Quoting the constitution in Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg file photo

(Moscow News – themoscownews.com – Natalia Antonova – February 4, 2013)

The story, as told by Yekaterinburg-based journalist Aksana Panova on her Facebook page, is nothing short of amazing.

Znak.com, an online portal where Panova works, decided to place banners with quotes from the Russian Constitution on the city streets. The banners went up – but not without a struggle. Apparently, city authorities first said that banners could not be located next to schools or other institutions where children and young people may be present. Then the authorities just went all out and accused Znak of possible “extremism.”

Of course, what could possibly be more extreme than quoting the constitution? Particularly on the subject of, say, Russia being a secular state? Or how about the fact that the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly?

The real problem is not the constitution itself, but the fact that publicly quoting it draws attention to issues that the authorities would prefer to not acknowledge. It makes for a kind of “emperor has no clothes” moment. The constitution is much easier to tolerate when it exists as a kind of abstract document that everyone has heard of, but no one has actually read.

The Yekaterinburg debacle is also evident of the fact that Russia is, in the legal sense, a young country – and its constitution remains a contentious document for many people. Now that religious radicalism is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, for example, drawing attention to the fact that Russia is a secular state could result in problems.

Above all else, labeling the act of quoting the constitution as “extreme” belies officials’ reliance on the old Soviet philosophy of “kaby chto ne vyshlo” (literally: “lest anything should happen”). It means “don’t stick your neck out” and “try to keep your head down” and “don’t make any waves.” It’s a kind of unwritten rule of various policy-makers and respecting it can indeed take you far in life – but only up to a point.

There is an emerging class of people in Russia – and not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg – who don’t want to live by this principle. Instead of keeping out of officialdom’s way, they want to engage it. This phenomenon is unusual and therefore alarming – but it also creates the possibility of constructive dialogue between the state and the people. And constructive dialogue, in these times, is nothing to sneer at.