Vladimir Putin used strategies that would fall under the categories of stealth authoritarianism or executive aggrandizement to muzzle the Russian media throughout the early 2000s, as established by Scott Gehlbach . What is interesting is that in recent years, we have seen Putin use a similar playbook to censor and stifle the arts, a historically important outlet for dissent across different countries, time periods and political structures.
Scott Gehlbach, in his piece Reflections on Putin and the Media in 2010, describes the media environment that Vladimir Putin had created since taking office in 2000. Putin’s relationship with the media falls under designations of executive aggrandizement or stealth authoritarianism, as coined by Nancy Bermeo and Ozan Varol, respectively . These terms posit that through democratically legal means, Putin has consolidated his power over democratic institutions, such as free media. Unlike dictators or authoritarians of the past, Putin did not establish his own form of governance or suppress the media through explicit threats or violence. Instead, Putin gathered control of key news agencies by having loyal business executives buy up control of the media conglomerates and by applying economic pressure through the state . In more recent years, we have seen Putin use different strategies that also fall within stealth authoritarianism to suppress the arts in Russia.
Putin is cited by Varol as a stealth authoritarian regarding other aspects of his presidency in Russia, primarily his increased control of the courts and their use to shape national and provincial law within Russia and his use of democratic rhetoric [5.] Another more recent development under Putin’s rule is Putin’s of his power over the courts and legislation to suppress the arts, in favor of a more conservative Russia. In 2013, Putin passed a law that criminalizes acts offending religious believers and in 2014 he passed a law that banned obscenities in public performances. These laws were not put into place to enforce every act of obscenity or offense but instead used to give the Russian state grounds for arrest when offensive art was used as a platform for dissent against the state, as they are “often ignored unless someone wants them applied”.
The passage of these anti-democratic and anti-freedom of speech laws has been supplemented recently by another strategy of stealth authoritarians. The Russian state and Putin have resorted to what Varol describes as the conviction of political enemies for non-political crimes . Varol even uses Putin to illustrate this mechanism, describing the Russian government’s trial and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky for tax evasion and fraud when he announced he would become a politician and run against Putin in 2003 . The government has mounted a similar attack on the artistic director of Gogol Center, Kirill Serebrennikov. The director is currently under house arrest as he awaits trial for the alleged embezzlement of $2 million in funds from the government meant to support the arts. Serebrennikov’s contemporaries suggest that the charges are actually because of his productions which have featured nudity, homosexuality and clear parodies of Putin. The legal action against Serebrennikov is not an isolated incident either, as a musical artist named Husky was jailed last November for performing on a car after his show was banned for “extremism”.
This represents a worrying trend in the Russian political sphere. Putin is slowly spreading his influence across industries and across popular culture. As one of the key forms for public dissent, artistic expression is a fundamental right of a democratic population under most definitions. Putin is using his growing power to stifle the people and their right to expression and information at every turn. Putin’s censorship of the media and the arts are clear instances of democratic backsliding at the hands of a stealth authoritarian. Recognizing when and where democratic erosion takes place is only half the battle. Understanding how to combat such suppression and censorships is a priority if we hope to see any aspects of democracy remain in Russia.
- Gehlbach, Scott. 2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26(1): pp. 77-87.
- Bermeo, N., 2016. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, 27(1), pp.5-19.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
- Gehlbach, Scott. 2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26(1): pp. 86.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1689, 1696, 1705.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1707.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1708.