By Shannon Williams

Following civil unrest in areas of Russia, authorities have tightened their grip on power and access to information. A once direct democracy now employs constituency voting in parliamentary elections. Freedoms of expression, assembly and press have been removed and severely limited by the government. Freedom House, an independent agency that conducts research on human rights, awarded Russia a 2.38 where 7 was the strongest performance in Accountability and Public Voice[10]. Russia maintains a legal framework of democracy since its reform in 1991, however, liberties have diminished with stronger authoritarian rule [3].

Historical Background

Russia is a symbol of vast diversity in Europe. It is a vast and rigid territory of 11 time zones, 140 languages and even ethnic groups. Local autonomy persists, despite many fervent unifying claims to the territory. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible began Russian expansionism and czarist control. The Russian Revolution in 1917 uprooted the traditional elite and replaced them with Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Almost 10 years later, Russia witnessed the barbaric rule of Joseph Stalin and many reform projects in the agricultural and industrial arenas. These programs established Russia’s major industries today, tapping into natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and timber. In 1991 the end of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of a new democratic state. [4]

Post-Soviet Russia faces a wide array of economic and social challenges. “One third of the population lives in poverty while the country’s wealth is concentrated in a small percentage,” (Country Data Reports).   President Vladimir Putin contended with these issues by coupling market reform with centralization. Corruption that “broke up the Soviet Union with the backing of a self-interested alliance that wanted property more than it wanted democracy” [2] continues to cripple the state’s system at every level and locality. Along with internal struggles of civil war, terrorism, aggressive nationalism, and ideological zealotry, the country has been forced to contend with unwise American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military interventions. In today’s economic struggle, many Russians look back to Soviet Russia and Stalin with nostalgia due to the ineffective economic reforms.

Free Speech         

Russia limits free speech with ambiguous language and unchecked decentralization of power. Ambiguous legislation such as the Law on Extremism allows local authorities to extend powers based upon personal or local whims, largely with the intention and consequences of marginalizing minority groups. The Anti-Extremism Law was passed in 2002 with intent to punish inciting religious, racial or ethnic hatred, propaganda and seditious libel. [1]
Russia has consistently adopted misleading policies aimed to characterize their increasingly restrictive country as an open democracy. According to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, citizens are guaranteed the freedom of assembly. However, demonstrations have been banned and protesters have been detained and beaten by police. [7]

Where the laws are ambiguous, court rulings are ambiguous. Therefore, there is an increased autonomy and discretion at the local level. Human rights defenders in Russia face the grave task of tackling these violations with little success. [1]

For example, Putin signed new legislation in 2007 to regulate mass media and license online content. The law may act as a new way for the parliament to make over-broad restrictions on the basis of “extremism.” In the past year, the Federal Security Service cited Skype, Gmail and Hotmail as threats to national security.

Freedom of religion, too, does not find a safe harbor in Russia. Post-Soviet Russia has no definitive national model for church-state relations, which leaves regulations solely to the interpretation of local authorities. In many instances, this may lead authorities to favor majority religious groups at the expense of minorities with forced subscription to a single faith, Roman Orthodoxy. This would create much sought after unity. Putin and other proponents of a national identity may see the elevation of Roman Orthodoxy as an avenue for alienating and stripping power from more minor religious groups.

Minority religious groups face many chilling obstacles before they may practice openly. The 1997 legislation “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” outlines a series of requirements for religious organizations. Organizations must prove they have been in existence for 15 years, and that they are affiliated with a centralized organization. Meeting these requirements means fewer restrictions and the ability to practice in the public sphere. The “group” requirement can have severely limiting effects.

When all are required to meet the standard vein of national unity, little room or toleration is left for any differing thought. Where Roman Orthodoxy is dominant, the online organization Forum 18, has documented where the Law on Extremism has been used against Protestants and Muslims with accusations of holding their religion superior to other faiths.

Russia is historically victim to corruption, and still recently the country has made their war on terrorism a case for very tight security restrictions. Additionally, Russia’s concept of extremism has widened perhaps to fit the forcibly national goal of unity.

Free Press

In recent years, the voice of the press has been severely restricted. The restrictions come as legal limitations and violence against reporters. Satire aimed at the president has expressly been prohibited and a general “positive” view has been adopted on Russian state television. The Russian news network TVS was suddenly shut down following criticism of government practices.

