Central Asia’s Media Landscape: Democratic versus Authoritarian Diffusion

Eilish Hart

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Western actors have supported the development of independent journalism in Central Asia as a means of assisting the transition from communism to democracy. Assuming the universal appeal of Western, democratic values, they trusted that providing funding and Western-style journalism training would be sufficient for democratizing media in the region.

This strategy is also known as the “import model,” which, according to Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “is based on the expectation that Western values can be introduced through the formation of Western-educated media elites whose work will promote liberal values.”[1]

Nearly 30 years later, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the import model has failed to increase press freedom in the region.

In 2019, Freedom House gave all five Central Asian states press rankings of “not free,” with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which is considered “partly free.” Kyrgyzstan holds the best ranking among the Central Asian states with a score of five, Kazakhstan received a six, Tajikistan came in at six and a half, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan both scored the worst possible freedom rating of seven out of seven in terms of being the “least free.”

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Bishkek’s main newspapers posted on special stands on Erkindik Boulevard. Kyrgyzstan, September 2007. (By Vmenkov [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan has now replaced North Korea as the most unfree media environment in the world.

Nevertheless, Western governments and non-government organizations continue to rely on the import model to guide their involvement in the region’s media landscape, ignoring scholars’ skepticism about its effectiveness and the obvious lack of progress after years of intervention and millions of dollars in investment.

The failure of the import model can be attributed in part to regional elites and their reluctance to relinquish control over local media. This creates a wide range of negative incentives that discourage journalists from pursuing Western-style independent reporting, ranging from economic pressure and self-censorship to physical threats.

But although this accounts for the small amount of independent journalism being produced in the region, it doesn’t explain the fact that popular engagement with independent media (and the values it was founded upon) is very limited, as well.

Overall, Western attempts to influence the Central Asian media landscape failed to anticipate how local values and the legacy of the Soviet system continue to influence popular expectations for the press. As such, the failure of the import model in Central Asia can arguably be attributed to flaws in the model itself.

According to Richard Schafer, the Marxist values that defined Soviet era journalism continue to influence press systems in Central Asia today. Unlike democratic press systems, Soviet journalism was interpretive rather than objective and functioned as an ideological propaganda tool subordinate to the state.[2] This system remained in place until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ reforms of the 1980s sought to enhance press freedom.

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Surveyor Lidya Kulagina at work in the Pravda print shop. Moscow, USSR, 1959. (By A. Cheprunov [Public Domain] via RIA Novosti Archive).

Gorbachev’s new media laws renegotiated the relationship between the state and the press. Journalists’ ability to work more freely became connected to the granting of official accreditation (in other words, being a registered journalist). According to researcher Olivia Allison, journalists’ rights then became conditional and could be revoked if they did not fulfill their corresponding duties to the state – which was still a step up from complete subordination.[3]

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Central Asian elites essentially incorporated this conditionality into their respective national press systems. As Eric Freedman argues, post-Soviet press systems in Central Asia have effectively adapted Soviet-style media to their own authoritarian nation building projects.[4] As a result, people in Central Asia expect media to be interpretive and values driven, rather than objective. What’s more, they are often weary of perceived Western or liberal bias in independent media, and instead seek out media that reflects their values.

For example, a 2011 case study from journalist Navbahor Imamova revealed that international radio and television broadcasting in Uzbekistan had an overall annual reach of less than 4 percent.[5] What’s more, respondents often considered foreign broadcasters as platforms for the Uzbek political opposition or believed these media outlets reflected the policies of the countries that fund them.

This critical response to Western and/or Western-style media reflects a generally different set of expectations for journalism. Although Western media often has its own political biases, there is an expectation (or hope) that journalists strive for objectivity in their reporting, even if this is not the reality. In Central Asia, however, the assumption is that journalism serves the interests of some political group; be it the state, the opposition, or a foreign country.

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President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, April 2019. (By The Presidential Press and Information Office [Public Domain]).

Expectations for values driven media also contribute to the popularity of Russian media in the region, especially Russian television. Capitalizing on shared values, language, high production quality and entertainment value, Russian media enjoys a widespread audience in Central Asia.[6]

In Kazakhstan, for example, there are 15 free television channels available, 11 of which feature bilingual Russian and Kazakhstani programming, and about half of the population has access to the 103 available subscription channels of Russian origin.   The Russian language RuNet also dominates the country’s Internet space; the most popular search engine (Yandex), social networks (VKontakte and Odnoklassniki) and Email service (Mail.ru), all come from Russia.[7]

Although there have been some attempts to constrict Russian influence through the promotion of Kazakhstani media – such as laws increasing the mandatory amount of programming in the Kazakh language – when compared to Western media, Russian media has profited from comparatively fewer constraints from local political elites because it is reflective of their values.

By assuming the universal appeal of liberalism and democracy, Western actors thought the fall of the Soviet Union would implicitly give way to the development of democratic states in Central Asia. Instead, the consolidation of authoritarian nation states in the region has promoted nationalism, conservative and/or “traditionalist” values and different expectations for democracy.

Although countries in the region are experiencing social change, it is not necessarily liberal or democratic in the Western sense of the words. As Paul Stronski and Russel Zanca wrote for the Carnegie Russia & Eurasia Program:

“Democracy is important to the people of Central Asia, but their notions of democracy are different from American ones. Far more than the desire for political parties, free elections, or an independent parliament, Central Asia’s budding social activism is motivated by the desire for transparent and accountable government, even if it is not fully democratic.”

Meanwhile, Russian media thrives because of its ability to promote “shared conservative values” that allegedly set Russia and states in Central Asia apart from the rest of the world. As Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle argue, this explains why the Russian media strategy of masking authoritarian values as democratic has been far more successful than the promotion of actual liberal democracy. Meanwhile, the Western import model has had the unintended consequence of being most successful at influencing media commercialization, rather than independence, in the region.[8]

Overall, academics see the potential for the development of truly independent media in Central Asian states as extremely limited. Meanwhile, a small number of independent journalists continue to work in the region against all odds and at great personal risk. Their stories reflect the successful spread of Western-style independent journalism, but their influence is not widespread. Barring radical political and social change in Central Asia, the state-controlled, Russian-influenced media landscape isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Eilish Hart is a freelance writer and editor covering current affairs in Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia. She is a recent M.A. European and Russian Affairs graduate from the University of Toronto, interested in a range of topics, including international affairs, human rights, media freedom, migration, memory politics and Soviet history. Follow her on Twitter @EilishHart.

