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Conference on Freedom of Speech in Russia

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St. Mary’s Hall (Multipurpose Room)
Friday, April 24, 2015 - 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Co-sponsored with the College of Arts & Humanities, the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and the Department of Government & Politics

Freedom of speech is a concept that defines the role of the individual within a social collective order: it operates simultaneously as a liberal value necessary to the establishment of the public sphere, and as one that potentially conceals within it the problem of power (whether of authority or capital). The tension between freedom (of the individual) and responsibility (both of and to the collective) is reassessed by whomever happens to be doing the analysis, in terms of the value of the collective ideals of that system. But we should take care that comparison doesn’t become the effacement of differences. It is important to ask whether the constraint that opposes freedom of speech is infused with fear, or is rather the individual’s responsibility toward some greater entity that constrains him or her.    

Some questions to be addressed in this conference include:

- How does Russia mobilize its populations by means of ideological propaganda?

- How do issues of freedom of speech affect the struggle for the public space in the aftermath of Communism?

- How do issues around sovereignty function as a broad, modern response—by both the state and its citizens—to global financialization?

- Can freedom of speech be legitimately limited in a democratic society? Can statements about the past be so dangerous as to justify their criminalization?

- What is the effect of the current Russian media environment on the Russian public and on Russian subjectivity?


Masha Gessen, Maya Brin Resident

- Eliot Borenstein, Russian & Slavic Studies, NYU

- David Brandenberger, History, U Richmond

- Nancy Condee, Slavic, Film Studies, & Global Studies, U Pittsburgh

- Nikolay Koposov, History, Georgia Tech

- Marius Stan, Political Science, U Bucharest, Romania

- Vladimir Tismaneanu, Government & Politics, U Maryland


9:00-9:30 am: breakfast


The Putin-Era Propaganda State: Virtual Politics, Postmodernism, Steampunk and Other, More Conventional Appraisals of Official Russian Media, 2000-2015

 David Brandenberger, History, University of Richmond

Read the article here:


Much of the past century has been characterized by modern states’ increasingly sophisticated mobilization of their populations through ideologically-charged propaganda. In many senses, the USSR epitomized this tendency through 1991. Post-Soviet Russia too has invested heavily in such politicized messaging, despite its constitutional commitments to freedom of speech and the press. Recent literature on the subject has focused a great deal of attention on the Russian state’s changing relationship to the media over the course of the past 15 years—its cooption of formerly independent television broadcasting; its consolidation of state news agencies; its encroachment on social media and the internet’s information marketplace; and its embrace of unconventional approaches to mass mobilization. Recently, a number of analysts and commentators have argued that Russian state media is in the throes of a major transformation, particularly in connection with the Ukrainian Euromaidan, the fall of V. F. Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea and the emergence of a bitter proxy war in the Donbas. This paper surveys some of the most ambitious examples of this literature in order to test its capacity to explain the contemporary contours of the Putin-era propaganda state.

respondent: Michael David-Fox, History, Georgetown University

10:30-11:20 am

Fighting for the Public Sphere: Liberalism and Anti-Liberalism in the Aftermath of Communism

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Government and Politics, University of Maryland

Marius Stan, University of Bucharest

Read the article here:


Based on what happened in Romania after 1989, and also via a diachronic comparison highlighting other cases such as Hungary, former Yugoslavia, and perhaps Russia, we intend to look at the background circumstances that have influenced the struggle for the public space in the aftermath of Communism. Consequently, our paper involves a carefully conducted analysis of the competition between various discourses (liberal, illiberal, anti-liberal, including ethnocentrism and xenophobia), and the vicissitudes of public trust in those particular societies. We will examine the rise of the new authoritarianisms, including Viktor Orban's populist conservatism, and will explore what we call "Orbanization", a phenomenon identifiable not only in Hungary, but also in other countries, including Romania. The second part of our intervention will focus on nostalgia and its meanings (Romania and former Yugoslavia, and also some references to Russia), together with some hypotheses on the legacies of the authoritarian language.

