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  • Defending Glasnost
  • Aleksey Simonov (bio)

In February 1996, the Glasnost Defense Foundation turned five years old. I do not know the practice in other countries, but when pensions are calculated in Russia, each year of service in certain jobs counts as two or three because the jobs are considered unusually hazardous or difficult. Most of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were founded in Russia at about the same time as the GDF have since died quietly, unable to meet the challenges that faced them or strangely out of place in fast-changing times. Ours is still around, however, and by Russian calculations each of its five years should count as at least three.

No one remembers anymore why, in those heady days of 1991, during the standoff against the Soviet regime and its official mouthpieces like the state-run radio and television network, we chose to name our fledgling organization after the concept of glasnost’. Why have we remained faithful to this modest term even though some of our founders and most of our supporters have urged us to reject it as hopelessly compromised by association with Mikhail Gorbachev? Why did we not [End Page 159] choose a name that referred to freedom of speech or information, either of which would have given us more credibility internationally? I recall being worried back in 1991 by the obvious disparities between Soviet practice and the history of press freedom in most of the rest of the world. I also remember feeling ignorant: I had no clear notion of what freedom of speech was, exactly. Glasnost’ seemed to me easier to grasp, and ideas about how to protect it seemed more readily accessible.

Now, at a distance of five years (or maybe even a decade or more, given the aforementioned system of reckoning), I can only be grateful that this is how things worked out. Had we chosen a name like “Freedom of Speech Defense Foundation,” we would long ago have reached the profoundly depressing conclusion that we were trying to defend something that, as I see it, does not exist in contemporary Russia. What is freedom of speech, after all? It is one of the pillars of democracy, inextricably linked to other democratic institutions in a self-governing society. I conceive of freedom of speech as a three-way pact binding society, the state, and the press. While it is constantly being renewed, its foundation rests on a solid bedrock of laws, traditions, and customs developed or acquired in the process of building democracy.

Laws, Traditions, and Customs

I would like to discuss these supports for free speech further as each relates to our post-Soviet situation. This situation is one of deprivation: Russia and its people have never had any meaningful or sustained experience of democracy, and the three foundations of free speech are accordingly absent from their midst.

Let us begin with laws. In a well-established democracy, the system of laws resembles a tightly packed row of soldiers: each is at the other’s elbow and can, when necessary, draw support from his comrades. In Russia, laws in general and laws protecting free speech in particular resemble a lone sea gull wheeling across the endless expanse of the sky: no matter how far it spreads its wings, it will never touch a neighbor. The Russian Federation’s Law on Mass Media, adopted in December 1991, is a case in point. It makes several references to clauses in the Law on Television and Radio Broadcasting—a measure that has yet to be enacted. Under such a circumstance, how can one take the Mass Media Law seriously as a basis for legal practice? To make matters worse, Russia today is littered with a vast number of presidential decrees and governmental resolutions that contradict each other while trying to overregulate what open legal space there is, and prevent the adoption of useful laws. Moreover, once the need that prompted these temporary decrees and ad hoc resolutions has passed, they often tend to be forgotten. Thus they may become obsolete without being repealed; rotting in place, they add to the general sense of disorder and confusion. [End Page 160]

Given this context, one...