The Freedom Chat Transcripts: A Conversation with Linor Goralik
The Freedom Chat is a new video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.
In the Freedom Chat Transcripts, we share the entire interview with our subjects, including material not included in the video.
For our second segment, Sampsonia Way intern Raina Bradford-Jennings talked to Linor Goralik, a journalist, poet, and cartoonist living in Moscow. Born in Soviet Ukraine, Goralik emigrated to Israel as a child and moved to Russia in 2001. She has published several books, including Anyway: Very Short Prose, Martin Doesn’t Cry, and Hollow Woman: The World of Barbie from the Inside and Out.
You can see the video conversation here. Below is the full interview.
Can you explain why your family immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Ukraine?
At the end of the 1980s a new wave of Jewish emigration was allowed. I was 14 at the time, and my parents decided that was the moment to leave. The Russian economy was failing, and Israel traded bread in return for allowing a specific number of people to go to Israel. For 24 hours during the emigration process, we were people without citizenship.
Every time I’m asked whether I belong more to Israel or Russia, I feel as paralyzed as a child who is asked whom he loves the most – mommy or daddy- and there is no good answer.
What inspired you to move back to Moscow?
I was losing the language. Even though there was a huge Russian community in Israel, the language changed incredibly in the 1990s. The Soviet Union failed, and the Russian I knew became irrelevant. I didn’t know the new language or the new culture. I was writing in Russian because that was my mother tongue, and I started publishing some very, very bad poetry. My editor would return my articles covered in red, and he would say, “Nobody says that in Russian.”
I decided to return to Russia in 1998 when I was 23. I went to work in Moscow for three months, and 15 years later I was still there.
Do you feel a strong social responsibility, to any specific society? Do you feel responsibility towards Israeli society, Russian society, or both?
Yes and no. I have no illusions of grandeur. I don’t think that I can be held responsible by or for any society. I see myself as a private person who writes. In that sense, I’m not a Russian writer. There is an image from the 19th century of the Russian writer as a social critic and communicator of new ideas to the masses. I’m not that person.
Every time I’m asked whether I belong more to Israel or Russia, I feel as paralyzed as a child who is asked whom he loves the most – mommy or daddy- and there is no good answer. I’m extremely emotionally attached to both.
What are currently the main issues in your work? What do you strive to communicate to others?
I’m feeling kind of a shift. On one hand, two of my books, one of prose and one of poetry, are supposed to be published within the next three months. I can say that the main thing that interests me is Hell. It might sound funny, but it’s true. It’s very emotional writing.
On the other hand, I’m working on a children’s non-fiction book that’s called About USSR because there is a problem with how kids are taught about the USSR. Things will be getting worse; they have started prohibiting books in schools. I’m scared as hell because I don’t know whether or not I am up to such a big job, but I have to try. I don’t know how to explain most of the things to kids. I have told myself that I will try to explain who Lenin was, just as I would explain what the Tyrannosaurus Rex was: As an entity in history.
Can you describe the free speech conditions in Russia, for writers, journalists, and artists? Could you compare them to when you first moved there, and how those conditions have changed, especially in the last few weeks?
It stinks. The situation is bad and getting worse extremely fast. As usual when there is a large social cataclysm, it shows in two ways. On an official level, one independent media after another is being shut down by the authorities. They will call a media group extremist for questioning Soviet decisions during World War II and ban them. Others are closed through economic starvation: The owners are pushed out or financial resources are blocked.
The pro-Kremlin press has turned into an orgy of Third Reich-style propaganda. What was said during the Cold War starts sounding nice in comparison. I remember that the rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons during the Cold War was, “We don’t want war. The only reason we have nuclear weapons is because America will attack, and we will have to respond.” A few weeks ago, on the state-controlled channel, the presenter, Dmitry Kisilev, said Russia could turn the US into “radioactive dust.” Believe me, it’s the rhetoric of the Third Reich, not the rhetoric of the Cold War. Kisilev also called for Russians to burn the hearts of gay citizens. It’s beyond anything we expect from developed countries since the 1950s or 1960s.
The pro-Kremlin press has turned into an orgy of Third Reich-style propaganda. It’s beyond anything we expect from developed countries since the 1950s or 1960s.
The unofficial side of things is what has happened in the mind of society. People are influenced by what they hear, especially in times of economic turbulence, and the only sources of information they have are horrifying.
