In Russia, the only laws that provoke public discussion are those that are badly drafted or patently absurd, that adversely affect someone’s rights or disguise some cunning government plan to develop a suitably biddable populace. A new piece of legislation that looks 'protect children from information that may harm their health and development' might be described under all of those headings.
To adopt a phrase made famous by the former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, 'they did their best, but it turned out as it always does'. When drafting the law, Russia’s bureaucrats were perhaps initially guided by the highest of moral principles. They wanted to ensure that nothing designed to inform and educate children — be it a book, a magazine, a film or cartoon series — contained reference to bad things: to smoking or drinking, bad language, sex or criticism of family values. They wanted to ensure a child didn't read anything that might diminish respect for parents, lead him/her to break the law or commit suicide.
Astrid Lindgren’s 'Karlsson-on-the-Roof' and his young friend ‘Little Brother’ need to be seen in a new light. Karlsson risks the child’s life by flying with him over the town, and in any case, why is a man ‘in the prime of life’ spending so much time with a child?
‘Law No. 436-FZ’, as it is officially known, attracted a lot of criticism even before it reached the statute books, since it effectively outlawed a good half of what the previous generation of Russian citizens (including MPs themselves) had grown up on. In the famous 'Nu pogodi!' [Just You Wait!] TV cartoons, a kind of Soviet version of ‘Tom and Jerry’, the baddie, a wolf, always had a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-Roof and his young friend ‘Little Brother’, favourites with Russian children thanks to another popular cartoon series, would also need to be considered in a new light. In the first place, Karlsson puts the child’s life at risk by flying with him over the town, and in the second, what is a man ‘in the prime of life’ doing spending so much time with a child anyway? Hmm... very suspicious.
And as for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet... doesn’t that just promote suicide? These, and similar examples, were endlessly analysed on the internet as the date approached for the bill to become law. As soon as that happened, the humourous tone of the blogs and social networks was replaced by rumblings of outrage among publishers, writers and librarians. Discussions were organised, and open letters and articles in the press slammed a law that had been designed with such good intentions. No official response to these has been forthcoming.
A favourite of generations of Russian children, Karlsson makes his timid friend disobey parents, maltreat a housekeeper and steal food. We can assume that, were it to be published today, the story would not meet the requirements of the new law. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Mariluna
Detaching children from reality
I was directly affected by the law just before it came into force last year. I had sent a publisher a story I had written, called ‘Fifteen’, which had been shortlisted for two literary prizes, and I received the following reply: ‘I read your story with great interest. However, tomorrow the new law on ‘the protection of children from information that might harm their health and development’ will come into force. To be honest, we have always tried to avoid references to smoking and drinking in the books we publish, but now the state is laying down the rules. In other words, your story could be published, but not by a children’s publisher. Even though, I repeat, it is excellent in its portrayal of both character and scenes from real life.’
My young heroine is a positive role model, rejecting the smoking, boozing and foul language of those around her, but I fear my book will never be published in Russia unless it is labelled ‘'18+". And what over-18 will want to read about the problems of a 15 year old?
The story is set in the 90s, the time of Perestroika. Fifteen year old Polina, brought up in an educated middle class family, goes off to visit relatives in a town in Kazakhstan, where her romantic dreams of first love are shattered by the harsh reality of post-Soviet life. Children are abandoned for the sake of survival; the older generation is hooked on TV soap operas and most of the population finds consolation in the bottle. Polina falls in with a crowd for whom smoking dope and hard drinking are the accepted way of life. She has to choose whether to remain herself and be rejected by the gang, or attract the attention of a lad she fancies by becoming one of them... pretending to be an adult ... Despite the fact that my young heroine is in the end a positive role model, rejecting the smoking, boozing and foul language of those around her, I fear my book will never be published in Russia unless it is labelled ‘for readers of 18 and over’. But what over-18 will want to read about the problems of a 15 year old?
