The Kremlin’s decision to declare best-selling Russian writer Boris Akunin an “extremist and terrorist” represents a dark new turn in the history of both Russia’s ongoing social and political catastrophe and Russian and Soviet censorship. Akunin, who is set to conclude his multi-volume History of the Russian State series, summed up his situation by saying: “It’s a milestone event. Russia hasn’t banned books since Soviet times. Writers haven't been accused of terrorism since the Great Terror.”
The foreboding farce surrounding the author had a distinctive start: in December 2023, Akunin picked up a prank call in which he declared his moral and practical support for Ukraine. On the same day, the AST publishing house announced the removal of his books from stores “pending a legal assessment.” Notably, the anti-Akunin campaign was spearheaded not by a government agency but a private publishing house, which had taken its cue from pro-Kremlin pranksters who do not have any formal ties to the state. Furthermore, the content of his books had never been censored by the state, and their sale had not been interrupted even after the author was labeled a “foreign agent.” Objectively, nothing in his books could harm Putin’s regime (apart, perhaps, from their propagandistic capacity to spread humanistic values and other universal life principles that might threaten to break the dictatorial spell Russia’s president-for-life has cast over his domain). That is, the primary ban, introduced via the “voluntary” decision of a self-censoring publisher, pertains to the author’s personality rather than to his actual books. That said, we have no way of knowing how the decision was made, who called whom, and what leather-jacketed figure held a (figurative, one would hope) gun to AST director Pavel Grishkov's head.
It’s a case worth keeping a close eye on. Although the criminal case has barely begun, both the general public and the defendant himself have already learned about it thanks to Rosfinmonitoring’s unlawful placement of the writer's name on its list of terrorism and extremism supporters. It is a technique long since mastered by Putin's regime: using quasi-formal designations to disrupt the lives of politically inconvenient figures. Investigative agencies are yet to figure out what is actually going on; the legal merits of the case remain so unclear that it is questionable whether there will ever even be a trial (although, in this case, there probably will be, as nutball Duma deputy Andrey Gurulev already went on prime-time TV to call for Akunin's physical elimination), and yet the “suspect’s” bank accounts are already blocked because he is a “terrorist”! To date, the Rosfinmonitoring list features 13,747 individuals and 547 entities, most of whom cannot count on public support or media attention.
Booksellers, publishers, and books stores responded en masse by instantly withdrawing Akunin's books – this despite the fact that, before their author was given his dubious designation, his works had not formally been found to contain anything “wrong” in them.
This story also features a notable exception that proves the “rules” governing Kremlin censorship. Zakharov Books refrained from issuing any declarations or withdrawals. Its premises were all but immediately searched by law enforcement authorities, thereby creating a perfect case study for political scientists debating over whether Putin’s Russia circa 2024 still represents a “personalistic authoritarian state,” or whether it has finally developed into a full-blown fascist totalitarian one.
Why am I recounting the incident in such great detail? To make a simple point: a large, swift, and well-coordinated act of punishment and censorship took place without the appearance of any identifiable ringleader and without any specialized agency following established regulations. However, the anti-Akunin campaign’s high level of management and logistical sophistication points to the presence of a very specific author – albeit one who apparently prefers to remain anonymous.
Modern-day Russian censorship is a “Wagner PMC” of the creative industry – an entity that doesn't exist on paper but employs thousands of specialists who pocket billions in taxpayer money to carry out activities that are often destructive, illegal, and downright evil. Putin and his “state” hypocritically refuse to admit this reality, instead sending an entire state-funded delegation to the United Nations in New York so that officials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prosecutor General's Office, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor, and Ministry of Internal Affairs can outdo themselves arguing that the human rights situation in Russia is perfectly normal — look!we even have a Constitutional article banning censorship! Meanwhile, the entire world— the Russian own population among them — gets a front-row seat to a flagrant, unbridled witch hunt (but of course, as the state’s formal organs outdo themselves explaining, “that’s a different story,” “our forces are not even present there,” and “not everything is so black and white.”)
Russian censorship is a “Wagner PMC” of the creative industry – an entity that doesn't exist on paper but employs thousands of specialists
Even Vladimir Lenin, the founder of modern Russia (though not, contrary to Putin’s pet historical theorizing, of Ukraine), insisted that many decisions of the workers’ and peasants’ government be made at a safe remove from the prying eyes of those selfsame workers and peasants. Self-effacement and an obsession with secrecy were inborn traits both of the Communist Party's Central Committee, with its hierarchy of affiliated entities, and of the Cheka-turned-FSB, which forms the backbone of the Russian state to this day.
