We cannot fight the Russian regime through censorship

Matthew Lesh

March 22, 2022

The righteous feeling of disgust at the Russian regime must not be allowed to spill over into contempt toward all things Russian or all Russian people. History shows that you cannot fight an authoritarian regime in the name of protecting liberal values through censorship or abandoning due process.

The UK government has been criticised for not immediately sanctioning as many people as the US or the EU (despite sanctioning more Russian bank assets). The Parliament has since rushed through an Economic Crime Bill that will require company owners to declare their identity and make it easier to use unexplained wealth orders and sanction individuals punished by the US and UK. It is sensible to focus sanctions on individuals directly responsible for the war and who have profiteered from a corrupt regime. Nevertheless, even Russian oligarchs are entitled to due process before the assets are stripped away.

The sanctions regulations allow the Secretary of State to sanction any person who ‘provides support for, or promotes any policy or action which destabilises Ukraine’ or ‘is a member of, or associated with, a person who is or has been so involved.’ This means anyone who simply has a friend that supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have their assets entirely stripped away. This is much wider than the original intent of Magnitsky sanctions, that is meant to target the specific individuals responsible for corruption or human rights violations. The likely intent of these regulations is to make it easier to sanction bad actors, however such broad powers should raise eyebrows. 

There have also been efforts towards a cultural boycott against Russia. There was talk of cancelling a course on Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky at an Italian university and a call for Classic FM to stop playing Russian composers. The Royal Opera House has cancelled a planned residency by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, a performance by the Royal Moscow Ballet in Dublin has also been cancelled, and Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Croatia cancelled two compositions from Tchaikovsky. There have been cancellations of American musician performances in Russia, and Hollywood studios are not releasing films.

Many of these boycotts are decisions by private individuals and organisations and may be justifiable in cases like the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra sacking Putin-linked conductor Valery Gergiev. Nevertheless, we are handing Putin a victory by acting like the invasion of Ukraine embodies Russia and historic cultural contributions. The false sense that this conflict represents the world against the Russian people risks solidifying domestic support for the war. Over 17,000 Russian culture sector workers have signed a petition calling for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Cultural exchanges during the Cold War – including Soviet dancers, orchestras and circuses – helped penetrate the Iron Curtinand demonstrate to many Russians that an alternative way of life was possible. The locking of Russians out of the West could easily backfire by making the nation more insular and disconnected from liberal values. Indeed, the likes of Slack and MailChimp pulling out of Russia has resulted in reducing the communications and organising services available to critics of the regime.

The other temptation in response to the invasion has to censor pro-Kremlin materials. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries called for that the Russian propaganda news station, RT, to permanently lose its licence. The channel has since lost its licence, raising questions about Ofcom’s independence and free speech. The channel was already haemorrhaging staff, banned in the EU, and shut down operations across Europe and the US. The closure of RT will not make Russia stop invading Ukraine or make Putin any less popular in the West. Its main effect will make us less informed about their propaganda and provide fewer opportunities to rebut. Censorship does not combat bad ideas; we need to respond robustly. 

A far better approach, taken by Western governments, civil society, and the Ukrainian leadership, is to robustly highlight the falseness of Russian claims (like the false flag operations and nonsense claims about ‘genocide’ of Russian-speakers in Ukraine). This, along with the often-horrifying reporting from the ground in Ukraine, has led to the conclusion that ‘Ukraine have won the information war’. While nothing can ultimately beat a stronger army on the ground, the pro-Ukrainian mood has enabled Western governments to support Ukraine and undermined morale among Russian fighters. More speech, not censorship, has proven successful.


Written by Matthew Lesh

Matthew Lesh is the Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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