What faith the bureaucrats have in the printed word! They are sure that if a book mentions drugs and alcohol, its readers will immediately rush out and use them. But teenagers have always hidden round the corner after school and lit up; always kissed in doorways, fallen in love with their teachers, had their first sexual encounters and rebelled against their parents’ unfair rules. The new law’s message is that parents, and adults in general, are always right, and any disobedience is a demonstration of the ‘lack of respect’ that is now a criminal offence.
‘In Russia we have something called the ‘Family Code’ – an Act of Parliament that regulates family relations. It states that it is a child’s parents who are responsible for his or her life, health, development and education. As long as a parent carries out their duties responsibly, no one can interfere with this process and tell them, for example, what their child should read. If a parent decides that it is important for the child to read a given book, no ‘Parents’ Committee’ has the right to stop them. To prevent a child reading a book that will increase their knowledge and maturity is to forcibly stunt their development. Children need to be frightened - this is something they feel intuitively; they need to read things that they won’t quite understand yet, things that are ‘too old for them’ – otherwise they will never grow up.
The problem with this law is that by trying to protect children from pornography or hyper-realistic horror, its authors are instead wrapping them in cotton wool. Don’t let them grow and think for themselves – they might get hurt!
Alas, publishers and librarians are upping the suggested age range on books to avoid confrontation with over-anxious or dim-witted adults, as well as potential court cases that might damage their reputation and finances
Parents have to choose whether to go on the opinions of loud-mouthed but uneducated activists or to read the books themselves and decide whether they are suitable for their child No one can take that decision better than them. And in any case, a meeting between a reader and a book is such an intimate event that other people should keep their dirty hands off it.’
Ksenya Moldavskaya, children’s literary critic and coordinator of the ‘Knigoru’ All-Russia teenage literature prize
One result of the law was the appearance in Yekaterinburg of an organisation called ‘The Ural Parents’ Committee’, which initiated checks on children’s literature in all the city’s bookshops. Its members were horrified to find on open sale books for children aged 8-16 entitled ‘How my Body Grows Up’ and ‘What is Happening to my Body’. Other unacceptable titles included a novel, ’Who to Go Running With’ by David Grossman, which has won several prizes and whose theme is the prevention of drug abuse, and a story by the German writer Beate Teresa Hanika, ‘Little Red Riding Hood Must Cry’, about the sexual abuse by a grandfather of his granddaughter. And recently the management of a large bookshop refused to stock a re-issue by ‘Samokat’ publishers of Vadim Frolov’s ‘What’s it all about?’, first published in 1966! Their reason – the appearance of the phrase ‘a yearning of the flesh’ in relation to a 14 year old boy.
In Yekaterinburg, members of ‘The Ural Parents’ Committee’, which initiated checks on children’s literature in all the city’s bookshops, were horrified to find on open sale books for children aged 8-16 entitled ‘How my Body is Growing Up’ and ‘What is Happening to my Body’.
In St Petersburg a law has been passed to allow for books to be referred for expert review, but only by the legislative assembly, officials from the Human and Children’s Rights department or the city administration. In practice, it’s much easier just to remove a book from the shelves than to order a review, and this is what is already happening. A librarian who issues a ‘dangerous’ book can be fined between 5000 and 10,000 roubles (£100-200) if anyone makes a complaint (the average librarian only earns 12,000 -15,000 roubles a month). In May the Telecommunications and Media Ministry announced that books published before 1st September 2012 need not carry age guidance labels, even if they are being issued to children. But it’s already too late!
The law also states that literature with adult content may not be sold or otherwise distributed within 100 metres of organisations dealing with children. But in most libraries it is impossible to separate adult and children’s collections by this distance. And if it’s a children’s library in the first place then it’s obviously absurd. So books are already being hidden, and there’s a feeling that we’ll soon be seeing the smoke rising from the bonfires...
