After a long absence, satire is back, even as the authorities seek to co-opt and marginalize it.by Alexander Kolesnichenko 19 April 2012
This is the first article in an occasional series on political satire in the former Soviet Union.
MOSCOW | Shortly after parliamentary elections in December, Russians noticed an advertisement for a curious new vodka on the Internet. Bottles of Churovka, it said, held 0.497 liters of “genuine 146 percent alcohol” that was “falsified in Russia” and “produced with real magic.” It was an obvious spoof playing on the name of the elections commission chief, Vladimir Churov, and alluding to evidence of widespread fraud: the ruling United Russia Party’s 49.7 percent result, one region’s 146 percent turnout – a number later acknowledged to be flawed – and President Dmitri Medvedev’s praise of Churov as a “magician.”
The prank represented a new trend, the rebirth of political satire in Russia for the first time since Vladimir Putin came to power a dozen years ago. The renaissance is taking place mostly on the Internet, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who is director of the Foundation for Effective Politics. “You can find jokes, cartoons, and photo collages,” he says. “Everyone from the president to the street cop is being targeted.”
Opposition groups hope the new penchant for ridiculing the authorities will help buoy the country’s nascent protest movement, but the authorities are fighting back, backing friendly Internet sites. And while satire blossoms on the Internet, censorship has dulled its bite in print media and largely kept it off national television, controlled by a government that still wields vast wealth and power.
One of the first signs of a public mood swing occurred in November, when Putin visited a martial arts contest to congratulate the Russian champion and found himself being booed by the audience. The feelings quickly made their way to the Internet.
“Fans of fighting without rules booed the champion of elections without rules,” read a Twitter entry on the account KermlinRussia, which parodies Medvedev’s official KremlinRussia. Its blogger calls himself the “persident of Russia” and publishes such aphorisms as “Nothing costs less yet is valued more highly than goods and services obtained by the government,” and “Putin is no thief. You just envy the billions he earned through hard and honest labor.” KermlinRussia has more than 230,000 followers, making it one of the Russian Internet’s most popular accounts.
Mounting anger over Putin’s announcement last fall that he would run for a third term as president bubbled over after the parliamentary elections in December, when ballot stuffing, doctoring of vote tallies, and unlawful expulsions of opposition observers from voting stations helped prompt tens of thousands onto the streets. Although fewer such violations were visible during Putin’s re-election three months later in March, factories and other organizations illegally bused an unprecedented number of people to voting stations. In many instances, they showed up bearing absentee ballots, which allowed them to vote at a precinct other than their own – possibly multiple times – which could explain why, in the days before the election, many places had reported shortages of such ballots.
The fraud reinforced a general sense that change can't be attained via the ballot box, and it’s posing the authorities their first serious threat, says Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies. “They can deal with people who are simply dissatisfied,” he says. “But their worst-case scenario is now unfolding: people are starting to laugh at them. They’ve sounded the cry that the emperor has no clothes.”
Putin is the main object of derision. When a group called Rabfak posted a music video on YouTube titled “Our Madhouse is Voting for Putin,” its various versions logged more than 1 million hits combined. The singer is a patient at a psychiatric hospital who accuses doctors of corruption and wonders who profits from the sale of Russian oil and gas. Instead of answers to his letters to Putin, he receives injections. “Everything’s so difficult, everything’s so confusing,” he sings. “The doctor’s right and I’m to blame. Our madhouse is voting for Putin.”
Russian media have seen a far smaller surge in political satire outside the Internet. Cartoonist Michael Zlatkovsky, who was the first to caricature Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, blames the censorship he says returned to Russia under Putin. Cartoonists no longer in demand have re-established themselves as arts editors and designers or taken up work for foreign outlets. Zlatkovsky, who publishes in the Novye Izvestia newspaper, refuses to call his work satire.
“The list of taboo topics keeps expanding,” he says. “First the Chechen war and the bombings in Moscow and Beslan. Then it was forbidden to criticize the Russian Orthodox Church, prosecutors, and courts. Later the United Russia Party, the Central Elections Commission, police, military, and parliament.” Criticizing Putin is the biggest no-no. “He and his colorful statements have provided artists a rich source of inspiration – Western artists, not Russian ones,” he laments. “It’s enabled them to earn thousands of dollars.”
The cancellation of a popular satirical program called Kukly (Puppets) in 2001 set the tone early in Putin’s presidency. The show, which skewered politicians using puppet caricatures, crossed the line by portraying Putin as a dwarf from an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale. Kukly scriptwriter Viktor Shenderovich, who now makes his living performing on stage, insists television will remain off-limits to him as long as Putin remains in power.
"I’d have had my own show long ago if I’d chosen a career as a showman,” Shenderovich says. “But I want to do political satire, and there’s no criticism of the authorities on national television.”
IMITATION OF SATIRE
State-controlled Channel One has come closest to broadcasting satire, on a weekend program called Prozhektorperiskhilton. It parodies a late Soviet-era investigative journalism program called Projector of Perestroika, which discussed the week’s events. In the new version, jokes come at the expense not of Putin or Medvedev, but of nervous bureaucrats who have already come under fire from the president or prime minister.
Pavlovsky calls Prozhektorperiskhilton an “imitation of political satire” that only hints at the big issues. “It reinforces conformism, it’s nothing like Kukly,” he says, “because satire implies the complete rejection of what’s going on.”
Alexander Tsekalo, one of the hosts of Prozhektorperiskhilton acknowledges the show’s limitations. “Television can air only as much satire as the leaders’ humor allows,” he says. Only the most harmless ribbing of the president and prime minister makes it on air: a photograph of Medvedev with his hand raised under the quotation “Open cashier here!” Or an item about last-minute road repairs in a region Putin was due to visit with the commentary, “Russia has two problems: fools and roads. Whenever Putin travels somewhere, one of the problems starts trying to fix the other.”
There is less censorship in print media. Cartoonist Viktor Bogorad, a regular contributor to the foreign-owned Vedomosti and Moscow Times newspaper, often depicts Putin and Medvedev, although his most stinging caricatures don’t make it into print.
He says he’s hardly unique. “Most cartoonists have produced critical drawings that remain unpublished,” he says, adding that most local officials don’t allow any caricatures of themselves. “Not a single cartoon of St. Petersburg’s former governor, Valentina Matvienko, appeared when she was in office. And you don’t see any caricatures of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin in the Moscow press."
Nevertheless, political cartoons are making a comeback. Previously dismissed as “frivolous” by the liberal opposition, they used to be the Communists’ domain, Bogorad says. Now cartoons are appearing in the liberal press, too, and protesters have started using them on placards.
The Internet, where the most biting satire appears, remains free of censorship. Among the most recent popular installments, a video titled “Twelve Years of Putin in Two Minutes” depicts the prime minister as the authoritarian tycoon Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. It shows Putin slowly aging, surrounded by a growing collection of symbols of his rule, including a tsar’s crown and a television set wrapped in chains. Medvedev appears as an infant, then sitting on a throne playing with an iPad. Later the symbols of his presidency – including a watch signifying his decision to do away with daylight savings time – appear in a garbage can before the video ends with an elderly Putin resembling the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Another project called “Citizen Poet,” which generated hundreds of thousands of hits a week, featured actor Mikhail Yefremov reading verses about current political events written by the popular poet Dmitri Bykov. One parody of a 19th-century poem discussed the actions of a court secretary who took part in the trial of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She made waves for alleging that his sentence was not decided by the judge, but handed down by the judge’s superiors.
“People like poetry if writers focus on issues that concern them,” Bykov said on stage during one of the final performances in March. “Poetry has started doing that after a long hiatus.”
The Internet has also facilitated an explosion of political jokes. “It’s an ideal medium for disseminating political satire thanks to the ease of distribution, interactivity, and lack of censorship,” says Dmitri Werner, the U.S.-based owner of the Anekdoty.ru (Jokes) website. With more than 1,000 jokes at his expense, Putin is the absolute leader among subjects. Former President Boris Yeltsin is the butt of only 180 jokes on the site, and Medvedev around 70.
"Putin didn’t cry,” goes one joke about a tear that slid down Putin’s cheek during an emotional election-victory rally in March. “He was only leaking Botox.”
The lack of Internet censorship doesn’t mean the authorities have remained idle in cyberspace. Some believe they commission their own satire aimed at generating positive press, including on the site vladimir.vladimirovich.ru, which has posted satirical stories about Putin for the last decade.
The site recently lambasted the arrest of female punk rockers from the band Pussy Riot for singing Hail Mary, Get Putin Out! in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral. In the website’s version, Putin and the church patriarch are drinking in the cathedral when they decide to order call girls. “First they liked them and then not so much,” the site says, explaining the arrests.
Risky sounding perhaps, but vladimir.vladimirovich.ru creator Maxim Kononenko, who calls his project “a contemplative, parallel reality," is also a columnist for the pro-United Russia Party website Vzglyad.ru, where he has criticized protesters against election fraud.
"Such material, with Putin in the lead role, isn’t satire,” says language scholar Tatiana Surikova. “Instead it plays on traditional Russian myths about good tsars and bad boyars,” the tsarist court’s top nobles.
Anekdoty.ru’s Werner says “official satire” about Putin plays off “positive” characteristics such as virility, courage, and resourcefulness. It relies, he says, on Putin’s association with two favorite stock characters in Russian jokes: Stierlitz, the spy hero from a Soviet television series about Nazi Germany, and Vovochka, a teenager who raises sex at inappropriate moments.”
Russian films, like television, rarely feature political satire. One of the exceptions, a 2007 movie called Election Day, follows a team of political strategists who win a provincial election before realizing they're in the wrong region. However, the producers came under pressure until one of the script's original characters, a drinking, shifty priest, was later replaced by a swindler pretending to be a priest to spare the Russian Orthodox Church from ridicule.
The culture of censorship will surely have long-term effects. Pavlovsky believes satire will probably not return to television even if the government relinquishes its control. “The emergence of a bantering, unserious interpretation of the political world has changed the basic understanding of it," he says. "It suppresses analysis and makes satire unnecessary.”
For now, however, censorship remains firmly in place. In February, when the Teatr.doc theater premiered "BerlusPutin” – in which Putin receives part of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's brain in a transplant after terrorists shoot both leaders – Moscow print shops refused to publish posters for the play. Their reason, blogged director Mikhail Ugarov, was “a ban on products of a political nature ahead of the upcoming election.”