This banner reads: "No one may usurp power in the Russian Federation." Photo by
Three public notices featuring quotations from the Russian constitution were put up in the streets of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, last weekend. The quotations outlined a few basic rights of the country’s citizens. In most places, this act would not be the least bit controversial – but it's a different story in Russia.
The banners and a billboard are the work of, a news and opinion website run by Aksana Panova, a long-time critic of the local authorities. The website's editors had planned a citywide ad campaign reminding the public of their constitutional rights, but ran into a surprising obstacle – most of the companies in charge of the city's outdoor advertising space refused to accept their money. Our Observer explains why’s banners have proven so controversial.
This billboard reads: "Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech." Photo by

“Many current problems in Russia would be solved if the constitution really worked”

Dmitry Kolezev is the deputy editor-in-chief at
This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Russian Federation’s constitution. We believe that many current problems in Russia would be solved if the constitution really worked. We decided that our website would pay special attention to it, by reminding readers of its various articles, recounting how it was created, and emphasizing how important it is to implement it.
We wanted to create an advertising campaign around this, which of course would also be a kind of provocation. I had been reading the constitution and noticed that some of its articles are very strongly worded and could be dangerous for the authorities. For instance: “The supreme direct expression of the power of the people shall be referenda and free elections”. [Russia’s recent elections have been marred by allegations of fraud]. Or, “No one may usurp power in the Russian Federation. Seizure of power or usurping state authority shall be prosecuted under federal law. [In light of the fraud allegations, opposition activists in Russia consider President Vladimir Putin to have usurped power]. Or, “All people shall be equal before the law and the courts.” Many people in Russia believe that the courts are working selectively. So these quotations from our own constitution do indeed seem to challenge the system. It’s ironic, but it is so!
“We were told the quotations ‘sounded extremist’”
We chose ten quotations and planned to put them up in the centre of the city. We wanted the places we hung them to fit the content. For example, we decided to put “All people shall be equal before the law and the courts” near the prosecutor-general’s office. However, we soon found out that companies selling advertisement space did not want to display such sensitive content. Apparently, most of them did not want to risk their good relationships with local authorities. Many told us they felt the same thing we had felt when reading these quotations – that they saw in them a challenge to the authorities. They told us the quotations “sounded extremist”. [Editor’s Note: This self-censorship is not as paranoid as it may seem – RBC, a Russian business news portal, reported on Wednesday that anonymous sources in the Yekaterinburg police said that could indeed be charged with engaging in “extremist activities.”]
One banner that we had planned to hang near a university was at first rated by an ad agency as “18+” – evidently, they consider the constitution unfit for children. [In Russia, all media, including advertising, has to be rated and marked for specific ages. The rating is displayed at the bottom corner of billboards and banners.] However, they ended up changing it to “16+” in the end.
So, we haven’t met with any direct censorship from the authorities – but plenty of self-censorship from advertising companies. A source of ours who was in a meeting at the office of the president’s regional representative heard our ad campaign called an “action of the opposition”. But in our opinion this action is not at all in opposition to the government; it’s a civil action. It could even be said that this is a pro-state action, since we’re strengthening the state by reminding people of what’s in our constitution.
Some of the projected public notices (which were refused) featured the following quotations from the constitution:
“The supreme direct expression of the power of the people shall be referenda and free elections”. wanted to put this banner up near the regional governor’s office.
“Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, and hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets.” wanted to put this up near the regional office of the interior ministry.
“The Russian Federation is a secular state. No state or obligatory religion may be established.” wanted to put this up near the Orthodox Church’s regional eparchy.
“The accused shall not be obliged to prove their innocence.” wanted to put this up near a courthouse.
This banner reads: "All people shall be equal before the law and the courts."