References

[1] Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Demokratizatsiya 23.3 (Summer 2015): 228.

[2] Richard Shafer, “Soviet Foundations of Post-Independence Press in Central Asia,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 20-21.

[3] Olivia Allison, “Loyalty in the New Authoritarian Model: Journalistic Rights and Duties in Central Asian Media Law,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 143-144.

[4] Eric Freedman, “Theoretical Foundations for Researching the Roles of the Press in Today’s Central Asia,” inAfter the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 2.

[5] Navbahor Imamova, “International Broadcasting in Uzbekistan: Does it Still Matter?” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 200.

[6] Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 228-229.

[7] Marlene Laruelle, Dylan Royce and Serrik Reyssembayev. “Untangling the Puzzle of ‘Russia’s Influence’ in Kazakhstan,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 60.2 (2019): 226-227.

[8] Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 229.

The ‘work of God’: the growth of Neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil

Rafael Antunes-Padilha

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Figure 1: Pastor Sergio Von Helde, member of IURD, kicking the image of the Holy Mary live on TV in 1995. Source: newspaper “O Globo” archives

In the first part of this series of articles on neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil, I talked about how IURD (the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) megachurches came to the forefront of the political struggle in the country. This blog will unpick the political and linguistic strategies used by the IURD in its pursuit of power in Brazil, both at the micro and macro levels.

In my previous piece, I explored how the smaller churches serve a specific purpose of disseminating the gospel as a tool of recruitment. Those spaces also provide instruction and education in a system of ‘obreiros’ (a casual Brazilian Portuguese word for ‘workers of God’), young people who help the leadership and dedicate themselves fully to the Church in both spiritual and technical matters. Within this system, young people considered to display eloquence and charisma are sent to religious schools to acquire formal education in the gospel, techniques of conversion and marketing, thus becoming pastors themselves and potential future politicians like the present mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella.

This system can be considered somewhat ‘tentacular’, due to its low entry-level requirements and capacity to be implemented in communities where the state is absent and infrastructure is scarce. Using this model the IURD has become the most politically successful church in the country. Its model is easily replicable and allows leaders to gather financial resources quickly, calling on believers to sacrifice their incomes in order to help with what the pastors call the ‘work for God’.[1]

This bottom-up recruitment has been used in conjunction with an astute media strategy. In 1989, Edir Macedo, founder of the IURD, began to purchase shares of the second-largest television broadcaster in Brazil. These purchases have evolved into the media empire he possesses today. This television kingpin’s main product is soap operas inspired by the Bible, like the blockbuster “The Ten Commandments” (later re-released as a movie). Macedo’s power, acquired through the Church’s intensive and constant campaigns for tithes, has allowed him to organize and finance the controversial and conservative Brazilian Republican Party (PRB).[2]

The infrastructure composed by these media assets, mega or cellular churches, and their presence in almost every town in Brazil, has allowed Macedo to elect not only the current mayor of Rio de Janeiro, but 30 Church members to the House of Representatives in the last election. The PRB is an important support base for President Jair Bolsonaro’s Congressional coalition, and it is worth mentioning that the Vice-President of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies also comes from the PRB party’s lines.

One of the most controversial appointments to ministerial leadership is Damares Alves, who now commands the recently established Ministry of Human Rights, Family, and Women. This institution was specifically designed to appease the ‘Evangelical Coalition’ that helped Bolsonaro to reach the executive office in last October’s general elections. An evangelical pastor and lawyer, Damares has also been accumulating controversies in a fashion that would make any Trump supporter blush.

From lying about holding a graduate degree, to making explicitly racist statements during a sermon, she has been labelled a professional polemicist by many media outlets. She often preaches on the indecency that shaped and continues to format the political life of Brazil, and before the election in 2018, she contended that ‘the time of politics is over, now it is time for the Church to govern the country’.

The erosion of democratic institutions in Brazil is accompanied by a specific political and religious discourse that escapes the universe of rational arguments and finds fertile ground on social media. With the technological development of smartphones and social media apps, the ideological dispute is projected at the individual level, aiming to manipulate the subconscious, rather than engaging in broader, conventional debate. This individualism can be perceived through the proliferation of the notion of ‘fake-news’ and ‘post-truth’ in recent years.

Armed with this knowledge, Bolsonaro frequently engages with his followers through Twitter or Facebook livestreams, even ditching a meeting with the French ambassador to cut his hair live on social media. Notwithstanding technological and institutional changes in Brazil that have enabled the Neo-Pentecostal movement to grow, the increasing bureaucratization of Brazil’s trade unions has allowed social and cultural services previously provided by the labor movement to be incorporated within the churches’ missions.[3]

The fracturing of historical forms of anti-systemic organizations has been accelerated by the juxtaposition of digital media, television and the proliferation of radical conservative religious groups like the Neo-Pentecostals.[4] Crippling even further the social importance of traditional movements like unions and civil rights organizations, the new Labour Code ended the mandatory contribution to workers’ rights organizations (from both labourers and the State), thus increasing the importance of the Churches’ social programs and sense of collective action in poor and working class communities.

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Figure 2: Jair Bolsonaro attending the “March for Jesus Christ” in 2019 performing his infamous “rifle gesture”. Source: diariodocentrodomundo.com.br

Although the Left and Liberal aisles of Brazil’s political life have tried to tie the government into a more “down-to-earth” and economically pragmatic agenda, considering the current recession that the country is going through, the Executive insists on pursuing a program that focuses on issues dear to conservative Christians. Laws establishing grounds for abortion, funding for science, and mainly women’s and LGBT+ have been constantly scratched out of the Civil Code by Bolsonaro and allies,  foretold by Bolsonaro’s acceptance speech, when he highlighted God as the ultimate force to rule above all Brazilians despite the country’s diverse religious beliefs, uniting Catholics and Evangelicals in the common goal to save the country from the ‘unethical’ left.

