Sochi Winter Olympics: After the Opening

by Alice Olsson

Ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, PEN International, the global association of writers, launched the worldwide campaign – Out in the Cold – to highlight the recent draconian restrictions placed on free expression in the country. York PEN has been reporting on and participating in the campaign during the weeks leading up to the opening of the games, read our coverage here.

Since Putin returned to office, three laws have been passed that place significant restrictions on free speech in Russia: the “blasphemy” law criminalising “religious insult”, the gay “propaganda” law prohibiting the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors”, and the re-criminalization of blasphemy. They place a chokehold on the right to express oneself freely and pose a particular threat to our fellow writers, journalists, and bloggers.

In December last year, only months before the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics, a mass amnesty was granted to 2,000 prisoners, including two members of punk rock band Pussy Riot. The amnesty has widely been considered a politically motivated move, Putin’s attempt to soothe criticism ahead of the Sochi Games, which he has spoken about as a personal project to show the world Russia’s greatness. PEN International President, John Ralston Saul, comments:

“Amnesties are a great old fashioned pressure release valve used by the authorities everywhere. They are fine so long as they last. But what matters in a fair society are just laws. With just laws you don’t need amnesties.”

PEN International has encouraged writers to pick up a pen and protest these restrictions through tweets, blogs, and articles, and urges anyone concerned to write to the Russian government. On 6th of February, the organisation released an open letter to the Russian government. Signed by over 200 writers and four Nobel laureates, the letter made front-page news all over the world, including Russian media outlets like The Moscow Times.

Since the letter was released, the laws have received significant media coverage, and a number of Russian writers have spoken out about Putin’s laws. Lyudmila Ulitskaya, the first woman to win the Russian equivalent of the Booker, writes of the Russian government’s strategies in The Guardian:

“What is happening feels like an unwritten chapter from Orwell: we are right, we are always right, we are right in everything, and whoever questions the correctness of this indomitable unfailing power is cursed.”

Putin’s reaction to these protests is not yet clear. Soon after its publication, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Kremlin had not yet received the letter:

“No, we haven’t received [the letter] yet, and we don’t understand the essence of their arguments.”

He also argued that Russian authorities have repeatedly given explanations to the legislations. “Frankly speaking, there have been so many explanations that those who wanted to understand them have had this opportunity.”

The eyes of the world are fixed upon Russia for the remaining days of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Who wins the games still remains to be seen.

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