Free speech under Yeltsin: Black October

It’s good to know that Russia’s number one opposition leader supports an expansive understanding of free speech. Navalny may be wrong on Trump versus Twitter but it’s far more important – in the Russian context – that he get the big issues right. Free speech is one of these big issues, and Navalny’s gut instinct here seems to be just right, regardless of his understanding of any particular American controversy.

It’s worth recalling that Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet Russian president, was also a strong supporter of free speech and personally tolerant even to the most vitriolic media criticism. The Russian media world of the 1990s was brutal in more ways than one. Some Russian newspapers and TV channels were more aggressively anti-Yeltsin than Trumpist media are anti-Biden. I’m not aware of any attempts by Yeltsin to silence them. In contrast, one of Putin’s early moves was to close down a TV show that portrayed him in a slightly less than favorable light.

However, there was one remarkable exception. This is what happened in late September and October 1993, during and after the attempted seizure of power in Moscow by an anti-Yeltsinist mob:

Banned altogether on 13 October 1993 were Den’ , Narodnaia pravda, Russkoe delo, Russkoe voskresenie, Russkie vedomosti, Russkii pul’s, Russkii poriadok, Za Rus‘, Nash marsh, Natsionalist, Russkoie slovo, Moskovskiy traktir, Moskovskiy soyuz and K toporu. The more important newspapers, Pravda and Sovetskaia Rossiia, were treated differently in form but not in essence… Most of these newspapers were able, one way or another, to resume publication, sometimes after changing their name. Thus, the nationalist Den’ (The Day) became Zavtra (Tomorrow), while retaining the same editor-in-chief, Alexandr Prokhanov.

That notorious paper, Den’, remained closed for a little over a month: already on November 5, Zavtra came into being and has been continuously published ever since. Its editor and publishers had not been sanctioned and never apologized for their calls to violence; predictably, they never toned down their rhetoric against Yeltsin and his “liberals.”

A quick look at the other, less significant publications listed above. (I inserted two prime symbols in the quote for transliteration consistency.) English translations don’t quite render the flavor of the Russian originals but offer a general sense of their fixations: the Day, the People’s Truth, the Russian Cause, Russian Resurrection, the Russian Register, the Russian Pulse, the Russian Order, For Rus’, Our March, the Nationalist, the Russian Word, the Moscow Tavern, the Moscow Union, and To the Axe.

“Russian” is Russkiy rather than Rossiyskiy in all the examples above, meaning either “ethnic Russian” or “Russian” in a pre-XX century sense, which included Orthodox Christian Slavs and excluded most religious and ethnic minorities. The Moscow Tavern (or Roadhouse, or Inn) may sound innocent in English but smells of the Black Hundreds to the historically aware Russian ear. To the Axe would have run afoul of the 2002 “anti-extremism” law if it had survived until then (nowadays, the law is now mostly used as a censorship tool). The “axe” refers to the call on the Russian peasantry to revolt as printed in Alexander Herzen’s The Bell in 1860:

Herzen’s correspondent accuses him of being out of touch with the desperate mood of the people… “Only the peasant’s axe can save us…; let your Bell sound not to prayer but to the charge. Summon Russia to take up the axe!!”

Back in 1860, months before the emancipation of the serfs, that letter might have served to speed it up and might have been intended for that reason precisely. At any rate, it sounded no more obnoxious than a call to a slave revolt would have: a peasant uprising would have been a bloody affair but the evils of serfdom were undeniable so the rightness of the peasants’ cause would have been impossible to fully deny. When this summons “to the axe” was appropriated by a bunch of proto-Duginists in 1993, the effect was probably similar to the January 6, 2021, rioters comparing themselves to the Minutemen or to John Brown.

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