However, even the Commies had a specialized body for dealing with these matters: Glavlit, the Main Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press. Its existence wasn't advertised, but it had “accredited” officers in every city and town (many creative types recall having been social acquaintances with them). These servants of the worker and peasant Soviet people made the herculean effort of skimming through millions of lines each day, scanning newspapers, books, and scripts lest any imprudent author inadvertently reveal any of the government’s multitudinous shameful secrets to the unsuspecting public.
However, even the Commies had a specialized censorship body: Glavlit
Compared to the ill-defined system that regulates speech in Russia today, the Soviet model of pre-print censorship could be characterized as being almost humane. Once a Soviet censor approved a literary work, the responsibility for its content lay entirely with the supervisory authority that stamped the paper. But while the personal consequences of post-factum censorship against authors like Akunin may be harsher and more unpredictable than those faced by Soviet-era creators, a bold, brave-hearted artist may prefer things the way they are now – indeed, they may be punished for publishing their mind, but not until millions have read their work!
Debate about the benefits of anterior and posterior censorship was ongoing in imperial Russia; however, the sudden appearance on the scene of new censors clad in black leather coats and armed with handguns preempted any conclusion that these late-Czarist discussions might otherwise have reached. (And of course, if we were to rank the preventative capacities of the various forms that restrictions on speech might take, the most oppressive and terrifying variety remains self-censorship, the dream of every tyrant in every day and age — including our own, where many people are afraid to say the wrong smallest little thing on Twitter. Frankly, I can't blame them.)
The dialectic dilemma over whether to target the creator or the creation has evolved right along with the struggle between freedom of speech on the one hand and the means of censorship on the other.
After Stalin's death, Soviet censorship adopted a more “civilized” approach. Glavlit actually protected authors lest they commit a public act of sedition, debates about truth and sincerity were courted in the media, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, was even almost awarded with the Lenin Prize. In this period, censorship focused much more heavily on preventing the spread of foreign works. And although the confiscation of clandestine copies of banned books continued, enforcement was far from total, and the offense connected with distributing the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva or Osip Mandelstam remained difficult to define.
Party leaders, who were often just as tired of fear and repression as the general population was, ventured to engage in public discussions with approved authors. Although the traditions of Russian censorship usually prevailed, leading to a figurative flogging of any author who spoke out too well, the fact that the punishment was not a firing squad says something relevant about the relative repression of the period.
Leonid Brezhnev, bon vivant and sybarite, and Yuri Andropov preferred letting disgraced writers, performers, and musicians slip through the Iron Curtain rather than bringing the hammer of the Penal Code down on their heads. At that time, dissident bard Alexander Galich's openly anti-Soviet songs had a broad audience even among the most loyal party followers, and it took years before the singer-songwriter received the vague suggestion that it was probably time he found a new physical address in the free world (a paradoxical punishment for a lover of freedom). Some, like Galich, Solzhenitsyn, and the poet Joseph Brodsky, were “asked to leave,” while other liberally minded cultural figures voluntarily remained in the West after receiving the exit visa necessary to embark on a foreign tour (even in the totalitarian Soviet Union, some performers and writers were permitted to go on publicly funded foreign trips).
Bon vivant and sybarite, Brezhnev preferred letting disgraced writers slip through the Iron Curtain rather than bringing the hammer of the Penal Code down on their heads
The phenomenon of Vladimir Vysotsky offers an instructive case study: for decades – despite playing leading roles in Soviet movies and stage productions, traveling the world (with Marina Vlady, a foreign actress of White-Guard descent), driving around Moscow in a fancy Mercedes, and releasing records that were bought up by the million — the icon of the age somehow still managed to maintain the image of an oppressed rebel. True, Vysotsky never had a prayer of being admitted to the Composers’ Union, and yet if an ordinary citizen of the worker-peasant state were to re-record one of his songs on magnetic tape, no one from the state apparatus batted an eye.
Here the path between eras of censorship reaches a new turn: tyrants are generally in no rush to go through any sort of public falling-out with renowned cultural figures, especially with favorites of the masses (although, to be fair, they do step on this banana peel every now and then, usually accompanied with a loud “Dammit, not again!”).
At the current moment, rock musician Yury Shevchuk, filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, several poets, many political scientists and journalists, and even a few Nobel laureates – I should probably stop here so as not to make Rosfinmonitoring's job easier – may be maintaining an eloquent silence, but I don't think they are in imminent danger of repression. Shevchuk, for one, has quite a following among multiple departments of the state security services, and a loud scandal with “Yura the musician” is the last thing Putin needs. (In an infamous 2010 incident, the one which gave birth to the above moniker, Putin emerged on the losing side from his exchange with the straightforward, fearless Shevchuk.)
