We have been discussing Russian artists and athletes blackballed for failing to publicly denounce Putin of his invasion of Russia. Despite the support that most of us have expressed for Ukraine against this unprovoked and savage attack, there is a danger that we are losing a war at home against free speech. The Russian invasion has added new allies in a growing anti-free-speech movement to censor and blackball dissenting voices. The latest such controversy involves Sergey Karjakin, a Russian grandmaster who supports the Russian invasion. He has been banned from competitions for six months by the International Chess Federation (FIDE). He has been banned due to the unpopularity of his political views — an act that should be denounced by anyone who values free speech.
It is important to note that Karjakin is not being banned as a Russian competitor. Various organizations have cut off Russian athletes from representing the country or doing so under the Russian flag in light of the invasion.
Rather, Karjakin is being barred due to his public statements.
Karjakin has an interesting profile because he has represented both Ukraine and Russia in international competitions. He was born in Crimea and represented Ukraine in three Chess Olympiads and Russia for five of the events.
“Many people ask if I regret my public support of the special operation? After all, I have already lost invitations to Western tournaments and may lose an invitation to the candidates tournament. My answer is simple. I am on the side of Russia and my President. No matter what happens, I will support my country in any situation without thinking for a second!”
Let’s break that down: any “case of occurrence” (whatever that means) that “causes” (however that is defined) “unjustifiable unfavorable light” (whatever that constitutes) to FIDE “reputation” (whatever that is). It could have been simplified by saying that “we reserve the right to bar anyone who says anything we do not like.”
In this case, FIDE declared that
“EDC First Instance Chamber, formed by Yolander Persaud (Guyana), Ravindra Dongre (India), and Johan Sigeman (Sweden) as Chairperson, unanimously decided as follows:
The statements by Sergey Karjakin on the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine has led to a considerable number of reactions on social media and elsewhere, to a large extent negative towards the opinions expressed by Sergey Karjakin…
A necessary condition for the establishment of guilt is that the statements have reached the public domain. This concept, with respect to disrepute clauses in sport, is not the world at large but the sport in which the accused engages, such as chess. Information concerning the accused’s conduct which is not published in the media, but which can be learnt without a great deal of labour by persons engaged in the chess world or a relevant part of it, will be in the public domain and satisfy the public exposure element. The EDC Chamber is comfortably satisfied that this condition is fulfilled in this case.”
The EDC Chamber finds, against the background given above, on the standard of comfortable satisfaction that the statements of Sergey Karjakin, which, by his own choice and presentation, can be connected to the game of chess, damage the reputation of the game of chess and/or FIDE. The likelihood that these statements will damage the reputation of Sergey Karjakin personally is also considerable.”
It is particularly chilling that Karjakin is sanctioned because his opposing viewed “reached the public domain.” There is another word for that: free speech.
The board opted not to punish Sergei Shipov, another Russian grandmaster who posted public statements of support for the invasion. The distinction only magnifies the arbitrary elements in this action:
“In comparison with Sergey Karjakin, Sergei Shipov is considerably less known and has, therefore, a less powerful platform. The statements made by Sergei Shipov are also of a slightly different and less provocative character than the ones made by Karjakin. In an overall evaluation of the potential negative impact on the game of chess and/or FIDE, the EDC Chamber is not sufficiently convinced that Sergei Shipov’s statements qualify as a breach of article 2.2.10.”
So both grandmasters publicly spoke in favor of the invasion but FIDE found that Shipov was “less provocative” in his public comments despite holding the same opinion.
FIDE is joining companies and groups that claim to be fighting tyranny by punishing those who exercise their freedom of speech. It is perfectly Putinesque.
Wartime is often the most dangerous time for free speech. The desire to silence others rests like a dormant virus in any society. People prone to censorship find license in such times. Few object in such times. After all, no one wants to be accused of being soft on Russia or, worse yet, a traitor. Even the barring of political parties in Ukraine by Zelenskyy has barely attract attention, let alone criticism.
The war in Ukraine is costing humanity greatly with increasing evidence of war crimes and untold suffering. We should not add free speech to the prohibitive costs of this war. This is not about supporting Ukraine. It is about fighting for the freedoms that define a people.
We can do both. We can stand with Ukraine and free speech.