A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.
Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.
Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series.
The Russian edition of Shades of Magic has been my favorite. This week I learned that they redacted the entire queer plot w/out permission.
— Victoria/V.E. Schwab — No I'm not doing NaNo (@veschwab) August 9, 2017
Alison Flood reported on this for the Guardian, quoting yrstrly for English PEN.
The propaganda law itself was roundly attacked by free speech organisations. “Once the Russian government introduced the illiberal restrictions on the way LGBTQ content can be packaged and sold, it was inevitable that authors would find that their freedom of expression curtailed, as has unfortunately happened to VE Schwab,” said Robert Sharp at English PEN. “The aim of this law is to discourage diversity in publishing, and it has turned Russian publishers into censors. This ill-conceived law is harming Russian culture and should be scrapped.”
Authors such as Patrick Ness and Victoria Aveyard have also condemned the editing.
The main lesson from this story is that Russia is sliding into homophobia-inspired censorship. Authoritarian governments often find that it is in their interest to suppress minority or alternative lifestyles and their expressions in art. It is a practice that must be resisted and condemned whenever we get the chance.
But there is also something to be said about the mechanism of the censorship. Note how the Russian government itself has not censored Schwab’s work. Her publishers have done that on the government’s behalf!
Apologists for the law might point to the regulations as being relatively benign. “No words are being censored!” they will cry. “The book is still freely available!” they will protest, and they will be correct. But what the Shades of Magic travesty demonstrates is that even small restrictions can have serious knock-on effects. This is a lesson we all need to remember when we consider the free speech challenges in our own societies.