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Russia: Blogger Dmitri Shipilov Convicted of “Insulting a State Official”

Earlier this week, on April 3, 2012, a Kemerovo court convicted blogger Dmitri Shipilov of violating Article 319 [en] of the Criminal Code, “insulting a state official in public.” As a result, he was sentenced to eleven months of community service, with ten percent of his earnings earmarked for the government’s treasury. Shipilov’s crime was authoring two blog posts in November 2011 that each lampooned the region’s governor, Aman Tuleyev, as well as members of his staff, often in colorful language.

The first blog post [ru] criticized Tuleyev for a pronatalist initiative [ru] that awarded 30,000 rubles (roughly 1,000 USD) to any couples who agreed to register their marriages on November 11, 2011 (“11/11/11”). Shipilov estimated that the project cost nearly 15 million rubles — one short of the sixteen million the government had collected for sick children in an October fundraising event [ru] that included visits by presumably well-compensated movie stars like Sophia Loren. Shipilov wrote:

So it turns out that the Kemerovo oblast’ administration doesn't have any money for sick children, but, to support newlyweds obsessed with numbers, it's got money!

Shipilov also targeted the head of the region’s Department of Culture and Nationalities Policy, Larisa Zauervain [ru], highlighting her role in the government’s recent creation of a widely-mocked “Abominable Snowman Day” [ru] (or “Yeti Day”), as well as her part in a November 2011 local rock concert by the legendary Mashina Vremeni (“Time Machine”), which provoked loud booing from the audience, when fans were informed that the event was sponsored by the political party United Russia. After videos [ru] of the booing went viral on YouTube, Mashina Vremeni’s lead singer, Andrei Makarevich, explained that the band had agreed to receive honorary awards from the governor, but had not consented to make any political endorsements. (In a blog post on Snob.ru, the rock star described the tactics of Tuleyev’s staff as “screwing someone without permission.”) Zauervain, in turn, accused the group of political “provocations.”

In his blog, next to a photo of Zauervain, Shipilov wrote:

This is Larisa Zauervain, a pure maiden from the department of culture and ethnic hatred [sic]. After the head of this most exalted agency couldn't become provost of Kemerovskii State University for Culture and the Arts, she decided to go all out: she sent Vasily “I'll suck you off for eight grand a month and a crate of vodka” Zhopka up shit creek, removing him from the editorial board at the journal ‘Pust’ govoriat’ ‘Ogni Kuzbassa’ (she gets my respect for that), then she ran around Mount Shoria, looking for female yetis to breed abominable snowmen, and finally she awarded the musicians of ‘Mashina Vremeni’ a memorable and steaming pile of shit (which, for a couple of days, sent the whole blogosphere howling at how ‘Yetinited Russia’ had tried to ride the coattails of such a famous band).

Finally, Shipilov turned to Elena Rudneva, Kemerovo’s Deputy Head of Municipal Education, whom he describes as a low-ranking but overachieving bureaucrat with sinister ambitions. The blog post includes scans (here and here) of a May 2010 departmental memo, in which Rudneva lays out a plan “to break up the illegal activities of [Kemerovo’s] destructive social forces.” In the text, Rudneva proposes the following curious approach:

Organize constant contact with destructive members of society, identify their personal problems (their employment situation, any medical needs, their children's schooling, and so on), and take timely measures to establish a constructive dialog with them.

Responding to Rudneva’s idea, Shipilov wrote:

[She] really wants to participate in the political life of the region, but the narrowness of her authority prevents it from happening, as propagating political ideas in educational institutions is prohibited by our country’s laws. So she decided to take another route, drafting a document that offers truly bedazzling brown-nosing.

About a week later, Shipilov followed this post with a bit of creative writing [ru], composing a script for a fictional television show set ten years in the future, titled “One Day in the Life of Aman Gumirovich [Tuleyev],” airing on “Al Jazeera Kuzbass.” (The racial overtones in Shipilov’s script, poking fun at the half-Kazakh, half-Bashkir Governor, possibly contributed to early reports [ru] that, in addition to Article 319, Shipilov would also be charged with inciting ethnic hatred under Article 282 [en].)

The text satirizes Kemerovo’s Governor, placing him in absurd and embarrassing situations (his wife feeds him bugs and urine, he receives hate mail at work, and so on), and Tuleyev himself behaves ridiculously. In one scene, he appears on “I Am Alive!” (a fictional Al Jazeera TV show), where he speaks in “balalaika language,” punctuating every word with the sound “ama,” imitating the Central Asian stereotype popularized [ru] by comedian Mikhail Galustian. When leaving the studio, an aide returns a left-behind cosmetics purse to Tuleyev, who responds:

Thank you, Zakhar. Just in time, too. I need some foundation and superglue. My ear came unglued and some spots of dead flesh are showing on my neck.

Reactions from Kemerovo bloggers have varied. Aleksandr Sorokin, a lecturer at a local liberal arts university, said in January 2012 [ru] that police officers interrogated him to confirm that he had read Shipilov’s blog posts (in order to prove in court that LiveJournal can be considered a public forum). By February 2012 [ru], while still opposed to the enforcement of Article 319, Sorokin faulted Shipilov for failing to keep the public informed about his trial. Kemerovo journalist Vasily Popok (whom Shipilov distinguishes above as a man willing to do most anything for money and liquor) welcomed this week’s verdict [ru], though he later lamented [ru] that Shipilov is unlikely to have learned his lesson. Popok also reposted an article by Andrei Ivanov, another Kemerovo resident, who took issue with how DozhdTV covered the Shipilov story. On air [ru], a DozhdTV anchor alleged that the Kemerovo court had, in fact, condemned Shipilov to hard labor. Ivanov responded [ru] sarcastically:

It turns out that Dmitri's sentence is far more than a bit of street sweeping, as naive Kuzbass natives might have thought. In Maskva [sic] they know for real that the vicious Tuleyev decided to send the guy to rot in the mines, digging for toxic waste.

Meanwhile, Shipilov has promised to appeal the ruling, saying that he is prepared to take his case to the European Court. Tuleyev's lawyer, Aleksei Sinitsin, on the other hand, told [ru] a Novokuznetskoe television station that the court's decision was within the confines of European law, claiming that no state allows its citizens to publish obscene insults directed at government officials. Ironically, Pavel Chikov, Chairman of the human rights group “Agora,” told Gazeta.ru precisely the opposite, arguing that criminal cases against bloggers are becoming a thing of the past because the practice violates Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights [en].

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick

    The European Court would likely find in favour of Shipilov. The landmark case in the ECHR is Lingens v. Austria (1986), which is similar to Times v. Sullivan in the US. It establishes that public officials have a higher threshold to meet before a libel case can be made, and that “a careful distinction needed to be made between facts and value judgments/opinions.”

    You’d be hard put to find EU countries that have jurisprudence that would involve criminal punishment for obscene criticism of officials. And while Lingens doesn’t address the issue of obscenity, it might well find that these writings were matters of opinion.

    Certainly 11 months and 10 percent of wages garnished is far too harsh a penalty. These are the kind of posts that get routinely reported and removed on social media sites and blogging platforms for obscenity, and that’s how it could be addressed, with administrative deletion.

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