Russian journalists and cartoonists debated the potential political and social ramifications of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.

A woman lights a candle outside the French Embassy in Moscow on Jan. 8 to express her condolences to the French people after the Jan. 7 terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris. Photo: AP

This week the Russian press focused on the new terrorist attack in Paris, with many of them viewing the event through the filter of Russia’s own experience with Islamist terrorists and government censorship of free speech. In addition, the media gave their forecasts for 2015, focusing on the prospects for a weakening ruble and Russia’s potential international isolation in the 12 months ahead.

Terror in Paris

The terror attack in Paris in the editorial offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people, was actively discussed in the Russian media. There was no unanimity among journalists regarding the terrorists’ motives.

The opposition media (Echo of Moscow) asked whether it was indeed possible to understand the motives of the perpetrators, and pondered the importance of freedom of expression in contemporary European society. In contrast, the pro-government press (Izvestia) strongly condemned the violence with little regard to the potential motivation behind it. Russia’s top cartoonists also chose not to remain silent, and delivered their response to the events in Paris.

Historian and journalist Georgy Mirsky (Echo of Moscow) was among those who tried to look further than simple condemnation. He notes that, although for him there is never any justification for terror, it is still worth looking at what led to this particular attack. In particular, he considers that it was imprudent to publish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, since “every grievance of the Muslim community is added to the coin jar and only worsens the relationship between ‘indigenous inhabitants’ and Algerians in France, and between people from the East and the West in general.”

In response, Echo of Moscow author Alexei Melnikov asserted that Mirsky was looking for answers in the wrong place.

“One might think that it’s all about cartoons and exposure to public ridicule,” wrote Melnikov. “That if such cartoons don’t get published, the bandits hiding behind Islam will calm down and won’t find another pretext to unleash their crazy vision on the free world.”

Member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly for the Yabloko party Boris Vishnevsky also disagrees with Mirsky. Vishnevsky believes that Mirsky commits "several logical errors at once.”

“To offend and belittle people and ‘hurt the feelings of believers’ are two very different things,” asserts Vishnevsky. “Offence and belittlement are definitely wrong. If that happens, the law is there to protect everyone’s right to defend their honor, dignity and reputation. But ‘offending religious feelings’ ... is something that cannot happen in principle. Because any feeling is a human emotional response to what is happening, for which reason it cannot be ‘offended,’ ‘belittled’ or ‘hurt.’”

“How does one establish that ‘feelings are offended’? Based on the opinion of the ‘offended’ party? As practice shows (including in Russia), offence can be found wherever one chooses to look,” continues Vishnevsky. “From cartoons of the prophet to public transport on a Saturday and the sale of pork. Indeed, the very existence of non-believers might cause ‘offence’ to an overly zealous adherent of one religion or another.”

Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, offered his condolences to the victims, urged that the terrorists be caught and punished, and, most importantly, questioned the collective desire of many media outlets to reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. [Earlier many world media outlets — including some Russian ones — started to republish Charlie Hebdo's cartoons on the prophet Muhammad as a sign of solidarity. In addition, Russian oligarch and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky called for republishing such cartoons in solidarity with the killed journalists. - Editor's note]   

“I am not convinced that ethically it is the right step. It is like a collective punishment: a terror attack was perpetrated by a group of murderers, and we are putting millions of believers to the test. I think that one of the objectives of the terrorists was to cause different faiths to irreversibly collide,” writes Muratov. “We do not want to assist the terrorists in this. We draw a strict dividing line between terrorists and believers. The former must be brought to justice and the rights of the latter respected.”

Izvestia published the thoughts of the head of the Russian Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, who condemned the attack and suggested that it was an assault on the foundations of free society.

“The goal of these barbarians is to destroy the modern world order, to reverse the development of human civilization, and to cause the enlightened world to abandon democracy, the rule of law and human rights, including freedom of speech," Fedotov said. "The heartless murder of these French journalists was an attempt to prohibit freedom of speech through gunfire. There is and can be no justification for it. Any discussion of the rules of journalistic ethics can only be held with living, not dead journalists.”

Some Russian cartoonists responded to the events in Paris. Renowned Russian artist Andrei Bilzho argues it is unacceptable to kill journalists who perform their professional duties.

“To murder in broad daylight unarmed, innocent people carrying out their professional duties in their own country, their own home, is a monstrous act and a terrible injustice,” he wrote in his blog for Echo of Moscow.

“If the Muslim community of Russia considers this sinful bloodshed to be commensurate with the alleged provocation, they are complicit in this heinous crime,” adds Bilzho. “We must continue to draw and write what we feel is necessary — as French journalists and French artists have done, for which I wildly envy them.”

Another Russian cartoonist and artist for the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets Alexei Merinov believes that “the cry of ‘don’t kill over a cartoon’ is pointless [since] normal ... people have no intention of doing so. Those that do are deaf to such cries or, on the contrary, relish them.”

A few political and economic forecasts for 2015

Russian journalists continue to hold forth on what awaits the country in 2015. Opposition media (Echo of Moscow), tends to see a scenario featuring the collapse of the Russian economy and international isolation, while pro-government media (Aktualniye Kommentarii) offer a different slant on Russia’s political prospects. Speculation about what lies in store in 2015 also comes from that tries to be as neutral as possible .

Economist Igor Nikolaev and a blogger for Echo of Moscow is pessimistic. According to him, “the ruble in 2015 will weaken and by spring could be 70-80 to the dollar” and “the figures clearly point to a deepening economic crisis in 2015.” Nikolaev adds “optimistically” that at least 2015 will be better than 2016-17.

Aktualniye Kommentarii published renowned journalist Nikolai Svanidze’s forecasts on the development of relations between Russia and the West. Svanidze believes that there is no immediate prospect of a thaw in relations and notes that much depends on Russia and its ability to be a responsible international player.

“If the Russian leadership makes no genuine compromises on Ukraine, relations with Europe will see no improvement in the foreseeable future,” Svanidze argues. “To exist as a self-sufficient autarky in the 21st century is out of the question. We are not living in pre-Petrine Russia under the early Romanovs. Most would agree that times have changed. A bear can suck its paw in a winter den. But a vast country needs more nourishment.”

Vladimir Dergachev, Polina Matveeva and Alexander Bratersky of called upon experts to clarify what would happen to Russia in 2015. They believe the determining factor will be the continuation or lifting of sanctions, but consider the latter to be highly unlikely.

“The lifting of sanctions in the present circumstances would cause Europe to lose face,” the article reads.

The journalists also give the voice to the head of the Center for Germanic Studies under the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladislav Belov.

“The situation in the southeast of Ukraine is unlikely to see any dramatic changes in the near future, which means that Germany will continue to insist that responsibility lies with Russia — that is how Europe still views the saga of sanctions,” Belov said.