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Monday, September 24, 2007

Annals of Outrageous Russian Hypocrisy, Part I: It's a Barbaric, Uncivilized Nation

You may remember that some time ago we reported on how state-owned Russian TV had Photoshopped a false version of a British newspaper in order to create an absurdly false attack on exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Isn't it ironic, then, that when a Russian newspaper tries the same thing on Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin threatens to shut it down and jail the staff?

The Moscow Times reports:

A Saratov newspaper is in hot water after local officials ruled that a photograph it published of President Vladimir Putin as beloved fictional spy Otto von Stirlitz was extremist. Saratovsky Reporter was issued a formal warning following a complaint by the Saratov branch of United Russia about the photograph, which was published Aug. 31, the newspaper's editor, Sergei Mikhailov, said Thursday. Investigators are also examining whether the photograph is libelous, said Tatyana Sergeyeva, spokeswoman for the Saratov regional branch of the newly formed Investigative Committee.

The photograph shows Putin's head pasted onto the body of Stirlitz, the hero played by actor Vyacheslav Tikhonov in the 1973 made-for-television series "17 Moments of Spring," a staple of television programming to this day. Also in the photograph is Mikhail Isayev, a Saratov city lawmaker, whose head is on the body of Nazi official Heinrich MЯller, played in the film by Leonid Bronevoi. "Stirlitz, I ask you to stay," Isayev tells Putin in the picture, using a famously ironic line from the film. In the film, Stirlitz is a Soviet agent who infiltrates the upper echelon of the Nazi Party in wartime Berlin. Despite numerous close calls, Stirlitz remains cool under pressure and is never discovered as a spy, contributing greatly to the allied defeat of Germany.

At issue appears to be the portrayal of Putin -- who served as a KGB officer in East Germany -- in an SS uniform, despite the fact that Stirlitz is an unequivocally positive character. "Any associations with fascism in a country that went through World War II are improper," said Yevgeny Strelchik, a spokesman for the Saratov branch of the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The branch issued the warning to the newspaper based on an analysis by experts from Saratov State University, Strelchik said.

It was the second warning issued by the agency to the newspaper, meaning its registration can be revoked. Alexander Lando, the local United Russia official who filed the complaint, said by telephone that "as a citizen who voted for Putin," he was "insulted" that the president's face was placed on a Nazi uniform. The newspaper's editor said they had run the photograph merely for a laugh. "We just liked the play on words," Mikhailov said, pointing out that Stirlitz and Isayev actually have the same last name. Stirlitz's real name is Maxim Isayev. Mikhailov said he had received the warning Wednesday.

In 2003, Putin awarded Tikhonov with an Order for Service to the Fatherland, Third Class, on the Stirlitz actor's 75th birthday. The standoff is not the first case of journalists in trouble over purportedly insulting portrayals of Putin. Ivanovo journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov was convicted in October of publicly insulting a public official and fined 20,000 rubles ($750) for referring to Putin as "a phallic symbol." In 2004, Andrei Skovorodnikov, a National Bolshevik Party official from Krasnoyarsk, was sentenced to six months in prison for creating a web site that included obscenities directed against Putin.

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