After the results of his election on October 28th, a prayer was held in the company of different members of the evangelical congressional coalition. Symbolic of the approximation of Bolsonaro with ultra-conservatives from the Neo-Pentecostal front, is his baptism by one Brazilian MP in the Jordan River in Israel, a holy place for Christians due to the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. The moment was chosen for the launch of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and occurred at the same time as the first woman elected president by the Workers’ Party was impeached by the senate. The baptism was live streamed on social media and celebrated by many in the Neo-Pentecostal community:

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Figure 3: Bolsonaro’s baptism in the Jordan River, accompanied by his sons and fellow politicians Eduardo and Flavio. The pastor is Everaldo, a former candidate for Brazil’s presidency and member of the Social-Christian Party. Source: extra.globo.com

Bolsonaro’s election showcases how far the evangelical speech reached in Brazil during the last years. Piggybacking the anti-left campaign in the medias, Neo-Pentecostal conservatism emerged in the political environment as a force to be reckoned with. This leverage, in terms of both membership growth and moralizing discourse, brought even greater conflict to the already divided Brazilian Catholics.

The veterans of the Charismatic Renewal – a movement that started in the United States in the 1960s that preaches for a spiritual renovation of the self, incorporating several elements of Pentecostalism like glossolalia (the act of speaking strange languages attributed to the Holy Spirit)—saw in Bolsonaro a positive shift towards the defense of eroded family values in the country. Therefore, by focusing on the customary agenda Bolsonaro manages to fissure the Catholic pole even further, not only by creating controversies that catches the public minds, but pitching particular groups within Catholicism against each other.

Neo-Pentecostal politicians often forge lobbying fronts with those Conservative Catholics, in order to constrain what they believe to be an attempt by leftists to instil “gender ideology” inside public schools. This blatant homophobia is perceived in this group’s organisation against the bill of education on combating homophobia. Called ‘School without Homophobia’, the Ministry of Education program was blocked in congress as constituting a “Gay Kit”, allegedly intended to turn kids into ‘homosexuals’.

From the varied perspective of left-Catholics, the radicalization of the Christian-right further deepens the differences between pro-LGBTQ, pro-Social Justice Catholics, and attempts by Pope Francis to reform and open the Church. In some cases, ultra-conservative leagues of Catholics started to name and shame progressive priests, and call out the Catholic Universities in Brazil for their complacency towards ‘communist-plagued’ academic departments.

However, the crown jewel of the Neo-Pentecostal strategic path to power is ultimately the president’s willingness to support their agenda, as the Commander-in-Chief Bolsonaro holds the power to nominate justices of the Supreme Court. Often, the conservatism of the National Congress faces opposition from the Federal Justices, like last May when the judges voted in favor of criminalizing homophobic offenses and making transphobia and hate killings severe felonies.

Soon after, speaking to an audience of members of Brazil’s largest evangelical denomination, the Assembly of God Church in Brazilia, Bolsonaro spoke about  nominating an evangelical Federal Justice. From the president’s perspective, the Supreme Court is trying to overrule Congress and run the country on their own. The opportunity to have a Supreme Court judge who promotes confessional votes in key legislations like the Law Against Homophobia is among one of the most important strategies to be deployed in order to turn Brazil into a theocratic country.

The holy alliance between authoritarians and the evangelical conservative movement must be closely followed by progressives and socialists alike. The present developments in Brazil can be perceived as a new blueprint for Christian, right-wing extremism to gain a foothold on power. The bridgehead of the alt-right lies in Christian conservatism, bringing back the importance of the religious as a space for political dispute, one in which the left still needs to learn how to operate.

Rafael Antunes Padilha is a Bachelor in Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo, with majors in Sociology, Political Science and Cultural Anthropology. His bachelor’s thesis was in Rural and Political Anthropology, focusing  on the economic dynamics of Italian Settler descendants in Brazil. Last August, Rafael graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in a Masters in Labour and Global Worker’s Rights (with a thesis on the Oaxacan labour movement and their struggle for broader democracy). He has just started a second masters, this time in Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Porto.

 

References

[1]https://medium.com/instituto-mosaico/o-suposto-projeto-de-poder-dos-evang%C3%A9licos-3fad45301e33

[2] A ‘tithe’ in the context of the IURD consists of a financial gift to the Church, presented as one of the ways to fall into God’s grace. Such financial contributions can collectively amount to millions of dollars.

[3] Silver, B. J. (2003). Forces of labor: workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge University Press.

[4] https://theintercept.com/2019/01/31/plano-dominacao-evangelico/

Neo-Pentecostal Power in Brazil – Democratic Decay and the “Purification” of Politics

Rafael Antunes Padilha

Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a former Army Captain of the Brazilian Army, was recently elected President of the largest Latin American nation. Wielding the motto ‘Brazil above all, God above everyone!’, Bolsonaro has achieved infamy worldwide due to his bigoted, xenophobic and openly homophobic statements. On top of that, he reached the newspapers headlines over his anti-conservationist approach towards Brazil’s natural resources.

Recent investigations uncovered an active stance of the Executive in Chief, that ended up providing institutional backup to cattle and soy farmers and their eerie intentions of setting the Amazon rainforest in flames, in what has been called in Brazil ‘a day of fire‘. The country’s current trend of far-right populism and attacks against minorities has thrown Brazil into the international spotlight, sparking public debates over human rights and democratic decay. Despite claiming to be Catholic, the president typically peddles violent discourses to his most hardened supporters: the neo-Pentecostal Christians.

Neo-Pentecostal churches are a relatively recent episode in Brazil’s religious history. Pentecostalism emerged in the country throughout the 1970s and has had a steady membership growth of 7.9% a year; Neo-Pentecostals constitute 65% of all self-proclaimed evangelicals.[1] The rise of Neo-Pentecostal denominations in the country brought a new political force into the mainstream, in the form of several political parties created directly by, or with support from churches in the last twenty years.

