Open Letter to Vladimir Putin
The Voice Project
December 7, 2016
On Friday, Vladimir Putin met with artists and cultural figures at a joint session of the Council for Culture and Art and the Council for the Russian Language in St. Petersburg. He added in his response to entreaties for filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s freedom that Sentsov, one of the subjects of The Voice Project’s “Imprisoned for Art” campaign, was “convicted not for art, but for taking other functions, as investigative and court bodies say, and particularly in fact he devoted his life to terrorist activity,” that “no one convicted him for his views or his position.”
He went on to say, “We should rely on that we live in a state governed by the rule of law and such issues should be of course decided by the court system,” but that “officials who interpret works of arts may take action” because “we don’t want what happened in Paris [at Charlie Hebdo] to be repeated here.” He speculated that “maybe the artists didn’t intend to offend anybody, but they did,” and that “we must bear that in mind, and not allow that, not split the society.”
The state news agency, TASS, immediately ran the headline, “Putin says Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov convicted for terrorism, not art.” This is our response.
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December 7, 2016
President Vladimir Putin
23, Ilyinka Street,
Moscow, 103132, Russia
Dear President Putin:
Authoritarians around the globe almost always use the same playbook—the same tactics to stifle dissent, the same type excuses to imprison those who speak out against them, even the same words. It is not original and it is quite predictable when you see enough of it, as we do in our work.
A common play is that outspoken dissidents, especially known figures such as artists, are arrested on spurious charges and imprisoned following show trials. The tactic is to make an example of the individual dissident in order to stifle dissent more widely, and it is most easily efficacious when applied to those already in the public eye, well known for their art or activism or leadership in another field. Notoriety of the target, though, is not a sine qua non, as the act of persecution and the proceedings of prosecution can themselves be heavily publicized, especially with the aid of a compliant state controlled media. The pretense for prosecution is often laughable, but the absurdity as well sends a message: that the authoritarian and the authoritarian system are not bound by rule of law, but rather rule through systemic power, and that one’s safety and well-being within the society depend on compliance, conformity and loyalty to the ruling power.
We see these tactics employed the world over and throughout history, and often now in Russia under your leadership. Pussy Riot were imprisoned not for singing a song that called you and your cronies “shit”, but rather for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”; Maria Baronova was arrested not for yelling at Bolotnaya Square, but for “inciting mass riots”; Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, tortured and killed not for exposing the pervasive corruption of a kleptocracy, but for “colluding with a tax evader.” And Journalist Kieron Bryan of the “Arctic 30” evidently ran afoul of your piracy laws? No, of course not, and likewise, as Heather McGill at Amnesty International has noted, the “fatally flawed” trial of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, a figure well known because of his art, “was designed to send a message. It played into Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine and was redolent of Stalinist-era show trials of dissidents.”
As Ms. McGill alludes to, you are far from the first to use this tactic on dissidents. Arseny Roginsky was arrested for forgery, Gunārs Astra for spying, Andrei Amalrik for pornography, Nikolay Gumilyov for conspiracy, Ephraim Kholmyansky for possession of ammunition, and Alexander Lavut for possession of a book. The tactic is not new and it is not region specific. Mussolini had Gramsci arrested in Italy not for his writings, but for supposed involvement in an assassination plot. Muhammadu Buhari imprisoned Fela Kuti in Nigeria not for being a singer of truths, but for being a smuggler of currency. As the biblical saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Oleg Sentsov’s views and activism made him a target; the notoriety from his art made him a good one.
In regard to your comments that you have not the power to free Oleg, you are right, in ways you don’t understand. You so graciously let Pussy Riot out just two months before the completion of their two-year term, but Nadya’s right here and says, “You can shove your amnesty up your ass.” Similarly, Oleg does not want us to beg for your clemency, but would rather we parade your glib hypocrisy. You misunderstand us if you think we ask for his freedom through your benevolence, rather, we demand it from your discreditation. That is what we mean by #FreeOlegSentsov.
In regard to your comment that freedom of expression requires the responsibility not to offend, you pretend to not understand that freedom requires the ability to do so. We hear this from your kind all the time, it is an old song to a bad tune—the authoritarian pretending to be a champion of freedom that is not freedom.
Your doublespeak attempts to engender doublethink. You are not the first and you are not alone in this either. You have your political technologists, your state media, and your embarrassing troll factories, the US has its think tanks, corporate media and its own embarrassing trolls, sometimes disguised as clowny demagogues who spray tan on ephemeral ideologies and syllogistic hyperbole of various offensive hues. Orwell predicted that the very concept of objective truth would fade from the world, and your kind seem hard at work to make it so, but many of us believe that in the end the truth does out because it is existentially, ontologically superior to lies. You’ve heard this before, but it doesn’t sink in. You think that imprisoning artists silences them, but each speaks more loudly because of it, loud enough for the world to hear. You think repression and brutality invoke fear, but they inspire courage and embolden action. Russia has one of the greatest traditions of dissidents of any nation on earth, you and your predecessors did that. These lessons your kind seldom learns.
As for those of us here in the States, we’ll likely have our own taste of authoritarianism before long, but we are not afraid. We have many warriors here. They are standing right now in the snow, unbroken, on the Great Plains of North Dakota. And luckily, we have learned the lessons from those like you, so we’ll act accordingly. In the meantime, we’ll abide by, and learn from the words of Oleg himself:
There is no need to pull us out of here at all costs. This wouldn’t bring victory any closer. Yet using us as a weapon against the enemy will. You must know: we are not your weak point. If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.
Hunter Mora Heaney
The Voice Project
My thanks to Mr. Heaney for his kind permission to republish this letter here. TRR