Libel laws as global censorship: the case of Prof. Dawisha.

Karen Dawisha, the founder and head of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the Miami University in Ohio, has published a book summarizing years of meticulous research, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? It focuses on Putin’s early years in the post-Soviet system, that is his tenure as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Some of the sources used in the book can be found on Prof. Dawisha’s pages. Obviously I’d very much like to read the book but here’s why I cannot get hold of it, yet.

It goes back to spring 2014, when Cambridge University Press (CUP), which had published seven books (co-)authored by Prof. Dawisha, refused to publish Putin’s Kleptocracy for fear of libel suits. The author provided more detail in her April interview with The Washington Post. “All the people on the sanctions list are key players in my book,” explained Prof. Dawisha. No wonder the CUP backed out of the enterprise:

given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin’s power is founded on his links to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort.

Indeed. Precious time had been lost but Simon & Schuster eventually published Kleptocracy this last September.

Now Amazon assures me it is ready to ship a hard copy to Moscow but for a number of reasons I strongly prefer an e-book. I’ve been a loyal Amazon customer and have bought about thirty Kindle e-books in the past year and a half. But Amazon tells me that the e-book version of Kleptocracy is not available for purchase. I signed out of my account and switched to a US proxy server, and voilà: the e-book option is visible to visitors presumed to be from the US. The reason I am not allowed to buy it is clearly because I am a non-US customer. I have also tried to buy it directly from Simon & Schuster’s site and ran into a similar problem: the system only allows US billing addresses. I have tried two online retailers, both redirecting me to Kobo, which informed me that “the e-book is not available” in certain locations, including (if I understand correctly) Russia and the EU.

I’m sure there are ways to bypass this and, after all, I can order a hardcover copy. It’s not very likely that the Russian customs would be interested in it but it’s more expensive and I would have to buy other paper books to justify the cost of shipping. And the physical delivery takes a while – two weeks? two months?

All in all, who would have thought UK libel laws could stifle free speech so? Last year, HarperCollins decided, for similar reasons, not to publish Amanda Knox’s remarkable memoir, Waiting to Be Heard, in the UK (and probably Italy) – but Amazon did not block my access to the e-book. Of course this time, the opposing force is far stronger and more globally aggressive than Italy’s rotten courts and cops.

Oh, there’s one more avenue I have not tested: iTunes.


  1. I signed out of my account and switched to a US proxy server, and voilà: the e-book option is visible to visitors presumed to be from the US. The reason I am not allowed to buy it is clearly because I am a non-US customer.

    To be fair, this happens with a lot of books. I have run into this problem with several books on quite uncontroversial subjects, so it might not be something nefarious at play here.

    • Not nefarious, just regrettable. I can’t be sure but a lot of times, the reason seems to be different copyright laws. Also, price discrimination by the bookseller – different countries, different versions (translations), different prices. But in some cases, libel laws in one or two countries can make a book unavailable to some of the audiences that would benefit most from it.

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