Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Freedom of Speech?

It will be 10 years ago next month since I "fell victim to cruel censorship and political oppression" and got banned from the official Soviet press.

I started my journalistic career as a teenager back in 1974, becoming the first rock writer in the country. By the early '80s I was quite well-known, supplying about a dozen newspapers and magazines with music-related stories.

I started to have problems in the summer of 1983, when they suddenly fired me from the art history research institute -- probably because of my earlier refusal to report to the KGB.

I turned into a real freelancer, and in March 1984, at the peak of the anti-rock campaign, I was informed by my editors that they had been ordered by some propaganda bosses at the Central Committee not to accept my articles, because I was promoting decadent Western culture and advocating anti-Soviet agents (i.e. rock bands), thus gravely damaging the souls of Soviet youth.

All this may sound scary but in fact I was feeling fine, inspired and adventurous, finding tricky ways to get published (like signing articles with my girlfriends' names), sitting on the juries of provincial rock festivals and even keeping my monthly television show in Latvia. The times were ugly, indeed, but I was a free man, I wrote whatever I wanted and got it printed -- if not in Komsomolskaya Pravda, then in samizdat form.

Sometime in 1990 or 1991 at a party I was suddenly attacked by a well-known rock promoter. He pushed me into a corner with his big belly and said that if I continued to badmouth him and his bands, he would find a way to shut my mouth permanently. "Human life doesn't cost much these days," he warned ominously. The whole episode just made me laugh, but actually this was the shape of things to come.

About one year ago I wrote a couple of articles (one of them for The Moscow Times) and made a television special concerning the manufacturing of pirate LPs and CDs in Moscow and Petersburg. They were not exactly works of investigative journalism, rather an analysis of why piracy is damaging for our music business together with a call to stop the shameful activities. But one night I received a phone call:

"Art Troitsky? This is regarding your recent stuff on piracy. You're a good guy and we have respect for you -- otherwise we wouldn't warn you. So, if you don't stop speculating about bootleg records, you're in major trouble. You know, this is big business and very serious people are involved ... We know how to find you." Now, this was scary. And I thought: Why should I risk my health, or life, for the sake of EMI Records or Warner Bros? Ever since I have not gone further in my research. It was not an easy decision, and I have to admit: The commies never managed to silence me, but the mafia did.

Although I do not think that many journalists receive death threats, this little story illustrates perfectly the current situation with the freedom of press in Russia. Traditionally, everyone thought about liberties in purely political terms. Nowadays such a judgment would be wrong, simply because politics in Russia is not what really matters.

Anyone can write anything about the political deeds of Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin, Zhirinovsky or whoever, and it will change nothing -- just add a tiny bit to the general chaos. From this superficial point of view we do have total freedom of speech. But who cares?

At the same time, no one dares to tease (let alone investigate) the real masters of the new Russian reality -- e.g. the barons of organized crime. All kinds of irrelevant small fish get caught (and often let out shortly afterwards) by the police; such cases are usually boldly covered by Moskovsky Komsomolets, Segodnya or Kommersant.

But there is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to the big shots -- although it is pretty well known that famous entertainer X or sports promoter Y or businessman Z are, in fact, the godfathers of the Moscow mafia. They are often on television and in the papers, perfectly admired by presenters and interviewers (who know).

In fact it is they, not the president or prime minister, who now evoke the same awe-inspired hypocritical respect among mere citizens that the likes of Stalin, Suslov or Andropov enjoyed in glorious Soviet times. Unlike our government and administration, they can really punish and really protect.

I am afraid I am no exception in this conspiracy. Actually, no one is: So far there is no underground dissident anti-mafia movement in Russia. Which means that, in a way, we now have less freedom of speech than in 1984.