including the right not to believe – and to commit itself to creating an environment in which all citizens can experience the benefit of the free exchange of opinion.
Authors who signed the letter include Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Aleksandar Hemon, Neil Gaiman, Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, and the author of Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen.
Salman Rushdie told The Guardian he considers the Out in the Cold campaign to be “incredibly important to Russian writers, artists and citizens alike”. Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, a Russian Booker Prize-winner and Man Booker Prize-nominee, warned the paper of a “cultural ideology that, in many respects, mimics the style of Soviet-era propaganda.”
For more information on the Out in the Cold campaign, visit the PEN International website.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.