The Soviet Parliament has given its approval to an ambiguous law making it a crime to "insult" President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The measure recalls the infamous Stalin-era penal code, with its stiff prison terms for anyone convicted of "slandering" the state. That law, like others used to legitimize the Communist Party's ruthless suppression of dissent, was discarded after Gorbachev took power in the mid-1980s and began to encourage freer speech. Now comes a clear signal that there may be such a thing as too much free speech. It is a painful setback to the Soviet Union's nascent experiment with democracy, and an ominous hint of what the future may hold.
Supporters of the plan to silence critics offer the standard justifications. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, one of Gorbachev's top military advisers, argues that insulting the president "weakens our society," and so cannot go unpunished. Parliamentary deputy Yuri V. Golik agrees that the law is needed for "the defense of the Soviet state." In other words, there's nothing personal involved. It's not Gorbachev's feelings that have to be protected, but the larger interests of the polity. It would be naive to accept this explanation as the sole reason for the regressive law, especially in light of Gorbachev's increasing public impatience with criticism. But the explanation isn't without substance. The history of Russia is a story of authoritarian rule. In a political culture such as this, identifying attacks on the leader with the subversion of the state becomes more understandable.
Understandable, perhaps, but not--given what Gorbachev says he wants to achieve--any more acceptable. After all, glasnost is supposed to encourage a more honest and critical confrontation with the Soviet system's failures as a first step toward enacting effective reforms. The Soviet people, as it immediately became apparent, didn't need much encouragement to give vent to their grievances against inept and corrupt officials and a failed system. But that anger soon enough turned against a beset leader, who has grown increasingly frustrated--and has come to be increasingly blamed--because of his inability to more speedily deflect the Soviet behemoth from its looming rendezvous with economic disaster.
The criticisms no doubt have stung. A man who regards himself as a pragmatic and even humane reformer can hardly enjoy seeing himself compared unfavorably in May Day demonstrations with Czar Nicholas II and Josef Stalin. That, he would feel, is not fair comment but an insult. It's not hard to see the progression in thinking that could follow: to criticize the leader is to slander him, to slander him is to oppose his reconstructive policies, to oppose those policies is to imperil the state.
Hence the law now passed by Parliament. Anyone found guilty of publicly "insulting or slandering" the president could face up to three years in prison--and three more if such remarks were made in the mass media. Any newspaper or television program that was twice found to have carried insulting comments could be suspended or shut down. What constitutes an insult or slander, as distinct from acceptable criticism? The law seems disturbingly, probably deliberately, vague. Apparently an "insult" will be what authorities say it is, nothing more and nothing less.
There is a grim echo of Stalinism in all this that dissidents can only find chilling. And that, no doubt, is exactly what proponents of the new law intend.