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Armen Aramyan in court. April 14, 2021

‘Self-censorship leads to impotence’ Ahead of ‘Doxa case’ verdict, Meduza publishes editor Armen Aramyan’s final statement in court

Source: Meduza
Armen Aramyan in court. April 14, 2021
Armen Aramyan in court. April 14, 2021
Evgeny Feldman / Meduza

On April 1, a Moscow court debated the case of four editors from the student magazine Doxa on trial for charges of inciting minors to take part in protests. The grounds for the criminal prosecution of Armen Aramyan, Alla Gutnikova, Natalia Tyshkevich, and Vladimir Metelkin was the publication of a video in January 2021, in which they called on university administrators stop threatening students who were participating in rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. At the hearing on April 1, the prosecutor asked that the accused be sentenced to two years of correctional labor. The defendants in the case also delivered their final statements. The verdict is set to be handed down tomorrow, April 12. On the eve of the sentencing hearing, Meduza has published the final statement of Doxa editor-in-chief Armen Aramyan. 

Honorable court!

There are not many places remaining in Russia today where I may speak freely about what is happening in our country. I would like to seize the opportunity to say a few words at this public hearing. One month ago, Russia launched its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Thousands of civilians have died as a result of these hostilities; according to the preliminary data, 5,000 people have died in Mariupol alone. Before I make my final statement, I would like to observe a moment of silence in memory of those who have died in this war. I believe that every public event in Russia today should begin with a moment of silence.

Honorable court!

It’s already the twelfth month my friends and I have been under de facto house arrest. The raids that took place at our apartments at six o’clock on the morning of April 14, 2021 divided our lives into a before and after.

For an entire year, we couldn’t study, work, meet up with friends, or live our normal lives. In addition to not being able to work on our magazine, I could not do my own research, or, most importantly, see my girlfriend, who was in recent weeks forced to evacuate her family from Kyiv.

Alla and Volodya had to drop out of their last year of college. Natasha lost her job. Why did all of this happen?

The answer is a short video that we published in January 2021. A video in which we merely appealed to the authorities, as well as to school and universities, with one simple demand: to stop intimidating students and schoolchildren, stop threatening them with expulsion for participating in protests. We also delivered words of support to college students and schoolchildren who, for several weeks, had been intimidated by the authorities and administrations of their educational institutions.

I am 24. I only recently got my bachelor’s degree and then, my master’s. I know how Russian universities work, I know the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that pervades them. Even in the most daring and free universities, young people are indoctrinated with this mindset: “You are still young, don’t stick your neck out, don’t risk your life, we will expel you, we will ruin your life.” I have seen firsthand the way these excessive and absurd threats affect young people. They rob us of freedom and of the feeling that we can change anything.

Right now, fear and self-censorship are the main pillars of this regime. Every time people begin to unite around common goals, every time they feel like it’s in their power to change something, the state immediately perceives this as a threat. Any opportunity for people to freely associate constitutes a threat to the regime because this regime cannot govern a society, it can only control a scattering of individuals. The authorities immediately respond to any attempts of unification with repressions. The main goal of their repressions is, of course, fear.

But why fear exactly? In general, fear is an effective tool. Fear is effective because it divides us. When we unite with like-minded people, we feel that together, we are more powerful, we are no longer just individuals, we can get so much more done. Fear makes us feel like we are alone again. Fear severs us from each other, it makes us regard one another suspiciously. When the state intimidates us — whether they are call us into the dean’s office to threaten expulsion or beat us up at the police station to get the passwords to our phones — the government is doing everything in its power to make sure we feel like we are always alone.

And the fear really does mean that we are always alone. There is no society, there are no common interests, you cannot accomplish anything together with other people. Fear makes you painstakingly assess the personal risks: I could be thrown in jail, I could be beaten up, I could be fired or expelled, they could do something to my family. It’s as though the state is saying: “It’s all just your personal problems, your personal risks, your personal achievements. If you just put your head down and focus on your personal problems, we might not bother interfering with your little life. But if you decide that you are capable of something greater if you join forces with other people, we will destroy you instantly.” When Putin’s regime smashes the last vestiges of independent media, declares our largest political organizations to be extremists, it’s an attack against any free association of people.

The terror our state engages in only pretends to be rational. The state, and we too, often justify its repressions. We say, well, yes, we shouldn't have been so radical, we didn't need to speak out so harshly, there's not point in fighting for people who have already been arrested, they knew what they were getting into. But this rationality is an illusion. The objective of state terror is to intimidate all of us so that we feel threatened all the time, so that we become our own censors, constantly weighing our own actions.

