Forty years ago, eight brave Russians came out on Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the "Prague Spring" with a banner that said, "For your freedom and ours." (As one might expect, it ended quite badly for them.) Last month, a banner with these words showed up in the hands of one of hundreds of demonstrators in a Moscow park protesting the Russian government's attempt to crush the television show South Park. And, for now, it seems to have ended in a victory for the protesters—at a time when victories for freedom in Russia are a rare treat.
It started on September 7 when a prosecutor's office in Moscow, on a complaint from an evangelical Christian group, brought charges of "extremist activity" against 2x2, a television channel that specializes in cartoons. The offense was a January broadcast of the South Park episode, "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Special," in which characters including Satan, Adolf Hitler, and the anthropomorphic human excrement Mr. Hankey perform in a Christmas variety show. The episode, prosecutors said, "insults the honor and dignity of both Christians and Muslims" and could "provoke ethnic conflict and inter-religious hatred." (Under a 2006 law, Russia's "extremism" statute includes not only incitements to violence but loosely defined hate speech.) A few days later, the General Prosecutor's Office lodged a complaint with the Federal Mass Communications Control Agency accusing 2x2 of "violating the rights of children" by broadcasting "propaganda of violence, cruelty and pornography." The complaint named twelve animated series, including South Park and The Simpsons.
With 2x2's broadcast license up for renewal in mid-October, these actions raised concerns that the channel would be shut down. Further alarm bells went off when Pavel Tarakanov, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Youth Issues, suggested that 2x2's frequency could be given to a new channel reflecting "the government's position with regard to youth policy." "We need to raise a generation of 21st Century Russians who are proud of living in a civilized nation, so we need our own media outlet that would reach the largest possible audience," Tarakanov told the Interfax news agency.
But in the meantime, something else was happening. The Russian public, grown notoriously apathetic during the Putin era of relative prosperity, stability, and rising authoritarianism, suddenly stirred. Starting in mid-September, Moscow and St. Petersburg saw a flurry of pickets, flash mobs, and rallies protesting the moves to squash the channel. Passing drivers honked in solidarity. While the demonstrations were held with prior permission from the authorities, one of the organizers of a September 22 rally in downtown Moscow was briefly detained because the turnout of about 700 vastly exceeded the estimate in the permit application. That evening, over a thousand people gathered around a club that hosted a free rock concert in support of 2x2; some clashed with police when attempts were made to disperse the crowd. In a few days, the protesters collected 34,000 signatures to keep 2x2 on the air.
Judging by photos, the atmosphere at the rallies—which drew mostly young men and women—was both defiant and exuberant, with much sharp humor and creativity. In St. Petersburg, men in black capes and Ku Klux Klan robes slapped "Signal lost or scrambled" notices on the screens of two TV sets. In addition to the inevitable "They killed Kenny!", a particularly inventive sign read, "Kenny lived, Kenny lives, Kenny will live!", in a play on the once-ubiquitous Soviet slogan about Lenin. Many handwritten signs, like "For your freedom and ours," had broader political overtones: "This is a free country—we don't want censorship!"; "Today they came for Kenny, tomorrow they'll come for you"; "Let's ban banning!"
The people's voice, apparently, was heard. On September 25, Russia's Federal Competitive Bidding Commission on Broadcasting voted unanimously to recommend that 2x2's license be renewed. The final decision is up to another federal agency, but it is expected to follow the recommendation. 2x2, in turn, will comply with the commission's request to expand its programming to include TV movies and non-animated series, as stated in its official description; the channel's general director Roman Sarkisov has promised that the new fare will be "faithful to the style of 2x2." Meanwhile, South Park stays on the air except for the "offending" episode, which has been shelved pending further investigation of "extremism."
Despite this partial victory, Russian opponents of censorship (even leaving aside the political kind) still face an uphill battle. Polls show that some 60 percent of Russians think the government should be able to ban "immoral" TV programming. Nonetheless, the protests in support of 2x2 are a hopeful sign, and not just for uncensored entertainment. "True, this is not about…the fight for democracy and the future of Russia," activist and journalist Alexander Podrabinek wrote on the EJ.ru website. "And yet these events give cause to hope that not everything is lost…that not everyone in Russia is under the yoke of submission, fear and apathy. People who have nothing to do with politics have come out to defend their right: the right to watch a TV channel they like." In a verse commentary titled "The Last Bastion" in the weekly Ogoniok, the astute satirist Dmitry Bykov wrote:
The days of liberty are now behind us,
And yet here is a fact you can't avoid:
As long as we can say, "Don't have a cow, man!",
Freedom in Russia cannot be destroyed!
Ironically, both Bykov and Podrabinek seem to regard the disputed cartoons as dumb, crude comedy with lots of poop jokes; to Bykov, this makes 2x2's victory a bittersweet one. In fact, South Park and The Simpsons have had a lot to say about individual freedom, censorship, intolerance, and other issues extremely relevant in today's Russia. It may even, in the end, teach more about liberty and independent thinking than some weighty political debates.
This would not be the first time that "vulgar" entertainment has played a role in advancing political freedom—from Pierre de Beaumarchais's bawdy, aristocracy-bashing comedy The Marriage of Figaro under 18th Century European monarchies to rock music under 20th century communist dictatorships.
Stan, Cartman, and the gang as keepers of liberty's flame in Russia? Whyever not? Indeed, one might say that Kenny is not a bad metaphor for the spirit of freedom in Russia: killed again and again, and somehow always alive for another round.