For example, some actors at the Taganka Theatre, in Moscow, recently wrote to the ministry of culture that one of the shows at the theatre promoted homosexuality and threatened national security. Very many people are constantly hearing that they are threatened, – that America and the West want them dead or want to turn Russia into a puppet state. The Russian people are scared and lost. This fear is what will start suppressing free speech internally. President Putin said that anyone who says Russia shouldn’t have started the war with Ukraine is betraying Russia, and lots of citizens agree with him.
How does the Russian government enforce censorship?
Here are two examples. A TV channel called Dozhd (Rain) ran a poll asking whether or not the Soviet Union should have given up Leningrad during World War II to avoid the siege. This question was labeled as extremist because it doubted the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II, and many TV providers were required to block the channel. The channel was almost shut down, and it’s obvious that it will close in the coming months. We are all trying to crowd-fund, and the team is making huge efforts to find funding, but the chances are not good. The point is, that one question about the siege is not really why they are being shut down. The government was waiting for an opportunity to close the channel while still saving face.
A similar thing happened a few weeks ago with Lenta.ru, one of the biggest online liberal newspapers in Russia. They were closed in one day. The owner was given a choice: either replace the whole staff and appoint a very pro-Putin, pro-Russian editor-in-chief or be shut down. The entire staff quit in one day. It was obvious the authorities were waiting for an opportune moment, and things progressed really fast.
People are influenced by what they hear, especially in times of economic turbulence, and the only sources of information they have are horrifying.
What other topics are really heavily censored in Russia?
The question now, as it was during the Third Reich, is not about what is prohibited. There is a very narrow space of what is acceptable, of what you can write or say, without the risk of being exposed or censored. This doesn’t mean that everyone who voices his discontent is punished. The government selectively reserves punishment for when it has the most effect.
Topics that could get you in trouble include anything that doesn’t support a traditional family, speaking against the results of the World War II, or criticizing the former Soviet Union. Of course the newest risky topics are Ukraine and Crimea.
Are writers still trying to get their points of view out there? How are they doing that?
Social media is an unprecedented field for information. On the other hand, many things are being done to suppress social networks, from banning access to sites, to legislators calling for criminal responsibility for anyone who expresses their discontent online.
I’m trying to answer as neutrally as possible. But the only thing I can think about is how many of my friends are in the open–editors, owners, and writers for newspapers, websites, and magazines–and it makes my skin crawl.
Has any of your work caused problems for you?
Sure! But the question is what do you call problems? The worse it gets, the more you appreciate how bad it could be. I wasn’t beaten, I wasn’t jailed. I’m fine. Some people aren’t. Of course I get letters from Nazis, but everybody does. I’ve been threatened, but everybody has been. It’s not news, we’re used to it.
However, I think my children’s book won’t be published in Russia. When I started writing it three months ago, I felt that I was not really ready to put any publisher in the position where he has to delicately tell me that he has a business to run and people who depend on him. Now it’s obvious that I would be an idiot to suggest that somebody publish it in Russia. We’ll try to publish it online.
If anybody wanted to get me in trouble, my comics are more dangerous than my text.
As an artist I’ve been told that my pictures couldn’t be exhibited because they dealt with religion. I’m not anti-Christian, I’m a Protestant, and my art is a kind of polemic between contemporary Protestantism and contemporary Catholicism, but I was told by the gallery that they decided it was safter not to deal with religious issues. It’s frustrating, but I keep thinking, “I’m in a good position.” I’ve never been beaten, I’ve never been fired, I’ve never been jailed.
So you can be censored for being too religious?
That’s the point! The situation with the Orthodox Church right now is that if you say anything that is connected to Christianity, you’re out. If it’s not sanctioned by the Orthodox Church, you run the risks of being exposed as anti-Orthodox, you run the risk of police coming to check whether or not you have made extremist comments. It’s not about being too religious. It’s about being the wrong kind of religious.
What can you talk about, or what audience can you reach through your art and your comics that you can’t with words?
Comics go viral. Comics have huge viral potential, because they are perfect media for social media: Few words, pictures, color. Pictures are easier to share versus text. If anybody wanted to get me in trouble, my comics are more dangerous than my text. You need to know how to read and analyze a text, especially when it’s poetry. Comics are much more blatant.
Are there any other works that you were told by a publisher or editor that you need to change? And did you end up changing it, or do you leave it the way it is?
My publisher once asked me to change seven words so something would sound less political, I did it because those specific words didn’t change the message of the book. A year ago, we could change a few words to make something a little bit less blunt, and that would be enough. Now, there is no such thing as less blunt. It’s nothing or everything.