Censoring America: Comics, Propaganda, And The Information War, Part II
In this series, John Parker examines the common spaces in the strange Venn diagram where propaganda, culture war and information war intersect with the world of comic books.
It's been a long, hard road for comic books in Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, attempts to build a comics community consistently met with economic hardship, and failed. It's only over the last several years that Western comic books have become a popular medium in Russia, and in that very short time, there have already been three highly publicized incidences of comics censorship.
The first came in July of 2014. Hot on the heels of the release of The First Avenger: Another War (the Russian title of Captain America: Winter Soldier), the top-grossing movie in Russian theaters that spring, Marvel was faced with an interesting conundrum when one of its comics was investigated by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Communications, also known as Roskomnadzor.
Notice the wide range of Roskomnadzor's jurisdiction in its title: communications, information technology, and --- in case "communications" wasn't all-inclusive --- mass communications as well. The group has halted distribution of Jehovah's Witness magazines, called for Charlie Hebdo to be banned as extremist media, and once blacklisted the Wikipedia entry on cannabis.
Avengers #1, translated and printed by Egmont, a Danish company, received a complaint from Rospechat, a federal agency that distributes periodicals. The objection was apparently over the use of Vanguard, a member of the Russian superhero team the Winter Guard, whose uniform frequently includes some variation of the Soviet hammer and sickle. Rospechat claimed that Avengers promoted cruelty, calling the comic "propaganda of a cult of violence."
Roskomnadzor announced an investigation, which could possibly result in an official warning. That seems like nothing, but just two warnings from Roskomnadzor results in revocation of a publishing license; at the least, Egmont translations of Marvel comics would be barred from Russia entirely. A blacklisting for Marvel in an emerging market --- where the comics scene percolated up from nothing to host its first international Comic-Con in 2014 --- would have been a death sentence. Rather than trying to avoid the warning by changing the offending material, Marvel killed the issue.
Without seeing the comic, it's impossible to judge the material, but if Avengers #1 presented the Winter Guard as villains, or rivals to the Avengers --- even if the clashing superhero groups found common ground in the end, like heroes always do --- that could have been the basis for the complaint.
But the why doesn't really matter. It's the when that's interesting. It was summer 2014, just after it became apparent that Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea under military occupation, and America and several other nations issued sanctions in response.
Tensions had been building for years over Syria, Kremlin moles in the FBI, the Magnitsky Act, the adoption ban, and many more incidents, but after the illegal Crimean Referendum, all bets were off. With every sanction imposed by America, the EU, and their allies, Russia intensified its war on foreign culture. With each penalty came a counter-sanction, a retaliation, and a propaganda spin. When prices on food imports increased, the Duma banned them outright and destroyed over 7,500 tons of food. State media and conspiracy sites that frequently re-post Kremlin propaganda claimed it was poisoned with Western GMOs.
Back-and-forth it goes. Cold War 2.0 didn't start with the accusations of Russian election meddling, it was well underway by mid-2014. While average Americans were largely unaware, Russian institutions became increasingly protectionist of national identity, the disinformation war escalated, and the Russian government denied seemingly all facts and history that they disagreed with.
All governments tell a healthy number of lies and half-truths to their people, but to believe Russia's censors, propagandists, and leaders is to believe, falsely, that all actions in Ukraine were legal, Russian separatists are not responsible for MH17, the Red Army committed no rapes in World War II, the Holodomor never occurred, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany was just a non-aggression treaty that never included a secret provision to carve up Poland.
Revanchist and revisionist, Putin's Russia intensified its spy war, information war, and culture war on the West. Whatever the material in The Avengers, whatever the motivation for Rospechat to report it, it was the escalation in conflict that indirectly led to its cancellation.
In 2015, Art Spiegelman's classic Maus was banned in Russia for being Nazi propaganda. While that sounds like the setup to a Yakov Smirnoff joke, the classic graphic novel fell victim to one of the many anti-extremism laws in Russia that are frequently misused. Those statues stem from the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity from 2002, which defines extremism so broadly --- and separately from terrorism, by the way --- that any statement or action characterized as an "incitement to social discord" could result in fines or arrests. This ambiguous definition left the door open for the law to be applied not just to radicalized groups and extremists, but journalists, opposition figures, political enemies, and clearly non-extremist expressions of free speech or religious beliefs.