Bolsonaro today is perceived by pastors and followers as a catalyst of change in a corrupt Brazil. Bolsonaro’s middle-name is Messias (Messiah) and his social media followers nicknamed him ‘the Myth’. Such a movement evokes the historical phenomenon of messianism in Brazilian politics, which has seen two civil wars attempt to suppress messianic popular figures in the countryside (namely the Canudos War in the 19th Century and the Contestado War in the 1910s).[2] The figure of a savior that shall free the poor masses from their sorrow and finally fulfill the national destiny of glory is an ever-present topos in the Brazilian popular imaginary.

In the present day, there is a profusion of different churches, denominations and eclectic liturgies in the local Pentecostal spectrum. No central authority has been established to bring coherence to the Evangelical Neo-Pentecostal movements’ desires and aims. However, there are among the notorious Televangelical denominations a comprehensive set of successful evangelising tactics that are similar in shape or form.

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Figure 1. The multimillion Universal Church of God’s Kingdom Temple of King Solomon in Sao Paulo State. Source: Wikipedia

The Neo Pentecostals in Brazil differ from the Charismatics in the USA by their successful business model that produces strong geographical capillarity. Brazilian neo-Pentecostal megachurches not only manage to organize political parties but have also reached the highest echelons of the State’s administration, from army generals to rank-and-file nominees of ministerial cabinets. Today, local churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God  (IURD in the Brazilian Portuguese acronym), founded by the Rio de Janeiro born Edir Macedo in 1977, and the International Church of God’s Grace, acquired diplomatic passports for their pastors through their connections in the Ministry of Foreign relations, as well as privileges to expand their operations beyond the country’s borders.

As founder of the IURD, Edir Macedo is the precursor of the neo-Pentecostal movement in the country in its present form, and also the architect of the managerial culture within the religious structures. Macedo is vocal in his defense of the ‘Gospel of Prosperity’, according to which, the church’s mission is to obtain happiness and material gains in the earthly life for its flock. A huge component of the church’s activities lies in encouraging generous monetary donations from the followers of the church, which it presents as one of the ways to fall into God’s grace. Those financial gifts are commonly named tithes and can collectively amount to millions of dollars or even to real estate properties.

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Figure 2. Edir Macedo, owner of the Universal Church. Source: revistaforum.com.br

Such economic power afforded the IURD a powerful institutional leverage during the 1990s and 2000s that has been built, brick by brick, with the support ofthe center-left Workers’ Party. This alliance between the social democratic left and the largest evangelical groups to pursue electoral victories, ended up opening the gates of the public debate to more conservative discursive repertoires, like the rise of homophobic discourse in Brazil. The former head of the Executive branch of the government for the Workers’ Party, Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva – a Catholic whose views were influenced by his brother, a friar in the Theology of Liberation – saw in the evangelical demographic an opportunity to advertise outside the oppositional, elitist mainstream media to a more left-leaning administration.[3] Using pastors and TV channels under evangelical ownership, the Workers’ Party managed to advertise its governmental agenda to the poor masses.

With such a formidable institutional framework boosting their religious infrastructure, the largest evangelical churches developed a robust model of conversion and congregation that allowed them to project power overseas, facilitated by the leniency of the State. From Africa, Europe and North-America, the IURD alone now has a foothold in 180 countries and claims to have 12 million active members. In order to amass large numbers of followers, they tend to focus on marginalized and disenfranchised groups (economically and racially).

In the cases of Brazil and Mozambique, religious traditions such as Candomblé (and other animist expressions) are cast as scapegoats for all the evils and hardships that people face in their lives. I witnessed this phenomenon when accompanying a relative in one IURD church service. On the ‘Altar’, the pastor summoned a family from the region whose son was addicted to drugs. Socio-economic problems like violence, substance abuse and poverty are then treated as the work of Exú, an important and traditional figure for religions of the Yoruba matrix in Brazil. The young man, according to the pastor, had attended a ritual in a terreiro (a religious space for Afro-Brazilian beliefs) because of a girlfriend who forced him to partake in ‘demonic’ Candomblé practices and rites. That contact allegedly let the evil spirits take his soul and led him to use cocaine and other substances.

This approximation of different beliefs to evil is neither a novelty, nor usually authentic. These ‘testimonies’ or rituals of cure and exorcism are very often a ‘make-believe’ played by hired actors that appear in different churches or televangelical shows. In a not so remote past, Our Lady of Aparecida (Patron Saint of Brazil and one of the Saints with the largest group of followers in the world) was also associated by IURD with the devil and pointed out as the ultimate cause of all Brazil’s underdevelopment and suffering. The clear message of Pastors and evangelical churches’ leadership is to demonize any competitor in the religious marketplace.

The heavy emphasis of IURD churches on planned parenthood (here meaning the usage of birth control pills, imposition of one single child for each couple and going further to support abortion in some cases) and the tithe can be explained as an attempt to convert marginalized individuals into economic agents for the church, that being, a way of controlling the followers’ family budget expenditures in order to keep the money flow to the institution as strong and stable as possible. The tithe is a source of direct income transfer from the members, like a pension, that enable the religious organisations to design services to improve the quality of living of many of the churches’ members.

In a country like Brazil, where despite the average global real increase of wages above inflation has improved millions of peoples’ lives, the economic toll in middle-income families is still expensive. The high costs of private healthcare and education are the main destination of families’ incomes, considering the poor quality of the public services available. In that manner, the church (IURD) sees larger families as a challenge to their campaigns for large sums of tithes. If one has too many mouths to feed, by the end of the month they will not have enough to give as a contribution to the church.

For the Brazilian philosopher Marilena Chauí, the mixing of the spiritual and the economic, and the heavy focus on the entrepreneurial ideology of late capitalism, have guaranteed the survival of the Gospel of Prosperity. According to the IURD’s ‘Theology of Neoliberalism’, the world we live in is the final work of God, and we should therefore manage it in order to unleash prosperity and wealth to all.

