Activists challenge Russia's ban on “The Death of Stalin” with a lawsuit in a city devastated by the Gulag

Human rights activists in Syktyvkar have filed a lawsuit challenging the Culture Ministry’s decision to revoke the distribution license for Armando Iannucci's new comedy “The Death of Stalin.”

The activists argue that the government’s decision violates the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 44 of the Russian Constitution (which guarantees artistic freedom and participation in cultural life, and requires the preservation of historical heritage). Their lawsuit also states that Russia’s authorities illegally withdrew the film’s license, insofar as the ministry utilized its ability to ban distribution on the grounds that a public demonstration of the movie revealed that it contains “illegal information.” The activists point out that the film wasn’t screened publicly before the government’s ban, and officials never explained what is illegal about Iannucci's comedy.

Why sue in Syktyvkar? The region was tightly integrated with the Soviet Gulag, meaning that nearly every family with local roots dating back a few generations suffered directly because of Stalinism. The activists say they hope the court in Syktyvkar will be more inclined to consider their lawsuit objectively.

On January 23, days before “The Death of Stalin” was due to premiere in Russia, the Culture Ministry revoked the film’s distribution license. Hours before, the movie was screened for a group state officials who roundly criticized it as a mockery of Soviet history.

Despite the ban, a movie theater in Moscow managed to screen the film four times, before the government pressured it to stop.

How are the Russian authorities able to ban motion pictures?