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In Russia, it is illegal to insult a government official – though this law doesn’t make headlines very often.
It doesn’t make headlines because the official in question must directly petition the Investigative Committee for the insult to be investigated. In many instances, the official in question doesn’t want to appear offended – or so it would seem.
Russian State Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina, the woman behind Russia’s famous law banning gay propaganda to minors on the federal level, is OK with appearing offended.
She has complained that LGBT activist Nikolai Alexeyev, famous for his many PR stunts, insulted her and her colleague on Twitter.
A criminal case has now been opened.
I’m not going to quote Alexeyev’s tweets here. They’re available via a Google search, should you be interested.
No, what’s interesting to me isn’t the context of his tweets. It’s the fact that Mizulina decided to have Alexeyev prosecuted after calls to put her on the Magnitsky visa-ban list appeared online in the United States.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but then again, if Mizulina is ever barred from the States – she could eventually be barred from European Union countries as well. Earlier this year, bloggers had seized on the fact that her son works in Belgium – and in a gay-friendly company, no less. It may be that the media brouhaha about Russia’s treatment of gays has hit Mizulina where it hurts, and the decision to report Alexeyev is a kind of warning shot.
If it is indeed a warning shot, it is bound to misfire. For now, popular Western bloggers have yet to take on Mizulina directly, deciding to focus their criticism on the Russian government as a whole. By singling out Alexeyev, Mizulina may put herself in the position of being singled out herself.
In the last year, we have seen many a Russian politician come to much prominence over some controversial law or another. Who can forget Russian lawmaker Yekaterina Lakhova’s push to ban adoptions of Russian orphans by American parents (well, it’s been alleged that the push really came from the presidential administration, but Lakhova was the star of the show)? Or Irina Yarovaya’s decision that essentially any criticism of anything the Red Army did during World War II ought to be punishable by prison?
To the untrained eye, it may appear as though these Duma deputies are signing up to shepherd controversial legislation through the Duma simply for the fame alone. They want to live forever! Just like the song goes!
But if you’ve been in Russia long enough, you realize that fame, especially for a lawmaker, is a double-edged sword here. While the issue of professional reputation isn’t a big determining factor for Russian politicians today, a famous face risks getting caught up in clan wars and petty revenge schemes – as Yarovaya found out when a luxury apartment registered to her daughter in Moscow prompted a lot of scrutiny, to give an obvious example.
So what is really going on?
Well, first of all, the current effectiveness model for the State Duma, as many experts have noted, is based on the notion that many laws must be passed quickly.
And in the absence of political pluralism – which is further exacerbated by the presence of an extremely powerful, not-to-be-messed-with presidential administration – laws are churned out at a record pace.
The resulting media splash made by the likes of Mizulina or Lakhova is both a consequence of the State Duma’s effectiveness model, which thrusts lawmakers into the spotlight at great speed, as well as a great diversion tactic. For as long as Mizulina is in the news, no one will surely blame the Kremlin. Right? Well, this isn’t always the case, but the fallout for the Kremlin is still minimal.
So what does this mean for bloggers and activists? Well, that can all depend on whom they’re messing with – and who they are. The truth is, with the amount of furious criticism of Mizulina in the media, it may be that Alexeyev was singled out simply for being gay. After all, homophobia is on the rise in Russia, according to the polls, and so a gay man being prosecuted for insulting a respectable lady and member of the lower house of parliament may not get much sympathy.
As Dozhd TV producer Alya Kirillova tweeted this week, “It seems that Mizulina doesn’t know how to use the search function on Twitter – or else she’d be having half the country arrested.”
To be absolutely clear, Mizulina doesn’t want Alexeyev placed under arrest. Instead, she wants him to do community service, preferably helping transport corpses.
There is something poetic about all of this, but not necessarily in a good way.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.