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Analysis & Opinion
24.03.10 Whose Russia?
By Roland Oliphant

The leader of a group representing Russia’s Tajik migrant laborers wants the long-running comedy show “Nasha Rasha” to be banned for its “racist” depiction of central Asian guest workers. He has threatened to sue the makers of the show under extremism laws. But is “Nasha Russia” creating harmful stereotypes or just reacting to a much deeper reality about the Russian society?

On Tuesday March 23 a Tajik migrant organization announced its intention to sue the makers of one of Russia’s most popular television series over its depiction of central Asian migrant laborers. Karomat Sharipov, the leader of Tajik Migrant Workers (TMW), told the RBK daily on Tuesday that “Nasha Rasha’s” treatment of guest workers amounted to “cultural genocide of the Tajik people,” and that the movement had petitioned the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Supervision Service in the Sphere of Communication, Information Technology and Mass Communication (Roskomnadzor) to investigate the legality of the show under anti-extremism legislation.

“Nasha Rasha” is a long-running comedy show whose enduring popularity rests on its not-always-good-taste take on contemporary Russian life. