There’s a dark literary quality to Evdokia Romanova’s legal troubles in Russia. The crime she’s accused of is like something torn from the pages of Nabokov, while the absurdity of her hearing echoes Kafka and Koestler.
“There is no way you can win against this type of charge,” the 27-year-old Russian rights activist told me during a recent interview in New York City. “If the judge agrees to take the case, they’ve already decided on a guilty verdict.”
Romanova’s guilty verdict came on Oct. 9. Her crime: violating Russia’s Law 6.21, “Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual Relationships and Pedophilia Among Minors.”
That may sound like a nefarious offense, but all Romanova did was share a couple of articles on Facebook. Russia cried fake news, then dropped the gavel.
Romanova says the government’s entire case against her appears to be based on two links she shared to social media in 2015, an article from BuzzFeed and another from The Guardian. The articles, which Romanova shared from the Facebook page of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, focus on gay rights and LGBT identity— touchy subjects for a deeply homophobic and authoritarian regime. So much so, that Romanova was investigated by a special anti-extremism police unit tasked with fighting terrorism. The highly trained officer found the questionable articles on her Facebook page and ran them through Google translator. Crack police work, comrade.
“By sharing these articles on my Facebook page some minors could see it and think it’s cool and decide to become gay,” Romanova said. “That’s what the investigator said during the hearing.”
Romanova has unsuccessfully appealed her guilty verdict before two higher courts. She’s now taking her case before Russia’s Constitutional Court, and says she’s prepared to go before international tribunals as a last resort. If the guilty verdict is upheld, Romanova faces a maximum fine of $1,750, according to Amnesty International.
Russia’s modern-day show trials against Romanova and other rights activists shouldn’t be viewed as a distant curiosity or a source of mild outrage from a foreign land. It’s a warning to all of us. This is what creeping authoritarianism looks like. This is where it leads. This is where it wants to go. More specifically, this is what can happen if a president is allowed to take his FAKE NEWS crusade to the outermost limits of absurdity.
It might sound far-fetched to suggest something like this could happen in the United States, but why not? If Trump looks to Putin with admiration, shouldn’t the rest of us look to Russia with apprehension?
Authoritarianism is a methodical and incremental process. Fully understanding the U.S.’ vulnerabilities to its relentless advance means learning from the examples of other countries that have already stumbled down that path. Media censorship and punitive measures against those who challenge the government’s official narrative are telltale signs of authoritarianism. Trump is laying the groundwork for both.
He’s not alone. Every autocrat wants to own the truth. Controlling the media in every despot’s playbook. In the past few weeks alone, authoritarian governments in Malaysia and Nicaragua have floated new proposals aimed at criminalizing “fake news” and cracking down on what people can say on social media.
The United States is clearly in a different category than most countries. We’ve been doing democracy a lot longer, and have enshrined the freedoms of speech and press in our Constitution. Yet we have a president who’s openly battling journalists and enlisting his followers to wage a quixotic and knee-jerk war on fake news (see Facebook comments on this article).
Trump’s sustained assault on free speech, coupled with his administration’s aggressively conservative campaign to rollback a “globalist agenda” of sexual reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, gives the United States many of the same ingredients that Russia used to cook up its gay propaganda law in 2013. Do we trust Trump and his GOP enablers to not attempt the next steps?
“It’s a tough situation here, but it’s a totally different context,” Romanova says of the United States, where she studied in university. “You still have a lot of freedom of speech and a court system that’s not associated so closely with the government.”
Those institutional checks and balances, a strong democratic tradition, and an active and mobilized civil society give the United States a much stronger footing than Russia ever had to push back against the president’s authoritarian impulses, Romanova says.
But U.S. democracy is only as good as the people who participate in it. We can’t just sit back and assume “It can’t happen here,” as the feckless characters did in Sinclair Lewis’ seminal novel about an authoritarian takeover of America. If we do, we may find that America’s situation has also taken on a dark literary quality.