After leaving Russia in 2022, singer Alla Pugacheva and comedian Maxim Galkin were (and still are) vilified in Kremlin-loyal media, but not by the Ministry of Culture or by Putin’s Presidential Administration. Yes, there are special sycophants “appointed” for the job of tarnishing the popular performers’ image domestically, but while the jackals howl out their condemnations of the “traitorous” Pugacheva and Galkin from the floor of the State Duma or the studios of various Kremlin-controlled television channels, the state itself remains officially unaffiliated with the act.
It's not the Minister of Culture who vilifies departing performers but specially “appointed” sycophants
It's no easy task to, as the proverb goes, pull a hippopotamus out of a swamp — all the more so when the swamp in question is the kafkaesque mixture of mud, straw, and ballistic missiles that make up Putin’s Russia... But rather than getting bogged down, here’s another difference with the past: the current system is so chaotic that even those who survived for years under the Soviet government by acting prudently and respectably can suddenly find themselves in disgrace. And they aren't being attacked for storming the Kremlin, but for performing their regular professional duties.
In Brezhnev's times, theater director Alexander Gelman, human rights lawyer Henri Reznik, and aforementioned pop star Alla Pugacheva all successfully avoided bans and mudslinging. Now, however, Gelman has had his book banned from the year's main book fair, Reznik has been expelled from Russia's Human Rights Council, and Pugacheva, whose repertoire never so much as included a single anti-Soviet or anti-Putin song, has become persona non grata among large portions of her former fanbase. So what if she moved south (to Israel)? How does that interfere with the lives of anyone in Russia?
The late Soviet period was a challenging time for everyone, marked by all sorts of “situations.” Dissidents sometimes went on hunger strikes in prison, but in that period such an acute disagreement never arose between the state and any notably talented creator. So long as writers and artists made the reasonable decision to focus on their work rather than dedicating their energies to fighting against the system, they were largely left alone. In this way, the reigning regime in the Kremlin has distinguished itself. Rather than ignoring outwardly non-threatening figures like Akunin and Dmitry Bykov, a well-known poet in exile who similarly expressed pro-Ukrainian sentiments in a phone call with the same pranksters who got Akunin into trouble, Putin and those around him have nevertheless opted for active repression. Neither Akunin nor Bykov was known for posting anti-Putin leaflets; neither of them set up anti-Putin offices in far-flung Russian locales; neither called for protesters to gather in Russian town squares. And yet they were targeted for reprisals. (For Gelman and Reznik, the lack of political activity may simply have been the inevitable result of their age. Still, how brave does one have to be to seriously view 80-something men as a menace?)
Putin feels uncontrollable rage toward all living things; he much prefers zombies, the living dead, whom he nurtures and surrounds himself with – like attracts like. (Having almost fallen prey to one such specimen, Putin was so furious that he blew up his plane.) Whether he means to or not, Putin is turning himself into the hero of an old Soviet joke – a “minor political figure of the Alla Pugacheva era.”
Putin feels uncontrollable rage toward all living things; he much prefers the living dead
Brezhnev loved cosmonauts, chess players, hockey players, and singer-songwriters. He consumed drama and cheesy movies with notable enthusiasm. Even at his worst (and contrary to many of the jokes popular at the time), Brezhnev remained more human than today’s belligerent reptiloids. Or at least, that's the kind of unexpected conclusion you arrive at if your comparison is based not in theory, but in personal experience (including the real experiences of other real people). What we see is the system's way of balancing between “staying on good terms” with its cultural elite and the impossibility of tolerating the mere existence of any talented, honest, and intelligent person who dares inhabit any tiny corner of the 17 million square kilometers that fall under the Putin regime’s jurisdiction.
The main philosophical paradox, though, is that humanity has gone through this process many times. No tyrant has ever benefited for long from persecuting his subjects over their ideas or words. The Colossus fell simply because its legs were made of clay. Ravaging publishing houses and burning books has never had any positive impact on an empire's lifespan or its military prowess.
The traditions of Russian censorship that started in the Tsarist Empire continued to evolve under Soviet power. In the 21st Century, Putin’s regime simply picked up the baton. As the Kremlin’s persecution of Boris Akunin demonstrates, pointless repression is the definitive trait of this third stage of development.