The specific law that led to the removal of Maus from book stores was passed in December 2014 in preparation for the seventieth annual Victory Day --- May 9, the day Russia commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, which they call the Great Patriotic War. (Again, the official doctrine is that Russia and Nazi Germany were never allies and did not co-invade Poland.)
Authorities raided bookstores and toy shops, removing any items that could be construed as Nazi propaganda. But with such a loose interpretation of what actually constitutes Nazi propaganda, Maus was censored simply due to the presence of the swastika on the cover. The same situation initially occurred with the German edition of Maus, but the laws were changed to allow for historically accurate portrayals of Nazism. No such change in Russia is likely to occur.
The laws on Nazi propaganda aren't only applied incorrectly, of course. Given Russia's problems with ultra-nationalist and Nazi groups (in the last decade it was estimated that half of the world's neo-Nazis resided in Russia) they have certainly been used to crack down on actual Nazi propaganda. But the selective and slipshod ways in which the laws can be enforced only accentuates Russia's new position as the symbolic Mecca of extreme right, ultra-conservative, and neo-Nazi groups throughout the world.
While some nationalist and neo-Nazi movements in Russia are tamped down, many others are developed and encouraged, and given plenty of sunshine to grow. The Nashi were the creation of Aleksandr Dugin, an ultra-nationalist media personality, conspiracy theorist, and doomsday philosopher, who received a presidential grant for his Eurasian Youth Union, which gathers in the forest to teach paramilitary tactics to teenagers. Russian propaganda paints the democratic Euromaidan protests in Ukraine as a fascist junta backed by the C.I.A. (it wasn't); Russian neo-Nazis were recruited to fight on the side of the separatists in the Crimean Peninsula.
All throughout Europe, the Kremlin has formed ideological and financial ties with anti-immigrant, far-right, and neo-Nazi groups like Jobbik, Front National, and Vlaams Belang. Although Russian disinformation is targeted at both the Left and the Right, the level of admiration for Putin's Russia among the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists is more fervent and more concerning. Putin's rogue's gallery of fans includes Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Greece's neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, wannabe fascist Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, Germany's Alternative for Deutschland, Jim Dowson, David Duke, and Richard Spencer, whose wife Nina Kouprianova is a translator and spokesperson for none other than the aforementioned Aleksandr Dugin.
These are deep bonds and real connections between Russia and the far-right movements of the world, who admire Russia's orthodoxy, its anti-immigrant policies, the rejection of globalism in favor of nationalism, and the laws currently oppressing its LGBTQ citizens.
Like the "Nazi propaganda" laws, Russia's regulations governing homosexual media and "traditional family values" (actual words used in the drafting of the law) are ill-defined and amorphous, open to myriad interpretations. The distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors could result in fines, and detention and deportation for foreigners. But again, because the definitions as to what constitute "propaganda," "non-traditional," and "distribution" are unclear, an act as simple as hanging a Gay Pride flag seen by a fifteen year-old could result in legal action.
It should have come as no surprise then, that Blizzard's Overwatch #10 would receive a blacklisting. A digital comic linked to the video game of the same name, Overwatch was banned in December 2016 because the homosexuality of the main character was revealed with a kiss.
It's objectively not lurid or over-the-top, and the offending image is literally one panel. Nonetheless, because lawmakers and "traditional values" bulwarks could claim that the comic was specifically aimed at spreading propaganda of non-heteronormative or LGBTQ lifestyles to minors, the book was censored. Russian readers who tried to open the comic received the message that it was not available for viewing, "in accordance with Russian law."
Although Western comics have grown in popularity in Russia, it has not been without roadblocks and scrutiny. It's clear that Russian institutions view our comic books as possible units of propaganda. In the next installment, we'll see if the same can be said of Russian comics.