Risks to publishers
Just before the law banning ‘gay propaganda’ went through parliament, one brave publisher, ‘Samokat’, brought out Darya Vilke’s book ‘The Fool’s Cap’. It a real act of courage, since this book could be said to break two new laws. The story is about difference, about how scary it is to let yourself be yourself, and how it is also essential that you do so. It is a perceptive and beautifully written book about a boy growing up behind the scenes in the puppet theatre where his parents work. This theatre, with its distinctive traditions and atmosphere, and the colourful characters (both puppets and puppet masters) that inhabit it, are his whole life. And even if the main character hasn’t yet understood his own ‘untraditional’ sexuality, things would be as difficult for him in school and among his playmates as for any creative person out of his own circle.
‘Laws on literature have never helped anyone or anything and are incapable of doing so. What helps is enlightenment and education, not a ban. And this goes for all laws. While we in Russia are afraid to talk about certain things, these problems won’t go away, they’ll just fester under the surface. We are more afraid of losing face than the Japanese, but not because of our own sense of dignity, but out of fear and stupidity, as though if we shut our eyes, it’ll all go away.’
Olga Myaeots, Head of Children’s Literature, Rudomino Library of Foreign Literature
Samokat’s editor in chief Irina Balakhonova wrote earlier this year on her Facebook page: ‘We hesitated for a long time before publishing ‘The Fool’s Cap’ (it’s now two years old), but a few months ago we realised that as far as a Russian edition was concerned it was now or never. Who knows how long it will be on sale in Russian? It doesn’t, of course, contain any “gay propaganda", but how can we prove that to a state that needs an internal enemy? That’s why we brought it out in a really small edition (2000 copies)... so that we wouldn’t have to make cuts in a month or two (...) If reading it makes you finally stop being frightened of people who are not like you, or if you weren’t frightened, makes you realise that their right to freedom should be protected by everyone ... if that happens, then it was right for us to publish it, whatever the consequences.’
Large bookshop chains now have special people to check books brought out by ‘potentially dangerous’ publishers – the ones who have published children books from home and abroad on everything a young person needs to know, but which parents are often unwilling to discuss.
Publishers have a lot to lose: if a court rules that the ‘Protection of Children’ law has been broken, they will be fined and the book, whose production has involved much work and financial input, will be withdrawn from sale. Large bookshop chains now have special people to check out books brought out by ‘potentially dangerous’ publishers – the ones whose books are honest. In other words, not the publishing giants that flood the market with second rate books for children, but small independent firms such as ‘Samokat’, KompasGID and ‘Rosovy Zhiraf’ (Pink Giraffe). These are the people who over the last decade have published children's books from home and abroad on all kinds of historical and contemporary issues: violence in the home and school, anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, growing up - everything a young person needs to know about at a particular stage of their development, but which parents are often unwilling to discuss.
From now on, any book not designated as part of humanity’s cultural heritage (and who is going to decide what falls into that category, and on what criteria?) can be blacklisted. All it will take is for some dissatisfied parent to write a complaint to the official media watchdog. Publishers may simply find there’s no point in publishing any teenage literature, unless they label it ‘for over 18s’. In which case of course it won’t be available in any children’s library. Will parents buy these books? It’s a good question.
Russian lawmakers' attempts to 'protect' children from information raise worries about the country ushering in a dystopian future. Photo: (cc) Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
A new kind of character
I predict that we will soon be seeing a new kind of book on the shelves – a return to the norms of Soviet children’s fiction: tendentious, silent on life’s real issues, and with a new kind of positive role model as central character. No more hooligans and gang members – although they may start secretly inhabiting anti-government sites and leading good children off the straight and narrow. Teenage fiction might disappear completely, since this is the important type of literature which helps young people move from fantasy to reality, find their place in the world and come to the realisation that it is full of inexplicable contradictions.
Teens will no longer be able read about their own problems, about their ethical choices, about how to stick to their principles. The law offers them a world viewed through rose-tinted glasses - to be removed on their 18th birthday, when they will be left to confront this mad, mad, mad, mad world alone. This may well be the start of a new era of censorship disguised as decency and protection from harm, which will in its turn awaken a new age of samizdat.
Why bother banning books from being published when you can just throw them on the flames? It wouldn’t be the first time, after all.