Monday, 21 July 2008
Russia, censorship and Jonathan Dimbleby
I’m currently reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s ‘Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People’. The pretentious title is not representative of the book’s content. Dimbleby writes nicely and he has synthesised his reading of the country’s history and literature in an accessible fashion, but in no respect does he penetrate to the heart of a land or its people, simply because he is too busy bemoaning the wrong-headedness of the land’s people. And in any case he seems unable to appreciate any landscape or culture that cannot be compared to England’s Home Counties.
Perhaps I will review the book when I have finished it. There is certainly entertainment to be derived from reading the thoughts of a frustrated, frankly lascivious little man, enduring some manner of mid-life crisis in a foreign land which he obviously had little inclination to visit in the first place. On this occasion it is the political analysis which Dimbleby advances, deriding all alternative synopses offered by the Russians he meets as ‘dispiriting’, ‘depressing’ etc., which made me reflect on some of the things which I noticed in Russia.
His thesis is that Russia is an autocratic state which lacks basic freedoms which we in ‘the West’ take for granted. Furthermore he insists that, despite any protestations to the contrary, that Russians are not ‘free’ in any meaningful way. I intend later to blog my enjoyment of the laid back town of Novgorod with its riverside beach (see the photos which I posted below). Dimbleby’s lugubrious observation, as he watches Russians enjoying themselves on the same beach, is that this seeming freedom is a hollow charade. He impugns the poor holiday makers for being oblivious to his arch prescription.
Self-evidently Dimbleby is being astoundingly patronising in his observations. He continues, in other passages of the book, to liken Putin’s regime to that of Stalin and to the reign of Peter the Great. He believes that Russia is an authoritarian, oppressive, totalitarian state. He does not believe that Russians have acquired any great dividend of freedom beyond that which they enjoyed during Soviet or tsarist times.
It would be naïve to argue that Russia is a model democracy or anything like it. It would also be naïve to deny that there are not curtailments to freedom of speech which would not be tolerated in many other European countries. But neither is it accurate to portray Russia as a police state in which people are impeded in reading what they like or thinking what they like. To fail to acknowledge that Russians have acquired freedoms far in advance of those which existed under Brezhnev or Khrushchev for example, is simply to distort the truth.
Russians can travel abroad, more or less unhindered by their own government, although sometimes curtailed by visa regimes of those countries which they wish to visit. There is untrammelled access to the internet, where it is possible to read a diversity of opinion from both home and abroad, something which cannot be said of China, to take an example. Russian cinemas are full of all the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies and book shops are laden with translations of foreign books, including almost all the recent popular titles which have been written about Russia.
In St Petersburg the largest book-shop, ‘Dom Knigi’ (pictured), covers three floors and its collection of titles is extensive. As someone who fails utterly to understand the man’s appeal, I was a little perturbed for example, to discover that Jeremy Clarkson’s latest collections of ‘PC busting’ diatribes merited a translation and multiple copies. Gordon Ramsey also appears to have a readership for his cookery books in Russian. Somewhat more surprising was an extensive display of the books of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who some allege was disposed of by the government after her coruscating attacks on the Kremlin and its campaign in Chechnya. These books are amongst the most controversial political works about Russia published anywhere in the world. In addition, those who read English can purchase Edward Lucas’ Russophobe diatribe ‘The New Cold War’ and a wide range of books by other academics and journalists about modern Russia, many of which are critical of the Kremlin and the government.
None of these facts can excuse limitations on a free press or attempts to limit opposition in Russia, but nevertheless the case against should not be overstated. Russia is far from a police state, it is also far from a country subjected to fastidious censorship.