Ukraine’s blacklists in defence of democracy and national security are doing it no favours

Fresh bans on Russian and Ukrainian cultural production are signs that Ukraine could be losing its hard-won freedom. RU

Kateryna Botanova
9 February 2018

The legal import of books from Russia (previously massive in scale) has practically stopped. Photo: grunechka / Flickr. All rights reserved.In recent months, the wave of bans and blacklists in Ukraine’s cultural politics since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in the east of the country has reached new heights. Last November, Ukraine’s State Film Agency revoked registration for a popular sitcom, “In-laws” (Svaty), banning it from the country’s TV channels: one of the Russian actors had been put on a security service blacklist for publicly supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and regularly visiting the peninsula, making him an official threat to national security.

Then in mid-January, the agency banned the Russian film Matilda, which depicts a love affair between the future Tsar Nicholas II and the half-Polish ballet dancer, Matilda Kshesinskaya (Valery Gergiev, the film’s musical director, had already been blacklisted for a long time). And two days later, The Guardian published an article by historian Anthony Beevor protesting the decision to ban the Russian translation of Stalingrad, his historical account of the 1942-1943 battle. An expert committee at the State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting included the book on a list of works that are banned from being imported to Ukraine from “the aggressor state”, because of its “provocative nature”.

In the Ukrainian media world, news about yet another Russian cultural figure, film or book being blacklisted is hardly world-shattering. Over the last four years, the list has lengthened to include 118 people. The legal import of books from Russia (previously massive in scale) has practically stopped, and although the expert committee above regularly publishes lists of banned books (there are 25 at present), there is no indication of either the criteria used or checks on its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian public has split into two clear camps. One will support any action that limits Russia’s media and cultural presence (especially of the mass produced kind) in Ukraine’s public sphere. The other argues for a “ban on bans”, on the grounds that freedom of speech is an essential element of democracy, or that in our age of global communication it’s basically impossible to ban anything.

The situation with “In-laws”, Matilda and Stalingrad is, of course, somewhat different from the ban on importing works by such figures as Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian chauvinist writer and Donbas combatant, or Zurab Tseriteli, a bonafide pillar of Russian “great power” culture and president of the Russian Academy of Arts, or the folk and pop singer Nadezhda Babkina.


Scene from the movie "Matilda." Source: Youtube. Some rights reserved.“In-laws” is a popular sitcom produced in Ukraine. The secret of its success is its gentle use of contrasting family and cultural stereotypes: her parents and his parents, the city and the countryside, politeness and tackling things head-on. There have been six seasons so far, all equally well received, and a seventh was due for 2018. The news of its possible ban was the talk of the press, TV and social media for almost a week before Ukraine’s state film agency confirmed its decision. The average TV viewer, who couldn’t care less about book imports and was now used to the absence of Russian pop stars on TV or on stage in their home town or wherever, was outraged: “‘In-laws’ is our programme. What are they doing banning it?” The programme’s producer, the popular actor Vladimir Zelensky, recorded a message to the SBU, calling for it to “get rid of your nepotism first, then start fighting against our ‘In-laws’”. Meanwhile, some leaders of opinion and public intellectuals, including those supporting the “ban on bans”, shrugged the matter off disdainfully: it’s just a trashy bundle of stereotypes, including national ones – it’s a good thing they banned it.

As for Matilda, its fate was dismissed in the TV news headlines as “a ban on a scandalous Russian film”, and the social media were busy that week with other issues, such as the “letter signed by 100 French women” and a pro- and anti-vaccination controversy. Even the fact that the film caused an outburst of anger in Russia, with protests from “Orthodox activists” and arson attacks and interruptions at showings, not to mention accusations of insult to the feelings of believers from Natalya Poklonskaya, the ex-public prosecutor of annexed Crimea herself, it cut no ice among Ukraine’s chattering classes. The announcement of the ban had almost sunk in a flood of other news when the Russian government recalled its distribution certificate for the British comedy The Death of Stalin a couple of weeks later. Ukrainian social media were jubilant: it must be a good film, let’s watch it. (And we can watch Matilda at the same time — although not in cinemas, of course).

The updated book blacklist and Beevor’s protest aroused no interest in the mainstream Ukrainian media, apart from RFE/RL, and was completely ignored by social media and opinion leaders. Commentators also showed no interest in either the fact that, in 2015, Stalingrad was banned in several Russian regions during a wave of counter-sanctions, or the information that the 15-strong expert committee, which had to deal with several thousand Russian books a month, had “checked the sources” and discovered a few dubious paragraphs in a book of over 1,000 pages. This news was announced by the National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting’s head of licensing procedures and print production monitoring Serhiy Oliynyk (not, in fact, a member of the expert committee).

