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Touring Attorney Takes Look at Porn Under Putin

Touring Attorney Takes Look at Porn Under Putin

July 23, 2016
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" Some might wonder whether what might be called the Russian “war on porn” just may be a pretext by which to acquire tools for a far wider and more perniciously dangerous general threat to freedom of thought in Russia. Porn acts as the canary in the coalmine in the internet age. "

About four miles northwest of the Kremlin, three blocks off of Tsverskaya Ulitsa (a congested throughfare, which in communist times had a reputation akin to Times Square on account of reputation for commerce in flesh), in an old Georgian neighborhood, lies tree-shaded Tishkinaya Square.

On that triangular park stands a multiple-purpose building with an exhibition center called T-Modul, a supermarket, and a high-end shopping arcade. T-Modul is the annual home of X-Show 18+, so far as I can determine, the only event resembling an adult industry show in the Russian Federation.

I attended its 14th self-proclaimed “International Erotic Project” exhibition between June 2 and 4 with some hope of cultural exchange about the legal situation for explicit videos under U.S. law and for a chance to meet the makers and distributors of this kind of content in Russia.

Forget everything you may have supposed about porn in Russia, whether it comes from witnessing Russian porn online or from studying the recent history of Russian politics. Whatever impressions you may have formed as an American outside Russia, it isn’t like that in Russia!

X-Show 18+, which is conducted by some very nice and progressive people devoted generally to sexual liberation in Russia, features no porn whatsoever, is sponsored by no porn companies, and in fact my contract prohibited me from “demonstration” of pornography (and the simulation of sexual acts!).

It is a show similar to the consumer part of Venus Berlin, but much smaller and without the videos. In other words, the exhibitors offered a substantial selection of erotic art, painting, sculpture and jewelry, BDSM accessories, sexual stimulation devices, lingerie, 3D equipment for personal video viewing and instructors for such arts as pole dancing and copulation.

They just can’t have porn. Or talk about it. Or else! (potentially). Even if it’s just to talk about American porn and the laws which govern it. They told me “no” because in Russia, pornography is illegal. Consequences exist.

This show was barred from advertising on TV because its name included the phrase, “18+”.

You might wonder, as I did, why so much caution is displayed at such a show, while dozens of hours of HD Russian pornography is released each month via the internet to eager subscribers in the U.S. and Western Europe — without apparent or obvious adverse consequences to its producers and distributors. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, because no one is speaking for the record. But, lest that appear to be an allusion to something sinister, there are perhaps, some practical and legitimate reasons to explain the status quo.

Article 242 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation provides: “Illegal making for the purpose of distribution or advertising, dissemination, or advertising of pornographic materials or objects, and likewise illegal trade in printed publications, cine-and-video-materials, pictures, or any other pornographic objects, shall be punishable with a fine in an amount of 100,000 to 300,000 rubles, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of one to two years, or by deprivation of liberty for a period of up to two years.”

The most interesting part of that provision is that it never gets around to defining what is “illegal” making or trade, which leaves a substantial loophole for a defendant willing to fight a charge — and who is able to pay for a defense. Some apparently do, and sometimes charges get dropped as a result.

According to a well-documented report published in MediaZona in January, there were 148 convictions under Article 242 in 2014 for distributing pornography via the internet. Though the offense is a felony, only five persons went to prison, the remainder getting a suspended sentence, community service, or the like. According to one, named, attorney interviewed for the piece, the typical case involved young men posting to Russian social networking sites or posting for download on a torrent, men between 16 and 25 years of age. No deep pockets there.

The quoted lawyer put up a fight in two cases, and in each that was seriously defended, the charges were dropped. In the Russian system, it is typical that an “expert witness” be retained to give testimony concerning the artistic merit involved in the charged material, and the bar to becoming a testifying expert is exceptionally low. At an elemental level, if one can afford to hire an expert as to art-worthiness, one has a chance. The appearance of all of this may be that a cynical program is in place to manufacture conviction statistics, that the judges encourage this by routinely imposing sub-felony sentences for felony offenses, and that when a serious defendant aims to fight a charge, police and prosecutors quietly back down.

In a country with a history of arbitrary oppression and world-class censorship, it must take a great deal of courage to stand and fight; but some do, and some prevail. Accounting for the Russian porn industry, it just may be the case that an ample war chest and a willingness to stand up to protect their livelihoods is enough to discourage their prosecution under the same laws that may frighten those with smaller assets.

But it’s easy to understand how the only adult show in all of Russia must size up the situation. And while I would get to return to Chicago, they will continue to live in Putin’s Russia. It’s now easy, too, to understand why Russian producers would avoid that kind of show or any other provocation.

In 2015, the Russian government blocked internet access to 136 sexually explicit websites, including one very-well known, English language tube site, one of 100 most visited sites in the world. This development had a most curious origin.

