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Russia, where comedians are afraid | International

BARAKuda channel’s ‘Sketch’ about the destruction of a microcredit company.

A few months ago Russian television broadcast a sketch where a woman with her face painted black and numerous necklaces appeared, to which the presenter gave way with the phrase: “Now we are going to see the dark side of the United States, Barack Obama.” The actress responded with a bad rap: “I am a chocolate rabbit … Black Lives Matter!”. Then the showman He assured that “there is no racism in Russia” and asked him if he considered his new book an achievement. “Of course, my ancestors did not even know how to write,” he replied. Obama, stereotyped to the extreme racist.

Such a joke with Vladimir Putin as the protagonist is unthinkable in the Russia of 2021. 20 years ago, the president had his own character in the Russian version of Canal + winks, but everything changed when the only national private channel, NTV, became the hands of Gazprom – the largest Russian gas company, controlled by the state – after the opposition Vladimir Gusinski was arrested and went into exile after being accused of tax evasion. With the change in ownership, the Putin parody was removed from the show and its creators reviled.

“Censorship began as soon as Putin arrived,” says its original screenwriter, Víktor Senderóvich, today one of the country’s critical voices. Putin was always untouchable, but you could make jokes with other politicians like [el primer ministro, Dmitri] Medvedev. There was an appearance opening; 10 years ago they pretended that this was a democracy. You would file a complaint with the police and a case would be opened. Today they don’t even bother to hide it, ”Senderóvich explains.

The screenwriter assures that “the normal thing has happened in a totalitarian process.” “First it was television, then radio, then the internet,” he reels before exemplifying with his case the atmosphere that has been generated. “Today no one dares to rent me a flat. We have lived in an atmosphere of fear since 2014, when they completely seized power after the annexation of Crimea. “

The transgressive humor finds less and less space. Just a decade ago the authorities awarded a prize of 10,000 euros to the Voiná collective (Guerra, in Russian) for a work that today would be a crime: Penis detained by the FSB, a gigantic phallic graffiti painted on a drawbridge in front of the former KGB headquarters in St. Petersburg. The FSB is the Federal Security Service, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB. Today there are numerous cases where a similar initiative ends in a fine or jail.

BARAKuda is all the rage on YouTube with its current parodies. It has a format similar to that of a news program and its actors, people with a rather difficult real life, solve everything “a la Russian”. Its protagonist, “the president of the executive committee of Ussuriisk”, a small town in the middle of nowhere, on the eastern tip of Russia, Vitali Nalivkin, also destroys a microcredit house with a bazooka that forces the population to get vaccinated or appears in an investigation by Alexéi Navalni, in which it is revealed that he holds a “palace”, like the one who denounced that Putin has, although this turns out to be a totally dilapidated building with two sofas and several bottles of vodka on the floor.

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Despite their obviously parodic character, his videos do not like power. The actor who plays Nalivkin, Andrei Naritin, was arrested days after a gag in which he discovered that an alcoholic policeman hid millions of rubles in the hovel where he lived; And last week another actress, Larisa Krivonosova, was fined for playing Marina Wolf (wolf in English) in a police uniform, an impoverished version of the make-up spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, Irina Volk (wolf in Russian).

On the left, the official spokesperson for the Russian Interior Ministry, Irina Volk. On the right, ‘sketch’ of the Barakuda channel where they imitate Volk.

This last case even came to be commented on by the Kremlin itself. “If the political satire does not cross any line and does not insult the authorities or political forces, there are no legal provisions that demand responsibility for it,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, although he clarified that this “is a very fine line. ”.

The channel’s producers juggle their jokes. “Our authorities do not always like the issues we raise and we often come across police officers who try to influence us with the help of the law,” Andrey Klochkov complains. “They often take us to the police station. We have paid many fines for the illegal use of uniforms, and Naritin and Krivonosova have been arrested on occasion for using obscene language against the police, ”says Semyon Vavilov.

Another recent case is that of the comedian Idrak Mirzalizade. He was arrested in August for ten days and the Interior Ministry has banned him from staying in the country for life for a joke comparing how ethnic Russians and other communities cope with the same situation. Accused of inciting hatred, the comedian said he wanted precisely to denounce xenophobia.


Memes don’t escape the rule of law either. Putin signed a law in 2019 that allows punishing without prior trial and with fines of up to 1.6 million rubles, almost 20,000 euros, “offenses against the state and its symbols.” An example of the application of this rule was a Vladivostok neighbor who was sanctioned in January for publishing a cartoon of the president called “Robin Put” with the slogan “steal from the poor to give to the rich.” Just a few weeks later, another law came into force requiring social media to erase all swear words so as not to expose itself to further fines.

And in full suppression of all content considered extremist by the Russian authorities, the artist María Chistyakova (“Marí Govorí”) denounced that YouTube has blocked 24 satirical versions of songs “for political reasons” and threatens to close her channel, opened in 2016 . “It is impossible to hide the use of someone’s music on YouTube. Everyone was aware these six years, but just before the elections one complaint after another started coming in, “Chistyakova said.

One of the erased songs, a version of the Luis Fonsi hit Slowly, has been several years old and criticizes from the alleged millionaire house for Medvedev ducks to how the Russians are squeezed into poverty “to buy grenades and rockets.” His lawyer noted that “according to Russian and foreign laws, the parody format does not require the consent of the copyright owner.”

“There are different types of censorship, one is self-censorship. Today nobody wants to get into trouble, “says scriptwriter Sasha Filipenko, who has written gags for televisions as different as the state Piervy Kanal and the independent Dozhd. The screenwriter recalls that when he worked in 2009 on the comedy show The focus of Paris Hilton, they once recorded a joke that was broadcast in Vladivostok and other Siberian cities, but it never made it to Moscow, where it was later broadcast by the seven-hour time difference. “At some point they realized it,” he recalls. However, he believes that those times were better: recently a play of his in a theater in St. Petersburg was canceled due to the Belarusian crisis.

“People don’t want to be involved with anything that could be a problem. Navalni, homosexuals … You can’t find money. And producing a film is even more difficult, you know that in two years the situation can be even worse, ”says Filipenko. Asked about his favorite current comedian, his answer was brutally sincere: “I can’t think of any, today’s humor is not funny.”

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