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The Big Chill: Critics Say Kremlin Waging A War On Ideas

It's not a great time to be a freethinker in Russia.

Offending somebody's religious sensibilities could get you prosecuted according to legislation signed this weekend by President Vladimir Putin. Criticizing the wrong person with a snarky comment on a social network could run afoul of a vaguely worded law criminalizing online defamation.

And lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists need to be mindful of a newly enacted federal law prohibiting "homosexual propaganda" as well as similar legislation enacted in many Russian regions.

And pretty soon, criticizing those who fought against Nazi Germany could be a crime punishable with stiff fines and jail terms.

The recent spate of legislation has fostered a big intellectual chill and created what the Council of Europe, in a recent report, called a "generalized climate of fear" across the country.

"Over the last year we have seen a broad-scale operation that includes a whole package of so-called laws from the Duma under which anyone can be arrested," Viktor Krasin, a Soviet-era dissident who is now a human rights activist, says.

"They have done a remarkable thing -- now you can be accused of slandering the authorities, of inciting enmity. This is just the same as the Stalin- and Khrushchev-era [anti-Soviet] laws but with just different formulations."

Putin's Toolbox

The most recent example is a new bill introduced into the State Duma by Irina Yarovaya of the ruling United Russia party.

According to the bill, which will be be debated in the autumn, anyone using an official position or the media to disseminate "obvious falsehoods" about the activities of the armies of the anti-Nazi coalition, accusing them of committing crimes, or "artificially creating evidence for accusations" could face a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($15,151) and up to five years in prison.

On June 26, the media-freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement opposing the bill, saying that "the public has the right to be informed about matters of concern, including on differing views on any historical debate."

While in the Soviet era, the locus of such repression of dissent was the KGB, under President Vladimir Putin it is the Investigative Committee, headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin.

In April, internationally respected economist Sergei Guriyev fled to Paris after investigators searched his office and seized his e-mails.

The investigation seems to stem from an expert evaluation Guriyev wrote for the presidential human rights council condemning the second conviction of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Other experts who contributed to the rights council's report have also come under scrutiny from the Investigative Committee. Most recently, on June 24, Bastrykin's investigators summoned Tamara Morshchakova, former chairwoman of the Constitutional Court and one of the drafters of the Russian Constitution.

'Turning Point'

Writing in "Vedomosti," economist Mikhail Dmitriyev described the so-called experts affair as "a turning point" after which dissent is criminally punished even if it is not accompanied by political action.

Russia's social conflict, Dmitriyev writes, has now pitted the ruling class against the intelligentsia as a whole.

In the city of Perm, art critic Marat Gelman is another intellectual who has gotten caught in the cross fire. Gelman had big dreams of turning the Urals city into an international cultural center on the model of Bilbao, Spain.

But in June 2012 he was fired as the head of the Museum of Contemporary Art after authorities in Moscow were offended by three exhibitions he organized as part of the city’s White Nights celebration. One featured faux posters for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with designs such as the Olympic rings formed by hangman’s nooses (see photo gallery above).

In addition, authorities have ordered an audit of the White Nights festival, and it's possible Gelman could face criminal charges.

Gelman argues that the intellectual climate in Russia has changed dramatically since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term.

Previously, he says, social and political policy was in the hands of Vladislav Surkov who, as deputy Kremlin chief of staff, managed his bailiwick with a deft hand and tolerated intellectual dissent.

Tightening The Screws

But Surkov was pushed aside earlier this year and now deputy presidential chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin has set a harsher tone.

"Volodin has changed the whole game," Gelman says. "He said: 'If you are not with us, you are against us. Either you are ours or you are an enemy and will be treated as such.' That is, everything has been divided into two camps."

This, he says, is the root of Russia’s climate of fear. "Now everyone must be afraid, including insiders," Gelman says. "That is, you can swear fealty to the regime, you can declare that Putin is your idol, but that does not mean that you can sleep easily."

Filmmaking is another area to feel the effects of the Kremlin’s new anti-intellectualism.

In May, Putin met with officials in Sochi and declared that the state will only support the production of films that "inspire pride in one's nation and one's history." On June 18, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky announced the formation of a council that would evaluate all film projects on historical themes and make decisions about funding.

On June 20, a state-supported film biography of cosmonaut Yury Gagarin was released to widespread criticism that it was a sanitized, Soviet-style idealization. One critic wrote it was as if director Pavel Parkhomenko "had turned a feature from 'Pravda' into a film."

Ethnic Tatar filmmaker Ramil Tukhvatullin says it is clear that the Kremlin's goal is to promote unambiguous, one-sided portrayals of history.

"There is a classic film by Sergei Eisenstein called 'Ivan the Terrible' -- the scene when the Russians capture Kazan shows what was happening from one side of the gates, when they were attacking us," Tukhvatullin says.

"If we try to make a film showing what was happening on our side of the gate, where people were dying in defense of our nation -- Moscow would call this 'inciting ethnic hatred.' It could never happen. And it is easy to understand why: Moscow has its own agenda."

Increasingly, Russian intellectuals seem to be facing the choice of either leaving Russia, like economist Guriyev or chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, or remaining and facing the possibility of prosecution, like the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot or anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny.

That’s the choice art critic Gelman faces as he considers his future in Perm.

"We'll see," Gelman says. "People keep asking me, 'Are you like Guriyev or are you like Navalny?'"

Tom Balmforth and RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov contributed to this story from Moscow. RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed from Prague

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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