One aspect usually disregarded by the Brazilian Left (represented by the Workers’ Party and Socialism and Liberty Party, the main left in Congress), is that the church has successfully empowered commonly marginalized communities with this ideology. With the economic growth of the 2000s, the harnessing of those groups by the evangelical denominations – through the proliferation of small devotional spaces and an evangelical-only network of clothing, food, and furniture, accompanied by the decline of the Catholic Church that refuses to further its reforms and compete in equal standards with the new Christian options in the religious market – produced a circular exchange of money and goods strengthening the new religious organisation itself. Whereas Catholics tend to support more charitable and donation-driven practices, evangelical denominations dedicate resources and efforts in developing a welfare system for their followers under a tight and authoritarian grip of the church’s leadership.

However, the economic boom that Brazil experienced during the years of the  Workers’ Party government (2002-2016) was depicted by the churches not as a direct consequence of a robust democracy and progressive policies, but rather as the result of strictly individual-centered efforts. In a broader sense, whilst the Left decided to relax their grassroots strategies and working-class commitments of the past, even departing from their alliances with progressive Catholics, Neo-Pentecostal televangelical groups used the Left’s traditional anti-hegemonic strategies to conquer a bigger flock. Garages were converted into small temples in every favela, and pastors began to occupy a central role within social-movements (trade unions, prison community rights organisations and anti-poverty groups) and institutions like the notorious Landless Workers’ Movements.

On the surface, the doctrine of ‘brother votes for brother’ implemented by the Evangelical coalition subsumes national politics into a theocratic system that disables the secular qualities of the Brazilian State. However, in reality, the strategic positioning of Neo-Pentecostal candidates (usually bishops), comes as a necessary step in the acquisition of financial resources or tax deductions for the churches’ benefit. The last stage of the political neo-Pentecostal movement pursues the steering of the presidential nomination for the Supreme Court of Justice. Success in this objective could enable ultra-conservative Brazilians to appoint someone who supports their votes as a judge under the Confessional Practice, which is the conscious decision of a policy-maker or judge to make decisions based on the bible rather than the constitution and liberal civil rights.

This demographic shift in the judiciary could result in the blockage of the relatively progressive current nominated bench of the Court, that during the last years criminalized homophobia, approved the bill on same sex marriage, and is about to vote on the decriminalization of cannabis. The most dangerous aspect of this intertwining of Church and State is the presumption of a fixed Christian morality above all. The dynamics of liberal democracy are based upon the balance of forces and different opinions meeting halfway. If the laws, customs and desirable behaviours are written in stone by some kind of ‘enlightened’ authority, diversity is then rendered as deviance. The new social-political landscape of Brazil poses a threat not only to the rules of the democratic game, but also to other religious minorities or dissident voices within Christendom.

Rafael Antunes Padilha is a Bachelor in Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo, with majors in Sociology, Political Science and Cultural Anthropology. His bachelor’s thesis was in Rural and Political Anthropology, focusing  on the economic dynamics of Italian Settler’s descendents in Brazil. Last August, Rafael graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in a Masters in Labour and Global Worker’s Rights (with a thesis on the Oaxacan labor movement and their struggle for broader democracy) after a brief period working in South America with Corporate Social Responsability, and freelance research for organisations such as the ILO. Currently, he is preparing to start a second masters, this time in Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Porto.

References

[1] P. Semán, ‘¿Quiénes son? ¿Por qué crecen? ¿En qué creen?: Pentecostalismo y política en América Latina’, Nueva Sociedad, 280 (2019), pp. 26-46.

[2] For more on the War of Canudos, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0205w53; For the Contestado War, see https://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi3716720153 and T.A. Diacon, Millenarian vision, capitalist reality: Brazil’s Contestado rebellion, 1912–1916, (Duke University Press, 1991).

[3] The ‘Theology of Liberation’ is the embracing by some Roman Catholics priests in Latin America of Karl Marx’s critique of Capitalism. According to this theology, the Church should have a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and first satisfy their physical, social and economic needs before attending spiritual necessities. For more information, I cannot recommend enough the book Introducing Liberation Theologyby Leonardo Boff and his brother Clodovis Boff.

The Red Guillotine

Agata Fijalkowski

This is the second in a series of blogs that explores the relationship between law and the visual. It starts with the premise that the relationship between law and art has been long established. The practice of law contains deeply performative elements, best exemplified by the concept of the trial. In East Germany, political trials presented a valuable propaganda opportunity, and state-employed photographers covered such events in depth. The resulting images were then published in the main broadsheets of the day.

This post provides a snapshot of my investigation into East German justice, with the image of the East German judge Hilde Benjamin—or ‘Bloody Hilde’ as she became known—serving as the starting point. As in my Albanian case study about the writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari , this exploration also begins with a captivating photograph.

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Fig 1. Hilde Benjamin, state prosecutor. From Berliner Zeitung (1945) @Bundesarchiv. Bild 183-15600-0005

Hilde Benjamin (1902-1989) played an integral role in the construction of the East German legal system. In the post-WWII period, she first worked as a prosecutor [Fig.1], then as a judge on the High Court (1949-1953), then as Minister of Justice (1953-1967). Benjamin modelled herself on the Soviet jurist and Attorney General Andrei Vyshinsky (1883-1954); it was Vyshinsky who developed Lenin’s idea that law was a political weapon, which proved vital during the Stalinist period. Benjamin is mainly known for her unwavering commitment to communism, and during the 1950s as High Court judge she rendered judgments in cases that resulted in the capital sentence, which earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Hilde’ or ‘The Red Guillotine’.

Benjamin presided over all of the decisions in political cases. By learning more about this figure we are able to uncover diverging narratives that serve to broaden our understanding of the context of dispensing justice in East Germany, where the visual played a pivotal role in the process. This material aspect of the image is intertwined with its affectivity. In other words, for some of us the eye is drawn to certain features in the image that result in an affective response.[2] We relive the captured moment at each viewing. Our understanding of the key legal actors and the dispensation of justice is made richer by the personal accounts and legal processes that were at play at that captured moment.

