On the Difference between Censorship and Control

Samizdat, for all intents and purposes, was born because of censorship. (Shameless self promotion: see my chapter on the subject here.) The Kremlin’s censors had decided — more through sins of omission than of commission — that most of the Silver Age poets would not be available to Soviet readers. And so those who had copies typed the poems out on onion-skin paper and distributed them to those who wanted to read them but otherwise couldn’t.

Censorship makes poetry political. In fact, censorship makes everything political: every word that makes it past the censors, and every word that does not, becomes imbued with political meaning and agency. And so censorship undermines control: what begins as an attempt to limit the political space in fact expands it infinitely, and no political regime can control everything forever.

Hyperbole and hyper-ventilation notwithstanding, those who have sought to reestablish political control in Russia are not re-creating the Soviet Union. They are trying, at least, to be smarter, and nowhere is this more evident than as concerns censorship. The Kremlin does, of course, have very real ideas about the sorts of things that it would like to see communicated to the population, and those it would not. But there is no system of prior review, no hard-and-fast list of banned and approved words and concepts, no well-oiled enforcement mechanism to make sure that loose lips do not sink the ship of Putin’s state.

Having understood the cost of censorship, Russia’s rulers have concentrated instead on control. Putin’s early bargain with the oligarchs allowed them their wealth on one simple condition: it was not, under any circumstances, to be used as leverage vis-à-vis the state. Key industries were nationalized or ‘securitized’, and political parties were brought under the tutelage of the Presidential Administration. And, of course, Putin quickly established control over television. When the Orange Revolution in Ukraine demonstrated the importance of physical public spaces, the Kremlin moved to control these, too, legislating away people’s right to assembly and creating a range of state-sponsored youth groups to occupy the commons.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that this demand for control would spread to the Internet as well. The first step was the extra-judicial powers delegated to Roskomnadzor to block websites for a broad range of ill-defined offenses. More recently we have seen the creeping ouster of Pavel Durov from VKontakte, the Facebook-beating social networking site he created, and the concentration of ownership in more reliable hands (more here). And, of course, the pressure on and partial shutdown of the online television channel Dozhd (more here).

But, as tempting as it is to conflate the two things, it’s important to remember that this is not about censorship. It’s about control. The Kremlin isn’t interested in micro-managing the content of the media, not only because it’s costly, but because it’s ineffective — the Soviet experience proved as much.

Effective control comes when the people who have to make decisions in any given media outlet — whether a big mainstream TV channel or a little website, and whether we’re talking about big strategic decisions or the day-to-day grind of the newsroom — do so in the knowledge that their decisions may have consequences. What these consequences may be is left purposefully ambiguous: there may be none, or they may be catastrophic, and the uncertainty that emerges generates the fear that, at the end of the day, is at the heart of control.

Sometimes that means that an editor or owner who, like Durov, is not prone to fear has to be replaced. Such replacements are, of course, political. But this kind of implicit control generally avoids the pervasive politicization that comes with active censorship. And whereas rules-based censorship encourages independent-minded communicators to seek ways around the rules, the more fluid environment of implicit control encourages conformity and risk-minimization.

What’s the catch for Putin? It’s the same catch that all modern authoritarian regimes face: control only works as long as the threat of consequences is credible. Owners and editors who lose their fear of that phone call from the Presidential Administration will be freer than they would be if, as in Soviet days, there were censors in the publishing houses, reviewing the copy before it went out the door. But that’s a risk Putin and his colleagues have thus far been willing to take. And, so far at least, it’s paid off.

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