20 years under Putin: a timeline

The murder of journalists for the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo provoked an extraordinary response in Russia. However, paradoxical as it may sound, many residents of this country, which has suffered severely from terrorism over the past 15 years, are willing to justify the actions of extremists today. Olga Melnikova analyzes the public debate.


Charlie Hebdo’s tragedy caused a global stir, launching a heated discussion on freedom of speech, terrorism and religious radicalism. Drawing: Koren Shadmi


When I read public statements or debates on social networks about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, I get the impression that my countrymen have a poor understanding of such concepts as “freedom of speech,” “censorship,” “humanism,” and “presumption of innocence.”

Over the past 15 years, Russia has suffered more terrorist attacks than the United States and all European countries combined. Bombings of apartment buildings, subways, and airplanes; terrorist acts in Volgodonsk, Beslan, and "Nord-Ost“—this is just a short list of the tragedies that have taken place. The full one is a lot longer and a lot more terrifying. It seems that after all of this, no citizens should be left in the country who would be willing to justify terrorism. But no, the events in Paris provoked a debate in Russia whose major point is: “Journalists are themselves to blame: they woke the tiger.”

Russian officials have publicly sympathized with the victims: “The Russian president condemned this barbaric act and expressed the hope that the instigators will be found and punished,” an official Kremlin statement read. But at the same time that these official condolences were being made, there appeared hundreds of identical posts on Twitter written by Kremlin bots (who usually reveal the real position of the Russian authorities): “I’ve just found out about this,” the posts read. “I am with the shooters. There should be censorship in mass media. If you cross the line, be ready to pay your life for it.”

Oppositional writer and nationalist Eduard Limonov claimed that the “journalists paid for their immorality” writing in his blog: “In thinking over what happened, analysts across the world came to the conclusion that the attack was revenge for numerous offenses against the Prophet Mohammed by the impudent and aggressive editorial staff.” Limonov further addressed the liberal press: “Speaking of which, what happened in France today is a lesson and a warning to the ‘creative class’ of how dangerous it is to offend people’s beliefs. By saying ‘beliefs’ I don’t mean only religions. A thing like that might happen in Russia at any moment. The ultraliberal mass media shouldn’t be surprised if, after so many years of being offended, the people of Russia don’t have enough patience to stand it any more.”

It seems like it wasn’t only nationalists and authorities lost touch with reality, but also many liberal journalists. Years of efforts by the authorities to suppress freedom of speech made these journalists overcautious and caused them to ask themselves the question: Do I have a right to write about something that potentially might offend someone’s feelings? Journalists seem to have forgotten that if they agree to care about the feelings of religious people, tomorrow they will have to care about the feelings of people in power, and the day after tomorrow, they will only be allowed to write joyous articles or, even better, they won’t be allowed to write anything at all in order not to—God forbid!—hurt anyone’s feelings. What only several years ago was a reason for Russian journalists to receive prizes has now become a reason for professional doubts, shame, and even firing.

Russia seems to be retreating back to the Middle Ages. Perhaps its people should recall the anti-Catholic satires and cartoons that appeared in Europe as far back as the seventeenth (!) century. And then read the following quote from a respected liberal journalist today: “God cannot be abused. Lord Jesus Christ was spit upon, He was beaten with rocks, offended, but he accepted suffering and death on a cross for all those people. The Prophet Mohammed was also banned from the cities and beaten with rocks.” Forgive me, but when did it become normal for a journalist to use theological arguments in order to write about any topic?

Journalists seem to have forgotten that if they agree to care about the feelings of religious people, tomorrow they will have to care about the feelings of people in power, and the day after tomorrow, they will only be allowed to write joyous articles or, even better, they won’t be allowed to write anything at all in order not to—God forbid!—hurt anyone’s feelings.

If journalists themselves don’t take freedom of speech as their professional prerogative, what else should we expect from this society? In Russia, human life, freedom, and dignity are very poorly valued. That is why freedom of speech, gifted to the Russian press by Boris Yeltsin, appeared to be such an easy thing to take back. Primed by Putin’s propaganda, society happily accepted the idea of censorship in the mass media and is now gloating over the tragedy in France. Government television channels have made Russians think that it’s an honor to be cynical, that one can shamelessly lie about everything, and that everyone does so. Following this perverted logic, Russians exclaim, “It’s the journalists’ own fault! They shouldn’t have made the fundamentalists angry! Our press needs some discipline, too.”

There is also another, no less radical opinion about the French tragedy that is circulating in Russia today. It was first expressed by a former official who is now one of the regime’s critics, Alfred Kokh. On his Facebook page, Kokh wrote, “Global experience shows that the only way to stop terrorists is hostages. European society has got a wonderful way to solve the problem of terrorism: deportation and the destruction of mosques. That means (IMHO, naturally) that as soon as a terrorist is identified, all of his relatives (ten times more of them than of an attack’s victims, including the wounded) are deported to the country of their origin within one night’s term. Their green cards and passports are confiscated, and they are forbidden to ever come back to the EU. Even for half an hour. At the same time, the mosque which that terrorist attended is broken down to its base. And its community is not allowed to build a mosque again, ever.”

It is surprising how often bloggers tend to disclaim responsibility and refer to “global experts” and “global experience.” Defying European values, Kokh urges almost the same solution as Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who argued that terrorists’ families should be exiled and their houses burned down. The liberal community has urged its members to condemn Kadyrov, but many seem to be thinking over Kokh’s words and wondering, What if he is right?

Some families of those who are assumed to have carried out the terrorist attacks in Grozny at the end of 2014 have already suffered reprisals—before any trial has taken place, and with Kadyrov’s approval. After Mikhail Khodorkovsky appealed to the journalistic community to publish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and express its sympathy for the murdered journalists, Kadyrov named him his personal enemy. “I’m sure that in his beloved Switzerland, there are thousands of law-abiding citizens who will call a runaway convict to account. And this will be a harsh and biting account,” said the head of Chechnya.

What is this but a call for reprisal? But it is hard to be surprised at anything that occurs in Russia nowadays. Even spiritual leaders offer justifications of violence. Thus, we find in a statement by the Russian Council of Muftis the following sentence: “In our world, the sin of provocation is no less dangerous to peacekeeping than the sin of those who are ready to rise to it.”

To be fair, there still are reasonable people in Russia who have managed to keep the remains of common sense. As for the others, we can only pray for a miracle to occur. Self-censoring Russians must be praying for the rise of oil prices.