“We’re here tonight to talk about freedom of speech in Russia. Because how can we speak of freedom of speech when six Novaya-Gazeta journalists have been killed? Or when journalists in Chechnya are given a fatwa sentence and now have to fear for their lives?”
On Monday October 9th, Russian journalist Nadezhda Azhgikhina from Free Word Association gave a talk at Librebook about the state of freedom of expression in Russia. Mrs. Azhgikhina was introduced by Belgian journalist and fiction writer Jean Jauniaux, who is the president of French-speaking PEN Belgium, and by Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, of which Mrs. Azhgikhina holds the role of Vice-President.
Mrs. Azhgikhina began the evening by talking about Free Word, which is a newly created association of writers, bloggers, journalists, screenwriters, and any other professional who works with words. “Our main goal is to protect their freedom of creative expression,” said Mrs. Azhgikhina, then added that at this point there is no hierarchy, no specific person who steers the association but the collective desire is to look up to Svetlana Alexeivich’s work as the ideal they want follow.
Afterwards, a short documentary film on the life of Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin was shown. Shchekochikhin was married to Mrs. Azhgikhina until his tragic and mysterious death in 2003. The film shows footage of his life before the fall of the Soviet Union, when he worked as a journalist for Komsomolskaya Pravda and Literaturnaya Gazeta. Images of a courtroom in Odessa in 1990 can be seen, where some KGB members were taken to trial. Later, in 1995, he was elected to Russian State Duma from the Yabloko liberal party. He was deeply engaged in the fight against corruption and organized crime in politics. Some have reasons to believe his death was not incidental.
“Generals knew they couldn’t bribe him,” says Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief Dmitry Moratov in the film. “Yuri was selfless. His interests always lay with the underdog.”
Novaya Gazeta’s Brussel’s correspondent Alexander Mineev was present at Librebook and he shared a few comments after the film.
“I met Yuri in 1971,” he said. “In fact, I could recognize many of my colleagues in the film. Sadly, some of them are no longer alive. But it is important to remember that Perestroika was made possible only because of people like Yuri. Yes, there was Gorbachov. But he needed people like Yuri.”
Mrs. Azhgikhina pointed out that there seems to be disconnect between younger generations those who lived under the Soviet regime.
“They simply cannot understand it,” she said. “They cannot picture the kind of fear we lived in. How come Brodsky couldn’t come to his parents’ funeral? They just can’t even begin imagine what it was like.”
To end the evening, Mrs. Azhgikhina noted that in local elections in Moscow, in the district where President Putin votes, there has been a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party. A man under thirty five who, like many others, couldn’t afford a campaign on state-own TV or radio, and instead turned to social media to build his platform.
“We need to get young people engaged,” said Mrs. Azhgikhina. “Because without young people, we cannot think of a future with change.”