This history of Ukrainian bans on Russian cultural goods has produced a growing feeling that we’re living in a version of “Black Mirror”, a tacit contest over the impermeability of national security, which is so dependent on public consumption of the “right” culture. Or, at least, the rejection of the wrong culture.

It is telling that the banning of Matilda and the additions to the book blacklist more or less coincided with the release of information about a new initiative headed by Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, the power behind all the blacklists and cultural sanctions imposed in 2015. Kyrylenko now wants to create a new blacklist, a register of all Ukrainian musicians who tour in Russia. Kyrylenko’s office is drawing up a draft bill, providing for a fine and a compulsory banner whenever a video clip or song by a given artist is played on TV or radio (“This artist tours in the aggressor country” ). And Ukraine’s National Council of TV and Radio Broadcasting has gone still further and is proposing that taking part in such a tour should be a criminal offence.

War may not destroy, but it does at least restrict the freedom of choice

“In doing this, our government is trying to define a legitimate and correct, from its point of view, model of behaviour for law-abiding citizens,” this is how Kyrylenko’s staff commented on the initiative. But the news has so far failed to arouse any particular interest, support or criticism from anyone.

Over nearly four years of gruelling war, Ukrainian civil society has grown and matured immensely, learned how to organise itself and engage in volunteer activity, initiate reforms and try to keep a check on the state, combat propaganda and, very slowly and with great difficulty, talk about the war. But in its self-sacrificing fight for freedom and democracy, Ukrainian civil society seems to be increasingly losing its sensitivity to that same freedom.

Of course, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, “all’s fair in love and war” and all the other pearls of folk wisdom can shed some light on the situation. They all contain bits of truth, but in the end aren’t much use. Who knows when you might drop all the eggs you need for your omelette? And when, in this desperate battle for freedom and independence, this fight against fake news and Russian propaganda, will the wall you have built on your bans and the restrictions that go with security become so strong that there will be no room for freedom?


The war in Ukraine's Donbas, now in its fourth year, shows few signs of abating. (c) Sergii Kharchenko/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. War may not destroy, but it does at least restrict the freedom of choice. The world becomes all black and white, sharp, ruled by necessities rather than desires, and divided into “us” and “them”. And if a war is long and you can see no prospect of its ending, what happens to freedom of choice then?

In 2014, we worried about how we could talk about (and spend money on) culture, when soldiers were dying on the front line from a lack of night vision systems and other equipment. In 2015, the stakes were higher: to quote the Ukrainian novelist and poet Oksana Zabuzhko, instead of “writing the great novel of your life, the one you had to write before you could die”, you had to literally “crawl into a tank” and write for every western, and not just western, publication, trying to explain your country’s position. And by 2017, you can disrupt any exhibition, public demonstration or other event just by accusing the organisers of “separatism”, “collaboration with Russia” or a betrayal of Ukraine’s “national interests”.

If stopping the war in the Donbas isn’t within our power, stopping the war on freedom is – as long as we still have that freedom

The space for inner freedom has contracted gradually and almost imperceptibly, while inner discipline first grew into self-censorship and then into external censorship that – also suddenly and imperceptibly – began to protect us from ourselves. In that sense, the line between necessary emergency measures and the completely absurd may not have quite disappeared, but it has become very thin. This is how the Russian film directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Alexey Uchitel, novelist Zakhar Prilepin, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, writer Boris Akunin and historian Anthony Beevor, Russian Channel 1 TV and “In-laws”, propaganda and (very weak) humour, historical fantasy and historical research, “us” and “them”, taking part in a military campaign against Ukraine and “touring in the aggressor country” have all been flung into the same pot.

At a press conference in May last year, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko used the slogan of the 1920s Ukrainian cultural renaissance writer Mykola Khvylovy: “Away from Moscow!” (Which couldn’t fail to remind people of the odious book by Ukraine’s second president Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine isn’t Russia). It’s strange, but the more single-mindedly Ukraine tries to get “away from Moscow”, the more it slips into the system the Kremlin enforces. Censorship, blacklists, bans, an emphasis on the national idea and national values, “correct” models of behaviour, activists (supported, or at least unnoticed, by the police) promoting “traditional values” – the list can go on and on. And there won’t be a single word in it that you might find in a dictionary of democratic rights and values.

Analysing the west’s strategy for combating Kremlin bots, trolls and fake news, Peter Pomerantsev writes about how, by using a lexicon and language dictated by the Kremlin to describe situations, the west doesn’t just legitimise it, it exists within its frame of reference. And it looks as though the same thing is happening to Ukraine. But if stopping the war in the Donbas isn’t within our power, stopping the war on freedom is – as long as we still have that freedom.

Translated by Liz Barnes.


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