Russia has been producing so much bad news of late that a lot of it has passed without notice. The implosion of the Russian currency and the sham trial and questionable sentencing of the Putin opponent Aleksei A. Navalny and his brother Oleg have overshadowed less suspenseful stories — such as the designation of several nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents,” the departure of the country’s leading economist from his academic post, and new attacks on the remaining scraps of independent media. And those were the latest battles for the hearts, minds and memories of the Russian people.
As the year wrapped up, the cabinet filed a bill in Parliament proposing to create a federally mandated list of the broadcasters to be carried by every cable provider. And the person who would be in charge of compiling that list, according to the bill, is the president of Russia.
Even before this proposal to enshrine in law a total monopoly on broadcasting, the few independent broadcasters left in Russia were already losing their battles for survival. After Dozhd (Rain) TV, the last independent broadcaster that still aspires to a national reach — though it has lost most of its cable and satellite carriers — was forced to abandon its rented studio, it was kicked out of a temporary space; then in December it commenced broadcasting from an apartment. In the Siberian city of Tomsk, TV2, probably the last surviving independent regional broadcaster, went off the air at the end of the year, under pressure from the authorities.
A few days before, in Moscow, Yevgenia Albats, the editor of the last independent print magazine, The New Times, was charged with disobeying the police for ostensibly trying to drive away from an officer who had stopped her car. Ms. Albats says she was stuck in traffic and could not have tried to drive away even if she had wanted to; central Moscow was indeed in gridlock all of that evening. Ms. Albats may face arrest if convicted.
In other end-of-the-year Moscow news, the economist Konstantin Sonin left his post as provost of the Higher School of Economics, a public university, after just under a year and a half. Mr. Sonin is one of Russia’s small cohort of internationally renowned economists, and after his colleagues Sergei Guriev and Sergei Aleksashenko emigrated in 2013, he became by far the most prominent economist still working in the country. The fact that he held a high post at Moscow’s most prestigious university seemed to signal the university’s continued quality even as other Russian institutions of higher education kept slipping.
The president of the Higher School of Economics, Yaroslav Kuzminov, is married to the head of Russia’s Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and this connection seemed to offer the university some protection from government meddling. But as the Russian currency tumbled in December, Mr. Sonin may have made one too many statements criticizing the government’s and the central bank’s policies — and he was promptly forced out of his job.
Academic institutions have been under pressure in Russia for years, and nongovernmental organizations have offered many scholars a haven. But at the end of 2014 one leading NGO, the Sakharov Center, which houses a museum of dissidence and sponsors exhibits, research and panels on human rights and history, was declared a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry. The designation is likely to paralyze the work of the center by imposing back-breaking reporting requirements.
The attack on the Sakharov Center came on the heels of a campaign to close the Memorial Society, the country’s oldest history NGO, which documented human rights abuses in the U.S.S.R. and then in post-Soviet Russia. The Memorial Society has dozens of chapters throughout the country and is proving difficult to kill, but the state has made its intentions clear: Not only have at least two chapters of the organization been declared “foreign agents,” but the Justice Ministry has asked the Supreme Court to order it closed altogether.
The onslaught on what remains of Russia’s media, academic institutions and historical groups sends a clear message: The government wants to control not only what people think about current events but also what they think about the past — and how they think in general. As President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has grown more ideological, he has begun relying more heavily on history to make his point and affirm his own legitimacy.
His message puts forward a vision of a great Russian Empire under the czars and a great U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin and others — followed by a great Russia under himself. None of these earlier historical periods or political leaders is to be questioned. Anyone who dares criticize any of them, or the current government, must be a “foreign agent.” That’s the Putin-era equivalent of what Stalin used to call “enemy of the people.”
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.