Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Putin Regime Unwittingly Trapped by Streisand Effect, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – Moscow’s efforts to censor the Internet are backfiring, producing in Russia what is known in the West as “the Streisand effect” when efforts to suppress information have the unintended consequence of giving such materials far more prominence than they would have had if the regime had left them alone, according to Vadim Shtepa.

            Named for the American singer and actress Barbra Streisand whose efforts in 2003 to keep photographs of her Malibu residence out of the media had the effect the attracting even more attention to them, this effect has acted as a restraining influence on many officials in the age of the Internet but clearly not in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

            Speaking in Berlin this week, Shtepa describes the way in which the Streisand effect is spreading in Russia on the basis of his own detention last week in Karelia for posts on the Internet and the attacks on him and others who share his federalist ideas by the head of that republic (

                And this is leading to the extraordinarily “paradoxical” situation, the Russian regionalist continues, that “a state can itself become fascist even though it prohibits any portrayal of swastikas and other ‘extremist symbols’” because by attacking them in the way that it does, such a state is increasing attention to them.

            Last Thursday, Shtepa says, his education about this began when a major from the government’s E Center that monitors the Internet asked him to come in to agree to a “formal warning” against any display of “extremism” at an upcoming festival on the winter solstice. The officer promised that it wouldn’t take “more than ten minutes.”

            The regionalist writer had planned to leave for Germany to attend a conference that night, but he was convinced that it would not be a good idea to ignore this request lest it have an adverse effect on the others involved in the organization of the music and games festival at the end of December.

            Such folk festivals have been conducted for several years, and thousands of tourists attend them. “In general, there is no politics, only music and old popular games.” But last year, the vigilant authorities seized several historical Karelian flags, “although they have not been recognized as ‘extremist’ by anyone.”

            Shtepa says that when he turned up, he was told “to take his time” and then realized that his visit was going to last longer and be more consequential than he had thought or the officer had promised. He adds that he has long been aware that the government monitors his publications in various media outlets.

            But those publications offer little for any formal charges since they are kept well within the limits of Russian laws, “although the same of permitted freedom of speech is constantly contracting.”  And consequently, they are turning to the social media where people, himself included, speak and publish in “a less formal” style.

            After being kept three hours, Shtepa continues, he was led to the Petrozavodsk courtroom where a judge examined screenshots of some of his postings in Facebook and Vkontakte over the last several years.  They didn’t find much they could use, but it turned out that “Shtepa had published one swastika.”

                The Russian government’s “struggle with pictures on the net in the Internet era appears unbelievably absurd. In the normal work, this leads to the Streisand effect … but in Russia, as it turns out, for such virtual crimes, they really put you in prison.”

            Today in Russia, “if you go to Finland and photograph yourself alongside a historical Finnish tank as do thousands of tourists from other countries but then post this photograph on a social network, you are an extremist! … Your testimony that these swastikas do not have any relationship to Nazism won’t convince the judge.”

            The reason for that lies in a curious formulation in Russia’s anti-extremist law. It does not just prohibit the display of the Nazi swastika but of any symbol that resembles it. That should not come as a surprise because “the most popular word among Russian legislators now is ‘prohibition.’ Russians are already accustomed to ask themselves what will the Duma prohibit at its next session?”

            During an earlier encounter with a Russian judge about his publications, the state official criticized him for his wording because “children could read your journal.”  And that is “very indicative” of how the Russian authorities view Russians: They see them as “easily influenced children and not wise citizens with a sense of humor.”

            The posting of the Finnish symbol similar to the Nazi swastika that got him in trouble this time around, Shtepa says, “appeared long before the Third Reich and was not banned by the Nuremberg tribunal. Nevertheless, in the opinion of a Russian judge, it ‘insults the memory about the war.’”

            By the time of his trial on Friday, Shtepa says, he had taken down that picture, but the authorities have been monitoring his Facebook and Vkontakte accounts since 2012, “it turns out,” and they found something else. “Those who think that the authorities don’t have the resources for this are mistaken.”

            And he was sentenced to arrest for 24 hours, the first such case of a blogger and journalist in Karelia, but one that as a result creates “a precedent.” And Shtepa thanks the Union of Journalists of Karelia who protested the decision of the court – on Facebook, of course (

            He was photographed, fingerprinted and put in a cell with seven others. When they asked why he was there, he responded that it was “for pictures in the Internet.” The other detainees were surprised: They’ll put you in prison for that and then suggested that the authorities should perform an unnatural act on themselves.

            But while he was incarcerated, Shtepa recounts, he found in the prison library a copy of KGB defector Oleg Gordiyevsky’s 1995 book, “Next Stop Execution.” He read it all night given that the lights in his cell were never turned off and says he concluded that “this was the most correct time and place for such books.”
            More to the point, Shtepa says in Germany, it represented “a kind of prophecy also for me,” given what the Karelian governor has said about his prospect for the future (  And “therefore,” he concludes, “returning to Russia now is not in my plans for the time being.”

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