St. Petersburg court upholds customs seizure of Masha Gessen’s new book about modern-day Russian ‘totalitarianism’
In November, Russian lawyer Sergey Golubok received a letter from the Pulkovskaya customs agency asking whether a book he had ordered on Amazon contained “signs of propagandizing certain views and ideologies.” The book in question was journalist and political analyst Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which won the 2017 National Book Award for nonfiction. After the book was temporarily seized and then returned to Golubok, he filed a legal complaint about the incident. Kommersant reports that while the attorney’s complaint was unsuccessful, the accompanying court proceedings revealed how Russian customs services decide whether to search incoming packages.
Golubok argued that the customs agency’s actions violated his right to private correspondence: the Russian Constitution prohibits government agents from opening private mail without a warrant. However, customs representatives successfully argued that a package is “a good or commodity” rather than a letter and therefore does not fall within that right. Golubok has appealed the court’s decision, and his appeal will be heard on January 22.
Customs representatives declined to answer Kommersant’s questions about how agents determine whether a book might threaten Russian interests. However, the newspaper acquired documentation that testified to the Pulkovskaya agency’s decision-making process. The documents rarely address the contents of The Future is History, which intertwines several personal biographies to argue that Russian society retained a form of totalitarianism after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Instead, customs agents wrote that “Multiple websites and forums consider Masha Gessen’s activities to be scandalous” and that the journalist, who led efforts to advocate for LGBTQ rights before being forced to leave Russia for the U.S., has been accused of “spreading gay propaganda and threatening accepted systems of morality.” Customs representatives declined to elaborate on the methodologies of their investigation, claiming that their search tactics are “a state secret.”
In turn, Masha Gessen told Kommersant that the court proceedings concerning A Future is History may shed new light on how censorship can operate in the Russian customs system. Gessen said, “To be honest, I used to think that someone just happened to notice the title of the book. However, I now think this form of censorship may be systemic in nature: it’s as though customs staff look up titles and authors on the Internet before deciding whether to let a book through.”