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Why Russia Is No Place to Be Charlie

Moscow activists face jail as Kremlin allows counter-protest in Chechnya

Vladislav Davidzon
January 23, 2015
Russian servicemen stand guard next to the French embassy in Moscow on January 16, 2015 after Russian media watchdog warns that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed is against the law.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian servicemen stand guard next to the French embassy in Moscow on January 16, 2015 after Russian media watchdog warns that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed is against the law.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The counter-response to the liberal display at the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march in Paris nearly two weeks ago has been as swift and retrogressive as anyone could have feared. In the wake of millions of French citizens taking to the streets in defense of free speech and the right to publish caricatures, several countries in the Muslim world erupted in violent anti-Charlie demonstrations. There were mass protests and demonstrations in Algeria and Pakistan. Churches were torched in Niger, leaving at least half a dozen people dead. In a show of worldwide clerical solidarity, religious figures from the Pope to Iranian chief rabbi Mashallah Golestani-Nejad intervened to denounce the caricatures. Yet nowhere outside of France did Charlie get into as much political trouble as he did in the Russian Federation

Russia’s media watchdog quickly instructed Russian publications that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad constituted a violation of the country’s laws against “the humiliation of the representatives of religious confessions and groups.” One day before Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in the unity march in Paris, a veritable world leader photo opportunity, protesters picketing in support of Charlie Hebdo were arrested for holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” poster near the Kremlin. A Moscow District Court sentenced Echo Moskvy journalist and activist Mark Galperin for 38 days of administrative detention (It was eight at first, another 30 were subsequently added) for his involvement in the small protest. Prosecutors have since opened up an additional criminal case for the same incident, and Galperin faces up to five years in prison. That is a remarkably heavy penalty for holding a sign, and it is in line with the regime’s practice of targeted punishment of an individual as a preemptive admonition to dissidents. Outraged Russian journalists and activists demanded to know exactly which values Lavrov had championed when he marched in Paris a week earlier. Another picketer found guilty of staging an unsanctioned public event was 75-year-old pensioner Vladimir Ionov, who was fined one million rubles—which despite the currency’s recent troubles remains an astronomical sum.

This week the Russian Duma passed a preliminary first draft of a bill that would prohibit the activities of “undesirable” foreign organizations in Russia. The bill’s phrasing is loose enough for it to be applied to any organization deemed a threat or nuisance by the government, and lawyers and activists promptly warned of possible consequences for philanthropic organizations engaged in apolitical work in Russia. The exact definition of an undesirable organization remains a mystery.

But one thing is clear: what the Kremlin finds desirable in Moscow seems to be substantially different from what it desires for Paris, or even for its peripheral and Muslim-populated provinces. A massive demonstration against the latest Charlie Hebdo cover, this one sanctioned by the government (the day was declared a national holiday so that people could attend), was held on Monday in Grozny, Chechnya. Critics pointed out the contradiction of the Kremlin sanctioning the Grozny march and not the Moscow march, suggesting it was a way to allow populist rage to be vented at a safe distance from the capital.

Moscow’s Muslim population, an estimated several million people, largely consists of guest or seasonal migrant workers from central Asia and the Caucasus. Xenophobic tensions and allegations of immigrant criminality occasionally cause conflagrations of violence. Thus, the idea of a mass political mobilization of Moscow’s Muslims, an abused underclass, would seem to be an obvious non-starter for the Kremlin. The manifestation of ‘traditional values’ was therefore outsourced to President Putin’s loyal steward, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Audience estimates ranged from 600,000 to a million people, all of whom gathered to hear Kadyrov thunder against “people without spiritual and moral values.” The highly organized march also featured slickly designed banners and posters in English.

Kadyrov ascended to power after the 2004 assassination of his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, and was appointed to the presidency of the Chechen Republic by Putin soon after reaching the constitutional minimum age of 30. Having mostly expunged the final vestiges of Chechen resistance to the Kremlin’s rule, Kadyrov has turned his attention to casting himself as the unofficial head of Russia’s Muslims. The Chechen Republic has lurched towards integrating Kadyrov’s preferred brand of syncretic Chechen Sufi-Sunni religiosity into official state administrative structures.

Despite the Kremlin authorities’ symbolic unwillingness to claim ownership for the Chechen March, the arrests of men holding ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs and sanctioning of a mass demonstration against a magazine cover published thousands of miles away are intertwined. (“For the moment, President Putin seems to find Shariah more palatable than freedom of speech,” Michael Khodarkovsky wrote in an New York Times op-ed this week.) The Kremlin is temperamentally conservative, yet the mood of nationalist patriotism that Russians have embraced over the past two years has been opportunistically appropriated. In both Grozny and Moscow, illiberal cynicism reigned supreme this week.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.