In remote Tartaristan, a court case was filed concerning a Yandex.ru web search using the search terms “kazak” and “prostitute,” and pornographic hits were found on 136 sites. (There are some tantalizing hints that this case may have been wired from Moscow.) The distant court on the remote, arid, Asian plains, invoked the provisions of two comparatively ancient treaties to which the Russian Federation considers itself bound, or at least says so, the 1910 Paris Agreement for the Repression of Obscene Publications (signed by authority of the czar) and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Circulation of and Traffic in Obscene Publications, signed in Geneva in 1923 by the USSR.

Under their authority rather than Section 242, which omits any definition of the “illegal,” the court ordered the Russian Federation to block access, which I think is exactly what the Kremlin was looking for out on the plains.

At the same time, the Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s highest internet watchdog, issued a prohibition against any internet post that injured public figures reputationally in a way that works to “discredit honor, dignity and the business reputation of public figures.” Essentially, Russia declared an end to all Putin memes in their country.

At the same time comes news of legislative efforts to require of service providers to install and implement internet valves that can selectively block access to any and all foreign sites. As a result, some might wonder whether what might be called the Russian “war on porn” just may be a pretext by which to acquire tools for a far wider and more perniciously dangerous general threat to freedom of thought in Russia. Porn acts as the canary in the coalmine in the internet age.

Censorship starts here with porn. It always does. And, as always, this repression of speech starts with the proclaimed aim of “protecting the children.” Given the haphazard record of actual prosecution for distribution of porn and its selectivity against the lowest hanging fruit, least capable of defending itself, the thought that porn is a pretextual target for more sinister and wider purposes — and to justify the acquisition of tools for general censorship — has special appeal.

While the legacy of communism is still on full display in statues and exhibition parks, especially in Moscow’s northern tier, and in stars, hammer-and-sickle plaques, mosaics, and statues citywide (especially in the subway, or Metro, which Stalin build) Russian communism is officially ended. The most symbolic and important statues are mainly down. There is even a cemetery of fallen statues of Lenin and Marx and Stalin just north of Gorky Park. Some of us celebrate there, but, no doubt, others mourn.

Devotion to communism by some, and even to Joseph Stalin, is certainly not dead, but its followers have made an accommodation to the new ways. The Soviet state articulated an internationalist purpose and asserted that Russian nationalism was parochial (except in the periods such as World War II/The Great Patriotic War when it served the Party’s purposes), but the truth is that Russian nationalism was all that really held the USSR together during its most difficult times, which, given recurring food shortages, was frequent.

Of central importance to Russian Nationalism under the Czar, under the USSR (mostly, but not always, underground), and now, in the Russian state under Putin is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. All over the Moscow region, churches destroyed by Stalin, their icons and crowns and plate all seized by the treasury and at least those that are not melted down now on display in museums, have been dramatically rebuilt with private donations and have gone into high gear, with round the clock services and no shortage of worshippers.

I saw workers leave the Kremlin with briefcases, bow down or kneel on the street (not common here in Chicago’s Loop!), and enter these incensed temples to venerate icons and light a candle. The austere moral code of the Church — with an antipathy to pornography — bears more than a passing resemblance to the old Soviet condemnations of hedonistic pleasures, including pornography.

It dovetails with the political ideology of modern Russia. The resurgence of the church filled a void in Russian society and culture when the Soviet state left the stage and that may also explain why over-the-counter hard porn is invisible (or nearly so). But it does exist, or so they say: Underground.

Moscow is the only place in the world where you can walk up to Francis Gary Powers’ U2 and grab it, stand next to boxes of iron crosses taken from Berlin, under the red flag that flew first over the Reichstag, and the pen that signed the Russian-language German surrender document at Karloshorst, ending World War II in Europe. The visitor can view all of Priam’s treasure from ancient Troy, slowly walk past the corpse of Comrade Lenin and past the graves of Stalin, Kruschev, Yeltsin and Gorbachov. (This was the only time in my life when I would be to the left of Lenin!), and admire the Orlove diamond and the crown jewels of czars.

You can stand before the Duma’s “White House” that was surrounded by tanks of a military coup aimed at crushing democracy.

But to get to Moscow and to experience those things, you will have to endure bureaucracy like you’ve never seen, first in obtaining a visa to get there, and next being asked to affix your “seal” to every official document that deals with contract or the government, never mind that Americans have rarely used them for more than seventy years. Purple ink pads are second nature to Russians who are deeply immersed in a tradition of bureaucracy that goes back to long before the revolution, to many czars before Nicholas.

Should you visit, be prepared to find that virtually no one speaks English, that the subway signs are exclusively in Russian, and that, in this era, Americans are not particularly popular.

But don’t be disappointed if you can’t find the Russian porn industry. There is only one adult industry show in Russia, and the porn people don’t attend.

Joe Obenberger is a Chicago Loop lawyer concentrating in the law of free expression and liberty under the U.S. Constitution, and his firm has represented many owners, employees, and customers of adult-oriented businesses, both online and in the real world. He can be reached in the office at (312) 558-6420. His email address is obiwan@xxxlaw.net.


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