Staunton, March 20 – In his classic poem, “The Fall of Rome,” W.H. Auden captures the moment when the collapse of an empire becomes inevitable when he speaks of “a bored official writing down on a pink official form, ‘I do not like my work,’ and going home.” Something like that is now happening among ordinary Russians in ordinary Russian regions.
Belgorod Oblast is one of those places. With its 1.5 million people, most of whom are ethnic Russians, two-thirds of whom are urban, and no history of protest – indeed rather the reverse – it is one of the last places one would expect to find people protesting anything Moscow has done.
But this past weekend, 20 people there went into the streets to protest the new law prohibiting criticism of Russian officials and government institutions. They carried signs declaring “Take Time to Criticize the Powers for the Last Time” and “Stop Violating the Constitution” (go31.ru/news/2335019/uspej-pokritikovat-vlast-v-poslednij-raz-belgorodskie-aktivisty-piketirovali-novye-zakony).
The most remarkable in many ways, however, said simply: “The closer to the end of an empire, the more insane its laws become,” a fundamental truth that caused it to attract the attention of the Region.Expert portal (region.expert/belgorod-picket/), if not yet the central media or even most of the media in Belgorod itself.
Igor Tsevmenko, a member of the Belgorod city council and an organizer of the picket, said that “we understand perfectly well that the powers that be are making yet another attempt to close our mouths so that we cannot criticize the organs of the executive and legislative branches” of the government.”
“We consider this absolutely unacceptable. Therefore, we have come out for a mass picket and called on society to express its point of view to the population of the city,” he continued. Others who took part echoed his views: One said that officials must “deserve respect” if they are going to avoid criticism.
And still others said during the course of the hour-long demonstration: “we are not slaves! we won't be silent!” and indicated that they had no plans to “shut their mouths” whatever the powers that be in Moscow say and whatever penalties it imposes.
Svetlana Sheychenko, another participant, said that “we are standing here because we are fighting for freedom of speech and the rights of citizens. Some do not even know that they must now be more careful with their words. And who will decide what is health criticism and what is defamation?”
“It’s possible,” she said, that such issues will require the creation of “’a Ministry of Truth,’” the kind of Orwellian institution that regimes in trouble adopt to defend themselves but that ultimately eats away at whatever remaining support they have, including among those they think of as their “base.”