Commentary

Russia’s Disproportionate Response to Borat

By Anna Krasinskaya and Igor Fedyukin
December 27, 2006

No one “banned” Borat in Russia. At least, not according to officials of Russia’s Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography. They just “advised” 20th Century Fox that the movie could offend some viewers and contained material that “might seem disparaging in relation to certain ethnic groups and religions.” 20th Century Fox has promised to contest that “recommendation,” which was accompanied by a denial of a screening license. (What kind of “advice” comes with a prohibition?)

In Russia today one hears more and more about which activities should be banned because they might be “offensive” to “certain types of viewers.” It’s not just movies, either. The Moscow city authorities recently banned the gay-pride parade in Russia’s capital because some people might be offended by the existence of gay people. However, after banning that peaceful expression, they went on to ban a racist “Russian March” by ultra-nationalists, which was an aggressive expression of hatred against all foreigners and “aliens.”

Thereby the government manifested its complete rejection of any kinds of provocative behavior that might “threaten” civil peace. Although a peaceful celebration of the 13th anniversary of the legalization of gay relationships was not a threat to peace, as a racist march calling for violence against aliens was, polls show that a majority of Russians approved of banning both marches. Good news is: 51% of the respondents also disapproved of the violent reaction of the authorities and of the ultra-nationalists to the handful of gay people who defied the ban and got together for a parade only to be savagely beaten by the ultra-nationalists and then arrested by the police.

A ban on Borat, though, is a ban of a different and more alarming kind. Television broadcasts (set aside cable) are broadcast on the “public airwaves.” Marches take place in public and on public streets. A public body may claim the right to decide what will be shown on television or who may march on the public streets. But films (Borat’s Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan included) are shown in private movie theaters. So whether someone considers Sasha Baron Cohen a talented comic, a witless jerk, a clever and provocative social critic, an offensive boor, or something else, everyone can make the choice of whether to buy a movie ticket and enter a private theater. No one is forced to be a part of the audience.

Until recently, while the post-Soviet Russian state rigorously claimed its monopoly over the public domain, it left self-expression, art, and entertainment largely to the free choices of free people. For example, earlier calls by some Orthodox activists to ban the screening of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and the “Da Vinci Code” were completely ignored. However the Danish cartoon scandal led the authorities to undertake an all-out campaign against “religiously offensive” publications in the (public?) media domain.

For the first time in post-Soviet history, the government banned a non-pornographic film, thereby intervening in the cultural domain. Whether the state’s actions could be explained by poor sense of humor or rigid foreign policy perspectives (“let’s not offend the neighboring Kazakhstan”), they are dangerous and unforgivable. Naturally, “Borat” is better-off now - the surrounding drama hyped up the public interest and undoubtedly the movie will be readily available on Russia’s vast entertainment black market.

But the harm is done. The government once again manifested its potential to intervene in the private domain, indicating that it will only tolerate freedom of expression so long as it does not interfere with its interests. It may seem that banning just one particular foreign film is as innocent as it can get, but the indifferent reaction of the people might embolden the government in its future assaults against private expressions.

The Russian government’s actions in blatantly banning Borat are not justified. The ability to accept the freedom of others to express themselves without infringing on the equal freedom of other men is an integral part of living in an open society. This is something that is yet to be learned in Russia – after all, if one would ban movies, plays, music or videos that are offensive to “certain ethnic groups and religions”, who makes the decision of what is offensive, and how is that not cultural authoritarianism?

Anna Krasinskaya is editor and Igor Fedyukin is a contributing writer to Cato.ru by the Cato Institute.