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Monday, November 13, 2006

Russian Puppets and Their Masters

The Washington Post offers a wonderful interview with "Kukly" creator Viktor Shenderovich, who lays bare the horror that is Vladimir Putin from personal experience. He sums up Putin as follows: "Putin, it goes without saying, is a person with a very strong inferiority complex. He cannot forget the way he got to power. Unlike [former president Boris] Yeltsin. Whatever you think of him, Yeltsin was a politician. He made himself. Putin was just taken and put on the board and made the queen, the main chess figure."

Viktor Shenderovich, 48, was once Russia's leading political satirist. His scathing TV show "Kukly," or "Puppets," which first aired in 1994, ran afoul of the authorities after President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Putin was depicted as an ugly rubber dwarf, and the Kremlin warned the show's network, NTV, to remove the character. In 2001, NTV was taken over by a state-controlled company, and Shenderovich left the show. In 2003, a defanged "Kukly" was dropped altogether. Since then, Shenderovich has in effect been banned from national television, but he continues to be heard on the radio station Echo Moskvy. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament in 2005 and later wrote a comic account of his campaign. Last month, he launched a satirical show on RTVI, a satellite channel for Russians abroad. Episodes can also be seen on his Web site, He spoke last week with the Post's Moscow bureau chief, Peter Finn, about this new venture, inspired by the films of silent-era legend Charlie Chaplin. The interview took place a day after Putin conducted a televised call-in show in which he answered questions from the public.

Q Tell us about the new show.

A The program is called "Modern Times," because that's a reference or link to Chaplin. And Chaplin is one of the heroes of the show, maybe the main character. All images are connected with Chaplin. Everything we want to comment on, even metaphors, we do through Chaplin's movies.

Can you give an example?

For example, the conflict between Russia and Georgia. If we are looking at the difference in weight and size, it's all based on scenes from "The Gold Rush," the struggle of a huge guy and a little one. Chaplin's pieces . . . work as metaphors or detonators because he's so expressive you don't need him a lot, just an image.

Will Russians see this program?

Only on the Internet. And by those who buy a satellite dish. Unfortunately, there are no other possibilities in modern Russia.

Why not?

Not a single TV channel dares to offer me a job. And that has been the case for several years. Since 2003, I haven't been their favorite, and I can't get on television.

Is it frustrating that so few Russians inside the country will see the show?

Of course. A radio version of the same program, "Soft Cheese," is on Echo Moskvy. Unfortunately, there can't be any Chaplin metaphors. But it's still better than nothing. Internet use is significant, especially in big cities. Of course, if you compare this with 80 million people who used to watch our programs on NTV, it's nothing.

As you look at the media landscape, do you see any political satire?

No. Political satire is a characteristic feature of a democratic country. Today we do not live in a democratic country. So, by definition, there can be no political satire. There are certain substitutes. There are attempts at political satire. It's permissible to smile a little bit, to be a little ironic, but only a little bit. Or to be very critical, but only of the second layer or the third layer of officials. Like Soviet satire, when someone from the top would tell you, 'Okay, today you can look at this one, and tomorrow that one.' Everybody sees and everybody understands what happens to those who want to be involved in real satire. Not one of them can get access to any TV channel. This is true not only for myself and my friends. Everybody has been thrown out of TV.

Why do you think Putin and the authorities are so sensitive to satire?

It's only natural. Any leader is sensitive to satire. Maybe Bush would also want to do something to [filmmaker] Michael Moore, but he cannot. He cannot ban Michael Moore. He cannot send tax inspectors to HBO. The second aspect is the personal sensitivity of the target. The more minor a person is, the more sensitive he is to satire. Putin, it goes without saying, is a person with a very strong inferiority complex. He cannot forget the way he got to power. Unlike [former president Boris] Yeltsin. Whatever you think of him, Yeltsin was a politician. He made himself. Putin was just taken and put on the board and made the queen, the main chess figure. Everything and everybody always reminds him of that. And he was not ready for very sharp political satire such as the puppet show. He was not ready for it as a human being. He had never been a politician. He had never competed with anyone. He had never been an independent figure.

Are people creating their own satire, telling their own jokes?

Of course people joke. But today we're in a period of intellectual stagnation. On the one hand, people are very tired after all these changes. On the other, all this oil has allowed people to feel there is stability. The number of those who understand we will have a very bad end when the oil price goes down or when mankind comes up with something other than oil is very low, and the rest don't care. People have jobs, with the exception of a few regions. This stability smells of the stagnation of the [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev times, and at that time we also had everything, until the end came. Today, the rotting is inside, but the facade is okay. He's young, good-looking, good memory, speaks well. In my next program, I'm going to look at Putin on his call-in show. Putin was talking so much about all possible problems -- economy, defense, soccer. He also managed to solve so many problems, personal problems. Those who got to him, their problems were solved. Amazing. So my suggestion is to keep him there on TV forever. We can give him tea, and he can solve people's problems.

If you could have asked Putin one question, what would it have been?

To be sincere, I haven't had any questions for the president for a long time. I have a few answers, though. If I had the opportunity just to be heard by others, I would have asked him if he is aware that this rollback of democracy and the destruction of democratic institutions is making Russia absolutely defenseless, without any protection, if it faces a dangerous historic turning point. Tomorrow, say, someone much worse than Putin can take power and there are no brakes, no restrictions. No press, no courts, no parliament, no public organizations. That means we are hostages to chance. But it's useless to ask this question. I suspect that he simply does not understand such words. He understands the words, of course, but he does not see any sense in them. He needs such words only to communicate with the rest of the G-8 [the Group of Eight industrial countries]. Deep in his heart he is convinced that this system works, that Russia needs a strong hand and stuff like that.

Do you see a time when you are back on national television?

Of course. We've lost the current game. The time will come. Tolstoy used to say, if I am alive in five or seven years, something will change. The system which exists now is so rotten from inside, the question is which way will it explode? The most alarming thing is not Putin. The worry is which direction this river will take.

Any reaction from the authorities to the new show?

No. We do not present any electoral threat. Many Russians abroad watch us. But here nothing, comparatively. Altogether, with the Internet and radio, maybe one and a half, 2 million people. If I was from Luxembourg, I'd be huge.

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