Every now and again, something occurs internationally that makes me very, very glad to live in this country. As this is an election year, I know we’ve all seen bumper stickers, advertisements and mailings, as well as people on television and in person that completely disparage one candidate or the other. One of my favorites was a bumper sticker I saw in South Carolina that read “GTFO” with the O being the Obama symbol. If you don’t know what the phrase means, well, that’s what the Internet is for.
This is, perhaps, one of the only countries in the world that the citizenry can get away with that stuff. And just when you think other countries are coming around to our way of thinking, stuff like this happens, and you realize that what we have here is very precious, indeed.
In Russia, you may have heard of the President, Vladimir Putin. Well, not only is he president now, but prior to that, he was prime minister, while his hand-picked candidate was president. Before that, he was president. And before that, he was a high-ranking KGB official. Yes, it certainly sounds as though the former Soviet Union is becoming more and more open and freer all the time.
You see, some aren’t that thrilled that Putin is again the President. He has been pretty effective at shutting down protests to his rule in the countryside, but the cities remain a problem. And one of the biggest problems hit the world news like a bomb.
Several months ago, a punk rock band (I’m not going to say their name because most people will find it offensive. Another fine use of the Internet!) got up in a church wearing balaclavas. They played approximately three minutes of a song and were in front of the congregation for only a few minutes, but their message could not have been ignored. They basically called Putin a crook and lamented for the state of Russia with him as the President. Needless to say, shortly after the performance, the band was arrested, and likely thrown into the Lubyanka, one of the most terrible prisons in the world today.
Soon after, charges were brought up against the individuals in the band. This is where Russian reality and American reality diverge greatly. In America, these people could be arrested for trespass. Maybe even inciting a riot, although no riot actually took place. But that’s not the way things work on the other side of the world.
The members of the band were recently put on trial for, basically, insulting President Yeltsin. The authorities threw some charges in there regarding causing a commotion in a church, and being jerks about things (I paraphrase), but none of the charges we would expect here.
The trial was a bit of a sham, and, in the end, each member of the band received two years in prison. Since the sentencing, one band member escaped, and the other two began their punishment in what was known as one of the harshest prison camps in the Russian penal system.
This trial and the Russian judicial systems tells us at least two things. First, complete and total freedom has yet to occur in the former Soviet Union, despite the government’s attestation that it has, and second, again, thank god for the good old U.S. of A. I have heard the most offensive things coming out of people’s mouths about both the President and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, yet no one has been brought up on criminal charges, let alone thrown in jail.
The sad thing is that this band was making their art. Art, a great many times, is used to protest things such as politics, the economy, and societal ills. Art should never be censored by a government, just as free speech should never be censored.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. A few Mapplethorpe photographs should have been censored a number of years back. While I thought said pictures were offensive, they shouldn’t have been censored, not should the government have had to pay for them through a government grant.
In any event, the Russian government is trying to ensure that this whole situation does not ever occur again. It is studying passing a few sweeping reforms, that ensures no citizen would be able to speak out against their president without fearing worse penalties than the ones meted out to the aforementioned band. That’s what I call progress!
Chris Markham writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.