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Fig. 2. Berlin, High Court. 1952. Freiheitliche Juristen  trial. @Bundesarchiv Koblenz Collection. Bild 183-15600-0005

As in the Albanian case the images are captivating and the viewer is drawn to a certain aesthetic in the photograph. They are also powerful because of their courtroom setting: spacious theatre venues that provided room for a large audience. Finally, they are compelling because of the subject matter that also includes us as the audience in the spectacle. The driving force underpinning the law’s ability to speak legally in the East German case study points to the performance of education and ‘throttling’[3] [Fig.2 and Fig.4] during the trial proceedings, but also to Benjamin’s ambiguous positioning within East Germany.[4] I intend to challenge the viewer by testing the parameters of Benjamin’s accountability within the GDR’s apparatus of repression.

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Fig 3. Berlin, High Court. Hilde Benjamin and Kurt Schumann @Bundesarchiv Koblenz Collection. Bild 183-S94973

Who was Hilde Benjamin? Why do we need to dig deeper behind her photograph? Her philosophy was ‘you laugh with your friends; you hate your enemies’,[5] a perspective rooted in Benjamin’s past. This past was one of discrimination and persecution: first, because of her gender, second, as a mistaken minority, third, as a member of a culturally leaning family and finally as a communist. After surviving the war, Benjamin decided to offer her legal qualifications to the service of the East German communist state.

Benjamin’s life account is less than well known in the English language (and not widely studied in German legal discourses). She was brought up in petit bourgeois family in West Berlin. Her personal relationships, perhaps most notably that with Georg Benjamin (brother of the philosopher, Walter), who would later become a victim of the Nazi regime, informed her politically. She was discriminated against by her compatriots who thought she was either Roma or Jewish (though she was neither). These components resulted in her decision to pursue a legal career and to commit herself ideologically to the GDR.[6] Benjamin skyrocketed in her legal career and intentionally used the law as a political weapon against her enemies, remoulding Vyshinsky’s approach to her own.

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Fig. 4. Hilde Benjamin (center). Waldheim Trials (1950). @Bundesarchiv Koblenz Collection. Bild 183-S98280

At the same time Benjamin actively sought the inclusion of more women in the legal profession and tried to address the contradiction she saw in socialism – its gender divide. She thus became involved in the reform of family law, and also played a significant role in the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Minister of Justice, Benjamin was at the forefront of these developments. In 1967, she was eventually forced to relocate by Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s leader and Chairman, when her ‘political fanaticism’ fell out of favour. The wider implications of this part of the project raise important questions about Benjamin’s location in legal historical discourses, such as in Germany in the post-1991 unification period.

Benjamin, the judge, was at the heart of meting out punishment against substantial numbers of people accused of anti-state activities in the post-war period. But to stop short at this point would be to provide a superficial reading of the case study, especially where Benjamin is concerned.[7] Engaging with her images and accompanying conflicting narratives of her upbringing and political views forces us to ask where Benjamin is located in current historical accounts of East German law, and to rethink the GDR’s role in shaping international discourses about the law and justice. Watch this space for a further evaluation of Benjamin in my forthcoming monograph.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow

[1] Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Law and Performance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018) and Desmond Manderson, ed., Law and the Visual: Representations, Technologies, and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans: Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), pp. 21-25.

[3] Here ‘throttling’ refers to the violent dispensation of justice as a means of suppression and control.

[5] Andrea Feth, correspondence with author, 9 July 2017.

[6] Andrea Feth, Hilde Benjamin – Eine Biographie (Berlin: Arno Spitz, 1997)

[7] MDR, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk produced a television series on Hilde Benjamin in 2013, see https://www.mdr.de/zeitreise/biographie-hilde-benjamin100.html

Re-visiting Musine Kokalari: a lost story of defiance in the face of political oppression

Agata Fijalkowski

 This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My current project about imagery and the law was sparked by a photograph of Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer and political dissident. Kokalari was imprisoned and suffered the humiliation of a public show trial under a despotic regime which murdered her brothers and kept her under surveillance and in exile most of her life. Her brave story can now be told after secret police files were released that revealed details about a shocking miscarriage of justice which deprived the world of a great writer.

Kokalari was Albania’s first female writer of note from the pre-communist period. She was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey, where from an early age the young Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore. The Kokalari family were at the centre of literary and political activity in the area.

They returned to their native Gjirokastra in southern Albania in 1920, and  in 1938 Kokalari left to embark on her university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. She kept a diary, My University Life, which was eventually published in 2016. In 1941, she published her first book, called As My Grandma Says,  about the daily struggles of a Gjirokastran woman living in a deeply patriarchal society and which can be seen as an early feminist text.

The writer and political dissident

It was during her studies in Rome that Kokalari joined anti-fascist and anti-communist movements. She continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942 where she co-founded the Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop

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Musine Kokalari. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute, Author provided

became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result the family was kept under close surveillance by the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front). Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed by the state for their political activities. Kokalari herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945 after openly expressing her views against totalitarianism.

She was then involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections, and called for multi-party elections. The writer hoped that representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States would monitor the elections. But all 37 members of the coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation. Neither the US nor the UK intervened.

Hair torn from her head

In 1946, following these arrests, Kokalari stood before the military court in the Albanian capital, Tirana. She was threatened, intimidated and coerced. Archival memos refer to her hair being torn out of her head by bystanders. Her trial was transmitted live via loud speakers to the crowds outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her powerful image made the front page of the broadsheets in Albania two days running.

This trial was the second in a run of six trials organised by the authorities in that period

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Kokalari with her brother Vesim. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute., Author provided

that effectively eliminated “enemies of the state”. It was dubbed the “political dissidents trial” and it sent a message about the direction that the regime was taking towards free speech. It did not deter Kokalari, who used the trial to stand up for her rights. Witness accounts speak of her declaring: “I do not need to be a communist to love my country”. Despite her bravery, she would have endured severe, prolonged torture during her detention and trial. The court refused to let her speak for any length of time.

