Isolate but Preserve: Civil Liberties in Russia
January 12, 2009

As a bit of a conceptual bridge between the global issues in libraries I’ve been discussing since the fall and intellectual freedom, which I’ll be focusing on for the next couple of months (there will be much overlap, I assure you), I’d like direct us back to Russia and to this article, by Ellen Barry, from yesterday’s NYTimes.  In particular, I’d like to highlight this passage:

“After presenting himself to the world as a liberal modernizer, President Medvedev has prioritized one major reform — lengthening the presidential term to six years. Last week, he signed a law eliminating jury trials for ‘crimes against the state,’ and pending legislation would expand the definition of treason.”

One of the suggestions for our class on intellectual freedom is to, aptly, read a banned book.  How many librarians do you know who proudly wear their buttons that say “I Read Banned Books”?  I certainly have one of those, in bright purple, and it’s pinned onto my book bag, presently.

It does no good to start a contrapuntal conversation about the differences in intellectual freedom in Russia and the U.S., as Russia always winds up being demonized.  But what if we transferred the idea of proudly proclaiming our having read a banned book to fit this issue above.  I’m not saying that librarians and intellectuals in Russia should start wearing buttons that say “I’m for Treason,” but what about “I Heart Civil Liberties” or “Where’s the Jury?”  I know that these slogans are not as catchy, and, perhaps, my analogy is a stretch.  Does anyone have any better slogans (I’d love suggestions)?  Maybe the tried-and-true “I Read Banned Books” will help, yet, another group in rallying behind the struggle for intellectual freedom.

Later in the article, a think-tank pundit states that, “I just think [the Russian leaders] don’t trust what they can’t control.”  Trust, especially for governments, is often a troublesome issue, as it takes openness and a willingness to put up with criticism from the people—for it is only when all people are free that trust can truly exist.  Attempting to destroy freedoms, ideas, expressions, etc., is only going to push “trust” farther away.  Intellectual freedom would foster this trust, which, in turn, would give continued life to intellectual freedom.

It’s unfortunate that Russian officials continue to choose intimidation and restriction over trust and openness, as this avenue has continually been proven to be ineffective throughout the country’s history.  In 1934, Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem called “Stalin Epigram,” which criticized the leader.  Stalin, in response, sent Mandelstam to a labor camp with instructions to “isolate but preserve.”  What Stalin meant was kill the idea–the art, the poem–but not the man (this was considered a “light” punishment).  The opposite happened, as Mandelstam died a few years later; yet, his poetry lived on, preserved by his wife, Nadezhda, who, knowing that any physical copy of Mandselstam’s work would be seized and destroyed, committed his entire body of work to memory.

You can’t kill an idea.  Intellectual freedom often means fighting and advocating as much for the person with the idea as for the idea itself.  We must continually remind ourselves of this.  So, choose your slogan.  Perhaps, mine will be: “I Read Osip Mandelstam.”

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