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Russian Censors' Fight Against Teen Suicide Looks Ham-Fisted To Some

  • Sergei Gogin

According to the United Nations, the country's teen-suicide rate in 2011 was 22 per 100,000, more than three times the global average. About 1,700 Russians aged 15 to 19 commit suicide each year. (illustrative photo)

According to the United Nations, the country's teen-suicide rate in 2011 was 22 per 100,000, more than three times the global average. About 1,700 Russians aged 15 to 19 commit suicide each year. (illustrative photo)

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- In 1956, a 24-year-old rising star of the Soviet opera stage participated in a student delegation to the United Kingdom, where she wowed audiences.

But for unknown reasons, a difficult time was awaiting Irma Golodyayevskaya when she returned home. There were rumors she was accused of having a secret meeting with Queen Elizabeth, of having been offered a prestigious job in England, or of having an affair with a British diplomat.

She was summoned by the Komsomol youth organization and lectured personally by Soviet chief ideologue and Politburo member Mikhail Suslov. She was interrogated by the KGB. In October 1956, two weeks before her 25th birthday, Golodyayevskaya committed suicide.

The singer lived briefly in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk during World War II, so it was natural last month when the local news portal Ulgrad.ru published an article announcing a new biography of the artist by local journalist and historian Gennady Dyomochkin. But just days after the article went up, the website received notification from the government mass-media monitoring agency, Roskomnadzor, that the website had been included in the list of websites publishing information that is banned in Russia -- in this case for disseminating information "about ways of committing suicide."

Ulgrad.ru is hardly alone.

"Such stories have come up constantly since 2012 when the law on protecting children from harmful information was amended and blacklists of harmful sites to be blocked were introduced," Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the Center for the Defense of Digital Rights, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

While some suspect chatrooms and discussion threads have been shut down under the law, Darbinyan notes that far more often the law has been used dubiously. Various Wikipedia articles and Buddhist texts have been banned, for instance. In one case, a YouTube video that described how to apply Halloween makeup to mimic slit wrists was taken down.

"Obviously, there was no description of how to commit suicide in the video," Darbinyan says. "YouTube appealed the decision, but the court ruled in favor of the state regulator. In fact, we are not aware of a single case when it was possible to successfully resolve such an absurd situation through the courts."

According to Darbinyan, the problem is both that the law is written too generally -- banning any description of suicide no matter what the context -- and enforcement seems to have been automated, with government "bots" patrolling the Russian-language Internet and mechanically flagging problematic texts.

Law 'Not A Solution'

Teen suicide is a serious issue in Russia. According to the United Nations, the country's teen-suicide rate in 2011 was 22 per 100,000, more than three times the global average. About 1,700 Russians aged 15 to 19 commit suicide each year.

But the current law on protecting children from harmful information may not be a solution.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is that this law could ban [Leo Tolstoy's novel] Anna Karenina," biographer Dyomochkin says, referring to Tolstoy's 1877 novel in which the beleaguered heroine commits suicide by throwing herself under a train. Suicide features prominently in the works of classic Russian authors including Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov, and more.

"In this case, we are talking about a tragically great singer," Dyomochkin says, referring to Golodyayevskaya. "All of us in Ulyanovsk should know her story by heart."

Aleksandr Tsykin, head of the Ulyanovsk Oblast branch of Roskomnadzor, defends the warning to Ulgrad.ru, although he says his office did not initiate the case. "Even if monitoring is conducted using keywords, the evaluation of the content is carried out by experts," he tells RFE/RL, "because it is a serious matter. I don't think Ulgrad faces certain closure. This is a warning so that they will be more attentive."

But legal activist Darbinyan says the entire law needs to be scrapped, or at least reworked. "Half the cases of blocked pages or websites are ordered by regional courts on the basis of complaints filed by local prosecutors," he says. "But the level of competence there is not high. In many cases, the owners of the websites, who might stand up for their rights, are not involved. Norms on fair hearings are violated. The courts grant the most absurd requests of the prosecutors. That is why we need a complete revision of this law."

The Ulgrad website immediately took down the story of the tragic opera singer, but the website remains on the government's blacklist. If it receives a second warning within one year, the government has the right to ask a court to order it closed down.

Robert Coalson contributed to this report
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