Self-censorship is not simply a directive bestowed from above by the university administrators. Self-censorship is something that we do, not them. It is how we react to fear. Political terror is only effective if we agree to these rules of the game, only if we are truly afraid. The state cannot repress all of us, it needs people to make examples of.

Society's only defense against this fear is solidarity. The mysterious and similarly irrational feeling that we are actually not alone. Even when we act individually, thousands of like-minded people are standing with us. They believe that this is a common cause, and that they will be supported even if they are expelled, even if they are pressed, if they are kidnapped and tortured by the police.

Solidarity — this was precisely the point of our video. In it, we certainly did not call for any rallies. We simply wanted for other college students and schoolchildren to feel that they are not alone, that they have support. So that these threats from school and university administrations would not sow the destructive seed of self-censorship in them.

Our magazine has never censored itself or made compromises because ultimately, self-censorship leads to impotence. Out of irrational fear, you yourself abstain from taking action and making an impact . When you constantly compromise with a powerful adversary, you retreat little by little, until eventually you find yourself on the edge of a cliff. Then, in the end, there is no other way out — you can either jump off of it yourself or wait to be pushed.

We have learned a lot in these past twelve months. Thanks to the Investigative Committee who put together the case against us, we are finally seeing the true scale of the pressure on young people in our country. We are seeing that it’s not simply individual universities or schools that threaten their students, that there’s a state system of terror against the youth. “Preventative conversations” about rallies, propagandistic lectures about the war, calling student protesters into the office — in Russian universities and schools, all this has long been delivered on a conveyor belt, the scale of which we cannot imagine. As we said in our video: “The authorities have really declared war on the youth.”

And we have also learned that, once again, we are not alone. That it’s in the authorities’ interest to convince us that we are in the minority, that the protesters are far from the “common people.” This belief is deeply ingrained among many, even among the opponents of this government. But the witnesses for this trial, the young people who were arrested at the protests in January, are regular teenagers from regular families. One has a mother who works at the post office, one’s father is a veteran, another’s is a bus driver. We are society. Our actions speak for our society, unlike the poll results obtained at an imagined gunpoint.

Twelve months of prosecution, house arrest, dozens of interrogations, dozens of hearings, a 212-volume criminal indictment that we were forced to read — all of this was a rather harsh test of our concept of solidarity, of the idea that we can accomplish a lot if we stand together. But I think we rose to the challenge. From the very first day, we saw how hundreds of thousands of people support us, how despite the intimidation they face, students and instructors from Russian universities have come out in support of us; how hundreds of people continue to come to our hearings a year after we first got detained. We survived, we stayed sane, we didn’t give up.

Now that our state has launched the so-called “special operation,” the stakes have gotten much higher. Our state is no longer a deadbeat cop twirling his club, it is now a genuine dictatorship. It is a war criminal. The state has succeeded in intimidating a lot of people, forcing them into silence, into not speaking out about this war by any means. The only thing I can think about these days is how to take a stand against such strong fear. How to continue to act and support other people when we all want to run away, hide in a cocoon, or pretend that all of this doesn’t exist. Russian citizens do not support the war. They are so strongly opposed to this war that some of them cannot even believe it’s taking place right before their eyes.

I could tell you my thoughts about our case. That what we are charged with makes no sense, that it is theoretically impossible to prove. The prosecution did not find a single teenager who watched our video, went to a rally, caught the coronavirus and died, because none exist. But it's never been clear to me what I can say in this courtroom that would actually have a chance of being heard.

And so, no matter the verdict, I turn to the young people throughout our country with a plea, the very same plea an expert for the prosecution deemed a call to attend specific rallies: Do not be afraid and do not stand aside. Fear is the only thing that allows them to divide us. In recent weeks, we have seen many examples of heroism, young people, often young women, continuing to take to the streets and protest the war, despite tens of thousands of arrests and searches. People being tortured in our police stations, but not giving up and continuing to fight. Today, we do not have the moral right to stop, or give up, or get scared. Every word must be strong enough to stop bullets. 

The fundamental question of our generation is not just how we can remain decent people under fascism. How to do the right things and not the wrong things. It is a question of how we can build solidarity and unite in a society that has been ruthlessly destroyed over the course of several decades. “The youth — that’s us, and we will definitely win” — these words resound at the end of our video. And truly: if not us, then who?

Translation by Meghan Vicks

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