Disinformation

Harari explains why he censored his book, but his excuses make little sense

Russians are used to lies. None of my friends were shocked when after last weekend’s massive clampdown on peaceful demonstrators in Moscow, state channels unleashed the usual barrage of propaganda blaming the protesters for violence. We know that Russian TV lies, even in its weather reports. But when disinformation recently flowed from best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, Russians were outraged.

The Russian edition of Harari’s latest bestseller, 21 lessons for the 21st century, has been heavily censored, with many of the mentions of Vladimir Putin and Russia either removed or replaced with examples of other countries. Harari has admitted to greenlighting some of the changes and said he was surprised about others. 

“The main consideration was to reach Russian readers with messages about the dangers of dictatorship, extreme nationalism and religious intolerance,” Hariri wrote in an article in Newsweek, justifying the censorship. “The purpose of examples is to clarify things. If an example creates barriers to understanding instead of clarity, it’s best to replace that example,” Harari argued.  

But preaching about the dangers of dictatorship and censorship while self-censoring the book makes a flimsy argument and one that Russians don’t buy. And anyway, doesn’t changing examples change the narrative itself?

WHY CENSOR?

Coverage of the story in the Russian liberal media (state-controlled channels have not touched the story) has been filled with outrage, describing the censorship as patronizing and “colonial.” “Is it laziness or is it cowardice?” asked prominent Russian science journalist Andrei Babitski, citing this particular passage which is entirely missing from the book:

“when Russia sought to reproduce its Crimean success in other parts of Ukraine, it encountered substantially stiffer opposition, and the war in eastern Ukraine bogged down into unproductive stalemate”. 

Here’s another paragraph from the English edition: 

“Resurgent Russia sees itself as a far more forceful rival of the global liberal order, but though it has reconstituted its military might, it is ideologically bankrupt. Vladimir Putin is certainly popular both in Russia and among various right-wing movements across the world, yet he has no global world view that might attract unemployed Spaniards, disgruntled Brazilians or starry-eyed students in Cambridge. Russia does offer an alternative model to liberal democracy, but this model is not a coherent political ideology. Rather, it is a political practice in which a number of oligarchs monopolise most of a country’s wealth and power, and then use their control of the media to hide their activities and cement their rule. Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’. If a government is corrupt and fails to improve people’s lives, enough citizens will eventually realise this and replace the government. But government control of the media undermines Lincoln’s logic, because it prevents citizens from realising the truth. Through its monopoly over the media, the ruling oligarchy can repeatedly blame all its failures on others, and divert attention to external threats – either real or imaginary”.

Now compare it to what was served to us, the Russians:

“Many other countries – from the Philippines to Turkey – continue to support the global liberal order at the same time dismantling liberal democracies at home. In these countries the elites own wealth and power and, to strengthen this hold, they control the media so that nobody knew what they really are doing.”

There are plenty of other examples. Throughout the Russian edition, the Philippines replaces Russia as an example of a country where oligarchs control the media, Muslims’ religious intolerance steps in as an alternative to the resurgent Russian Orthodox neo-fundamentalism cited in the English edition. Hungary and Turkey fill in for Russia to illustrate the perils of illiberal systems. And all of a sudden, the work of one of the world’s most renowned futurists begins to resemble Kremlin propaganda.

But arguably what has infuriated many Russians the most are the excuses Harari marshaled to justify the censorship. In an interview in Haaretz, he said he was worried that “Russian citizens that print and sell an illegal book might pay a very high personal price.”

Now this is the real fake news. 

Because for all the faults of Putin’s Russia, book censorship is simply not one of them. This isn’t Franko’s Spain or the USSR: there is no censorship committee; publishers do not need to show their content to anybody or get anyone’s permission. From Mikhail Zygar’s excellent  “All the Kremlin’s Men” to Zbignev Brzezinsky’s Grand Chessboard, books that criticize Vladimir Putin and the system he has built are widely available in most bookstores. And yes, there are bookshops that will refuse to stock certain books. There are some that choose to put them in plastic sheathing to prevent customers from opening them in the store. And once in a while pro-government youth movements will stage a public burning of an anti-Putin book. But no one is arrested for reprinting or distributing literature in Russia. 

By allowing his publishers to censor the book, Mr. Harari also seems to have set himself up for additional humiliation. 

In English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and even Turkish versions of the book there is a dedication: “To my husband Itzik.” The Russian edition is dedicated “To my partner,” using a word that in Russian implies a “business partner.” Harari said he is furious about this change and did not endorse it. There is a law in Russia against “propagating homosexuality to minors,” but dedicating books to husbands cannot be illegal by any stretch of the imagination. 

This odd bit of censorship may shed light on the rest of the book’s changes better than Mr. Harari’s excuses – it’s purely business. 

Yuval Noah Harari has become hugely popular among Russian elites. 

Konstantin Milchin, Gorki.Media’s editor-in-chief, told me: “It’s easy to imagine some Russian big company boss presenting this book to his colleague or a boss. And in this case, the “to my husband” dedication would look awkward,” 

Criticism of Vladimir Putin or questioning the annexation of Crimea would be awkward, too. Making it just a bit harder for the Russian elites to buy Harari’s book. 

Semen Kvasha

As an editor Semyon Kvasha watched the rise and fall of the Russian internet journalism in 21st century working at Gazeta.ru, TimeOut Moscow and several other outlets. His favorite editing tool is the mighty “wait, what?” comment on the margins.

After the job’s done he either travels around Russia on motorbike looking for new stories or builds an idiot-boat of beer kegs, because the screwdriver is mightier than a sword.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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