Alexandra Sazonova-Prokouran was a participant in the Navalny protests in Moscow and the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march in Paris. Her article draws a parallel between the nature of the two movements as a global outcry for freedom of expression
Set within contrasting political backgrounds, the recent strikes defending the cause of the Navalny brothers and that of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ find unity in their underlying values. This convergence struck me most after having attended both the former and the latter, being deeply disillusioned by one and awe-inspired by the other. The Navalny protests on December 30th and January 15th respectively were triggered by a premature 3.5-year prison sentence issued to Alexei Navalny’s brother, while Navalny himself is found under ongoing house arrest. The sentence stemmed from a result of accusations regarding the brothers’ alleged embezzlement of the organization Yves Rocher. A public political rival to Putin and a critic of his kleptocratic regime, Alexei Navalny came 2nd when he ran for the mayoral elections in Moscow in 2013. When the prison sentence date was shifted from mid-January of 2015 to the night before New Year’s Eve in 2014, Navalny had less than 24 hours to summon his supporters in Moscow, in a standing act against political repression. Bringing the sentence forward by two weeks was a symbolic move, declaring Putin’s triumph over democracy before the strike even began. It threw Alexei Navalny and his supporters off-guard, uprooting their plans for an organized mass rally in January. Huddles of activists hastily retreated to the nearest cafes and hot wine stalls within an hour of the strike. Even the temperature which dipped down to-20C proved a powerful political weapon for the police. The Gestapo barricading every inch of Manezhnaya square and the underground exits is reflective of Putin’s impeccable skills in the art of repression against the relative powerlessness of Navalny’s 2,000 supporters. Thus Manezhnaya square was an empty field on the night of the strike. Pussy Riot were among the handful of nocturnal survivors who lingered on until the early hours of the morning, finding asylum within an oversized spherical Christmas decoration. 15 minutes before the strike began, Alexei Navalny himself was unceremoniously stowed away into one of the dozens of trucks which delivered the police to Manezhnaya square, and dutifully returned to his house arrest. (Tweeting on the way to the strike may have given his cover away.) Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution saying the embezzlement case against Navalny and his brother was based on unsubstantiated charges and was politically motivated. No less of a martyr by French standards than the victims of ‘Charlie Hebdo’, in Moscow Navalny was dismissed as a saboteur and an embezzler.
In contrast to the sounds of tumbleweed audible in the vicinity of Manezhnaya square, France’s mass rally was among the loudest outcries for the freedom of speech the world has ever heard. Summoned by Hollande and supported by 3.5 million nation-wide activists, this was the biggest strike in French history (This speaks volumes about the event’s scale and momentum, as strikes have formed a long-standing activity in France). 700,000 people gathered on the day before the march alone. Over a handful of news-reporting minivans remain on the Place de la République almost a week after the event, and its post-apocalyptic relics, including candles, bouquets, pencils, posters and poems still cause many jaws to drop. Regardless of the event’s unruly scale, an atmosphere of ‘liberté, egalité, [and] fraternité’ prevailed on the day of the mass rally. Toddlers on their mothers’ backs bore signs reading “We are all Muslims”, “We are all police” (in honour of the policewoman shot by the terrorists), and “we are all Jews” (in remembrance of the victims shot at a Jewish kosher store). Ironically, Putin’s foreign minister represented Russia at the rally advocating freedom of speech, while the same day saw the arrest of a Moscow activist bearing a poster reading “Je suis Charlie”. He spent the following 8 days in prison.
(Photos: Place de la République on the Wednesday following Sunday’s rally, the day the new edition of Charlie Hebdo was released).
The difference between the strikes lies in the socio-political context. France’s mass rally was misinterpreted by many Russians who equate the defense of democracy and freedom of expression with supporting offensive caricatures. Undeniably, ‘Je suis Charlie’ constitutes a nation-wide tolerance of press freedom, which involves the capacity to oppose and criticize the subject matter of Charlie Hebdo’s publications. As reflected through the iconic symbol behind ‘Charlie’, the French worship freedom of speech with almost the same religiosity as shown in the Muslim world, praising its profit. French society should be able to exercise freedom of speech within its country to the same extent as Muslim states which enforce religious practice within their own societies. If banning the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s new edition in Muslim countries is attributable to and justifiable by a deeply rooted set of cultural values, mentalities and political models, the reverse applies to the French defending the value of freedom of speech in France. Since political repression forms an integral part of Russian culture, freedom of speech and peaceful rallies are dismissed as futile fairytales by the regime. For generations, the majority of Russians have been spoon-fed propaganda by state-owned television and tabloids. Journalists in Crimea are martyred, while those in Moscow are arrested for advocating press freedom. Russians remain either unaware or desensitised towards these transgressions of human rights. Since the mass rally in Paris, Rozkomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications) issued a new warning to Russia’s mass media against the publication of offensive caricatures. The educated sectors of Russian society do not stand a chance before an allegedly democratic state, which intentionally censors the freedom of expression to stay in power. If Charlie Hebdo’s rally proved to the world that using a pencil to uphold one’s freedom of expression can be more disarming than a terrorist’s gun in France, the Manezhnaya strikes unveiled a form of dystopia in Russia, persecuting the Navalny brothers and Charlie alike.
On January 19th Chechnya saw a counter-strike to France’s march for Charlie Hebdo in the city of Grozny. Out of a population of 1.25 million people, over half a million Chechens could be spotted chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) and haranguing the publication of caricatures depicting Muhammad. Ironically, the Chechen activists didn’t acknowledge that they were inadvertently extending the cause behind ‘Charlie’. France’s peaceful march sparked the incentive for a non-violent solidarity movement in Chechnya. Moreover, the former’s values were mirrored by the latter, whereby the Chechen activists reflected the importance of the freedom of speech by voicing their criticisms of Charlie Hebdo’s content. Inevitably, Chechnya’s mass rally reinforces the values underpinning more democratic European states rather than those of militant muslim extremists.