Kokalari was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 16. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer. She joked that she was a “mortar specialist”, as her work involved heavy, arduous construction. On her days off she would visit the library and sit in a public place reading a book under the watchful eye of the secret police. Despite the fact that she was forbidden to write, she secretly completed a manuscript about the founding of the Social Democratic Movement. Kokalari died in 1983 – two years before the decline of the dictatorship – after being refused treatment for cancer by the Albanian government.

The fragile rule of law

The near full isolation imposed on her by the communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world her powerful voice and writings. Kokalari’s writing tapped into local custom and language, using local dialects in a lucid way, as she wrote about the challenges facing her generation of women. Her broader outlook about her country’s future as a democracy is far from outdated. At its core, the protection of free speech as a key to participating in, and contributing to civil society should serve to remind us how democracies are always works in progress. Her trial and the trials of her contemporaries show how fragile the rule of law can be.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on her. Within it they found the powerful and defiant photograph of the writer standing alone in front a crowd of people as she was put on trial for her beliefs (fig.1). Kokalari is evidence of a political dissident voice in a country with little experience with democracy and which existed in near isolation for most of the 20th century. It continues to struggle with its authoritarian past.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable woman made to Albania’s cultural and political life. Her life story is a poignant tale of achievement and ambition, of hope in the face of repression and also inspiration – for Albanians and non-Albanians alike.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. The powerful image of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari discussed in this article resulted in an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford that also included a short, ‘arty’ film An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (2017). More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow

The Soviet Court as a Propaganda Instrument

By Anna Lukina

“The Soviet court should, above all, persuade, prove and subordinate the public attention to its moral influence and authority.”

Andrei Vyshinskii, “Theory of Evidence in the Soviet Law” (1946)

It is well-known that the Soviet court procedure, especially in the 1930s, can be characterized by its lack of due process, judicial independence, and fair outcomes. It remains unclear, however, why these legal institutions were preserved and, on the surface, respected at all. The core of Marxist-Leninist philosophy was suspicious of legal formalism, with early 1920s legal scholars such as Pashukanis and Krylenko advocating for the ‘withering away’ of the state and hence law.

Yet this position was fundamentally reversed in 1930s. This can be explained by the fact that Stalin saw the courts’ hidden potential as a political tool: not as an explicit source of power (since coercion could be, and was, applied via extralegal procedures), but as a mode of communication with the population.

Even before the 1930s “conservative shift”, Soviet society recognized this hidden meaning of judicial procedures. Some of the 1920s trials such as the Trial of the SRs (1922) and the Shakhty Trial (1928) were more like “trial-lectures” addressed to a wide audience of spectators. In the 1930s, however, this function was enhanced since the state, aided by the Show Trials prosecutor Andrey Vyshinskii as a chief reformer, invested in legal education, legal scholarship, and the reorganization of judiciary and related institutions. This was followed by a “refetishisation of the law” – an explicit acknowledgment of legal order as the cornerstone of socialism and a building force in Soviet society.

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A photo from the trial of Semenchuk and Startsev (1936), which was characterised by strict adherence to Soviet legal narrative canons. Here, the defence attorney (who really acted as a ‘second prosecutor’) is addressing the court.

This, in turn, has increased the use of Soviet court for propagandistic purposes, creating what I call a “Soviet legal narrative”. It can be briefly described as a chronological account of the facts of a specific case, which was presented as the primary ‘story’ in the Soviet court. Even though the notion of a legal narrative is not unique to the Soviet legal system, and has been used to describe legal procedures in a variety of jurisdiction, its Soviet form was characterized by a number of distinct features.

Firstly, as mentioned above, the Soviet legal narrative was addressed to an unusually wide audience. While ordinarily a story presented in court is intended to influence the judge and the jury, the Soviet court was officially designated a function of educating wider population. This “education” did not only extend to ideologically neutral values such as respect for law, but covered instillation of more specific Marxist-Leninist values. It was disseminated via the openness of trials themselves, wide reporting in the (state-controlled) media, and even novels and short stories based on real-life trials. It can be partly attributed to the lack of adversarial procedures, which diminished the role of the court in the decision-making: when the outcome is pre-determined, there is no one to persuade.

Secondly, it can be viewed as an official agenda. The Soviet legal doctrine furthered an extremely idiosyncratic role of the court: educating the population as synonymous with establishing an objective truth. However, unlike similar (but more legitimate) concepts in contemporary civil law systems, the latter meant construing impressions as reality using materialistic dialectics – a strong ground for creating a narrative deviating from facts. Therefore, it can be argued that propaganda appeared to be an implied goal of the Soviet court in that period.

Thirdly, the Soviet narrative was characterized by a specific type of content. For instance, it presented the mens rea (the “mental” element of the crime – such as motives and intentions) as more important than the unlawful act itself. Anti-Soviet motives were considered as aggravating factors and therefore actively discouraged when the narrative was disseminated to the legal audience regardless of the objective impact of the defendant’s actions.

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A Soviet propaganda poster from 1948. “Bourgeois court is the court of the rich, while the Soviet court is the court of the people!”

Moreover, many distinctly colourful assertions were made about the defendant’s character and their class standing, as well as the victim’s relative characteristics. These “portraits” created a story which was easily digestible by the audience, with clear protagonists and antagonists: a cautionary tale designed to shape the existing social norms. In addition, it represented class struggle, turning the trial not only into a battle of personalities, but a tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. This provided both a justification for coercion and a political lesson for the spectators to learn from.

Finally, the omnipresence of this particular variety of narrative was cultivated by the fact that the Soviet court structure was far from the “storytelling contest” seen in adversarial trials: both the court and the prosecution followed the same line from the very start. Even the defence was not exempt from repeating the official line, as defence attorneys were considered the servants of the state as much as prosecutors, and so were compelled to advance similar goals and ideas. In this sense, the Soviet legal narrative was hardly challenged by any competing stories, which solidified it in the audience’s minds.