respondent: Sarah Cameron, History, University of Maryland

11:30-12:20 pm

Eminent Domain, Fire Codes, and the Plundered Self

Nancy Condee, Global Studies, Film Studies, and Slavic, University of Pittsburgh

Read the article here:


“Sovereignty” and its related terms (e.g. Vladislav Surkov’s 2006 coinage “sovereign democracy”) have accrued intensified meaning since the March 2014 Crimean annexation. The talk looks at contemporary cultural politics (with an emphasis on today’s cinema) to ask how issues around sovereignty (including seizure, occupation, and expropriation) function as a broad, modern response—by both the state and its citizens—to global financialization. The marshalling of tax law, fire codes, sanitation inspection, and real-estate cadastres has come to shape contemporary culture, in terms of both its functional survival and its internal preoccupations. The tropes of the “imperiled dwelling” and “imperiled self” are rich sources of allegorical comment on the autonomous title to words, meaning, and value.

respondent: Anne Eakin Moss, Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins University

12:30-2:00 pm: lunch

2:00-2:50 pm

Q & A with Masha Gessen, 2015 Maya Brin Resident

Read a chapter from Masha Gessen's Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012) here.

Read an article bringing the story up to date here.

Read excerpts from Masha Gessen's newly published book, The Americans: The Road to an American Tragedy.

Excerpt 1.

Excerpt 2.

Moderated by Nancy Condee

3:00-3:50 pm

Historical Memory and Freedom of Speech in Putin’s Russia

Nikolay Koposov, History, Georgia Institute of Technology

Read the article here:


On May 5, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing “dissemination of knowingly false information on the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.” Since the 1980s, memory laws have become one of the most important instruments of the politics of memory in Europe. Most of them penalize Holocaust denial. This paper discusses the important theoretical and practical issues raised by the criminalization of statements about the past. In particular: can freedom of speech be legitimately limited in a democratic society? Can statements about the past be so dangerous as to justify their criminalization? What are the reasons for the emergence of the memory laws and what does their existence tell us about present-day historical consciousness? Are memory laws an efficient tool for promoting democracy and combating racism and xenophobia? Is Russian memory law similar to Holocaust denial legislation or is it a sui generis legislative act? Are there “good” and “bad” memory laws?

respondent: Jeffrey Brooks, History, Johns Hopkins University

4:00-4:50 pm

The Talking Dead: Articulating the “Zombified” Subject Under Putin

Eliot Borenstein, Russian & Slavic Studies, New York University

Read the article here:


In the current Russian media environment, commentators of all political stripes are on the lookout for propaganda and its effects. The war in Ukraine, for example, has prompted accusations that the Russian, Ukrainian, and Western media are brainwashing their audiences. The Russian term most frequently invoked is “zombification”: the transformation of otherwise potentially rational TV viewers into unthinking husks due to the pernicious effects of the “зомбоящик” (the “zombie box,” which is the Russian equivalent to “boob tube.”)  The casual but pervasive discourse of zombification, while completely inconsistent with the frameworks of modern media studies, has itself exerted a powerful hold on the Russian consciousness. Ironically, brainwashing and its Russian variant, zombification, are a concept with deep Cold War roots: Western anti-communists after World War II essentially took the Leninist rhetoric of reforging and reeducation at face value, creating fantasies of communist mind control. From there brainwashing makes the jump to the anti-cult movement, which then exports it to the former USSR with the help of anti-sectarian activists associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. When combined with conspiracy theories such as the Dulles Plan and the Harvard Project (and a large dose of blind faith in the power of mysterious KGB science), brainwashing/zombification plays a crucial role in the discursive construction of a Russian state whose inhabitants have been subject to prolonged mind control experiments (whether by the Americans, Jews, or the Communist Party). Ultimately, one of the few ideas that seems to unite a large number of otherwise fractious Russian pundits and Internet commentators is a pessimistic anthropology of the Russian public, positing Russian subjectivity largely as absence: the Russian media consumer is painted as a passive victim with no defense against the media’s vast and varied rhetorical arsenal. Speech ceases to be the product of an integral consciousness, turning instead into stuff of which false consciousness is made. 

respondent: Sarah Oates, Merrill School of Journalism, University of Maryland