Despite these setbacks, some high quality critical newspapers do exist, and their writers face grave danger. According to King’s College political science professor Beth Admiraal, “in competitive-authoritarian regimes, the persistence of democratic institutions – relatively free elections, primarily – [are] offset by the frequency of violations against liberal democracy – primarily, in the realm of freedom of speech and media.” Russian reporters are “increasingly likely to be targeted for physical retribution,” [6] and their murder will likely not be prosecuted in court.

Russia’s human rights are waning. In a report by Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen claimed that “the space for freedom of speech is shrinking alarmingly in Russia and it’s now imperative that the Russian authorities reverse this trend.” [7] An international call for reform has been made here and in Russia’s political sphere. Russia’s membership to the Council of Europe and ratifications made in the European Convention on Human Rights made it possible for Russians to take their appeal cases directly to the European Court of Human Appeals.

Here, the court has found many violations of human rights, several of which prohibit political speech. The court has ruled over cases in which citizens were forbidden from staging a gay pride parade, the Republican Party was terminated, and many human rights violations were found in Chechnya. Comparatively, the United States courts would also find fault with these obvious violations of First Amendment rights.

Comparison Between Russia and United States

By American standards, the Russian requirements seem very limiting in the case of freedom of religion. Russians must prove the national legitimacy and legacy of their religious organization, whereas Americans are mostly free to express their beliefs on religion. In the highly publicized Snyder v. Phelps case, highly controversial Westboro Baptist Church maintained their First Amendment rights to express their beliefs on gays in the military outside the funerals of fallen soldiers. There is no formal separation between church and state in Russia, [1] lending possibility for the government to favor Roman Orthodoxy in courts. However, in the United States there is a clear and defined policy for a separation of church and state, established as early as 1942 in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing.

Anti-extremism measures put in place by the Russian government would not stand in the United States. In New York Times v. United States the press won their right to publish top-secret government material over the argument for national security. Americans may publish satire, parody and statements true and false about public figures. Due to New York Times V. Sullivan, a plaintiff must prove a very high degree of intentionally reckless and harmful behavior in order to prove actual malice –lending the power in the hands of the speaker. In Russia, criticisms of the president have been outright banned, and reporters risk physical harm when promoting ideas and spreading information. [7] Contrastingly, in the United States Hustler V. Falwell upheld in a unanimous decision the ability to publish criticisms of public figures, holding that words were protected regardless of emotional distress.


Russia seems to be moving backward in freedom of speech and press policies. Nostalgia for Stalin takes root in the heart of many Russians as they look to improve economic conditions. Human rights violations and civil unrest will remain in Chechnya so long as the detrimental cycle of ambiguous legislation coupled with deceptive government authority pursues.

Works Cited

1. Admiraal, Beth M. “The Failure of National Religious Policy in the Post-Soviet Region: The Experiences of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and Greek Catholics in Romania.” Religion in Eastern Europe XXXII (Feb 2012): 19-33. Print.
2. Cohen, Stephen. “The Soviet Union’s Aftermath.” Nation 294.2/3 (1/9/2012): 14-17. Political Science Complete. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.
3. Cosgrove, Simon. “Twenty Years Later, Russians’ Rights Are Still Imperiled.” Current History 110.738 (Oct2011): 290-93. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.
4.”Country Data Reports: Russia.” Country Data Reports. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <;.
5. Dute, Joseph. “European Court of Human Rights.” European Journal of Health Law 17.4 (Sept2010): 403-13. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.
6. Eke, Steven. “Kremlin Accused on Media Freedoms.” BBC News. 2 May 2007. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
7. “Free Speech “shrinking” in Russia.” BBC News 26 Feb. 2008. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
8. Gross, J. Brian. “Russia’s War on Political and Religious Extremism: An Appraisal of the Law ‘On Counteracting Extremist Activity'” Brigham Young University Law Review 2003 (2003): 717-30. LexisNexis Academic: Law Reviews. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
9. Remnick, David. “The Civil Archaepelago.” New Yorker 87.41 (2011): 95-109. Literary Reference Center. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.
10. “Russia.” Freedom House. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <;.
11. Thornburgh, Nathan. “Russia’s Long War.” Time 16 Aug. 2010: 30. TOPICsearch. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.


2 Responses to Russia

  1. jalenmcneill says:

    if russia is in asia why is it a center of europe

  2. Nick Bukoski says:

    interesting….. never new that so many human rights abuses occured in Russia. Thanks for helping me with my paper! Don’t worry, i properly cited you

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