Therefore, the Soviet legal narrative phenomenon and the use of the court as a propaganda device can explain many peculiarities of trials in that period. Even though the rule of law would have presented a challenge to the totalitarian leadership, a pretense of the rule of law was, ironically, central to its strengthening.

Anna Lukina is a 3rd year BA in Jurisprudence student in the University of Oxford. Her research has so far focused on legal narratives in the Soviet criminal case and Soviet conceptions of human rights(1). She plans to combine Soviet legal history, socio-legal studies and legal theory in her work. This blog post is partly based on her article:

Anna Lukina, “The Semenchuk Case of 1936: Storytelling and Propaganda above the Law in the Soviet Criminal Trial”, Review of Central and East European Law, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2016, 63-116. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15730352-04102001

Debunking ‘Continuity Russia’ 

By Nathan Brand

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the resurgence of the radical right across Europe, you’ll have seen the reports of Russia’s involvement in the democratic process in the West.  You’ll probably have picked up on the McCarthyist-style links fashioned by the media against anyone suspected of being connected with the Kremlin.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have seen the level of conspiracy theory in some commentary raised to Cold War spy novel standards.

What all of this points to is an ongoing crisis in Western analysis of contemporary Russia and its international relations.  This is not so much an economic problem; the structure of daily life is defined in both Russia and the West by relatively strict adherence to neoliberal economic management.  Rather, it is crisis borne of our relation to the past.  As we know from Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, our knowledge of the past is the only way to access the present.  It follows that a lack of interrogation of the past would lead to a mis-reconstructed present.

The dominant discourse in the Anglophone Western media about Russia is the thesis of ‘Continuity Russia’.  This thesis argues that Russia has been a continuously dangerous power for the West over the course of the last couple of hundred years, despite its changing guises – Tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet.  It relies upon one particularly problematic construction in particular; that the current leadership of the Kremlin can be understood using the tools of the Soviet era because they are, more or less, continuations of the Soviet era.

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Cover of the New Statesman (5th May 2017) – Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin pictured together as fellow travellers

As its big Other, the West constitutes one of the major defining points of Russian identity.  Indeed, scholars such as Viatcheslav Morozov have argued that the question of Russia’s European-ness constitutes one of the major issues for Russian identity in the last 200 or so years.  This is also evident in the recent conservative turn in Russian politics, but even more so in culture, where conservative cultural elites have claimed Russia as the true heir to the culture of European antiquity.  It is especially dangerous, then, for Western (and particularly Anglo-American) analysis of Russian political culture to fall, at best, into cheap stereotype and at worst into outright historical revisionism.

More often than not, such revisionism comes from the north Atlantic foreign policy establishment; the response of the liberal media in the United States following Donald

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Cover of the New Statesman (21st March 2014) – portrait-style image of Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and Putin

Trump’s election exemplifies the thesis superbly.  The coded argument here is that a Trump win could only have been down to Russian meddling, as opposed to a poorly-run campaign on the part of the Democratic party.  Andrew Bacevich’s convincing article this month on the ISS forum shows how historical revisionism has become the stock response to Donald Trump’s election as President and the fear that American hegemony will no longer be prioritised in the international sphere.  The irony, Bacevich points out, is that although Trump may appear “closer to full-fledged illiteracy than any president since Warren G. Harding” he nonetheless intuits the need for a change in U.S. foreign policy. In Great Britain, which has a great history in celebrating historical revisionism, The New Statesman has been the most frequent flyer in this great airplane of obfuscation.

In their most recent coverage of Russia on the front pages, the New Statesman commonly uses two tropes: 1) crude homophobic depictions of Vladimir Putin as a sexual predator, ready to come for other countries in Europe; and 2) the portrayal of Russia as a reincarnation, or even a continuation, of the Soviet Union.  Most commonly these two tropes are combined, as shown by the two images below

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Cover of the New Statesman (13th January 2017) – Putin pictured nude, with an ‘insatiable desire to regain superpower status’
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Cover of the New Statesman (7th March 2014) – Putin dressed as a Red Army soldier

The function of these recurring depictions of Russia is, of course, to inhibit resistance to the liberal interventionist foreign policy which has dominated the North Atlantic Anglophone powers since the heady days of the early 20th century.  This foreign policy portfolio is recently exemplified by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as support for dictators in those countries (and many others) whilst it suited them.  The argumentation follows that if Russia has not sought to change its stripes in the last

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Cover of the New Statesman (28th March 2014) – Russia is depicted as an ursine aggressor

century, then why should we?  Such specious reasoning escalates tension between the major powers, as well as encouraging the militarisation of our societies, sending us spiralling back toward the dark days of Cold War rhetoric.

This is certainly not to endorse Putin’s foreign policy exploits; the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent spiritual climate which it has created, capable of sweeping away the demands of the labour movement at home, are certainly nothing to stand up for.  But the assumption of Russia as a historically continuous entity, threatening Western values, from the Tsarist empire, through the Soviet empire, to its current status within the neo-liberalised global economic system helps do nothing but mystify.  It allows the New Statesman to argue for a foreign policy concept – in liberal interventionism – which has propped up dictators whilst they were useful, before allowing anarchy to spread in zones of the world which appeared resistant to the free flow of capital.

Ultimately, the thesis of continuity Russia leads necessarily to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the Western media seek to exclude Russia from the symbolic global order by way of writing historically revisionist works of selective tradition, then Russia will indeed be excluded.  Such is the power of the global hegemon.  But if semi-authoritarian, anti-democratic rule can be seen to be on the rise in Russia, dogmatic, historically inaccurate portrayals of the contemporary leadership can surely do nought but help its cause.

Nathan Brand is a WRoCAH-funded PhD researcher based in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds.  His current research focuses on the so-called Conservative Revolution in post-Soviet Russia, with a particular emphasis on visual aspects of the political and media discourse of this far-right movement.  He is co-convening a conference next year titled ‘Sovereign Bodies and Bodily Sovereignty: Mediation of Body in Semi-Authoritarian Countries’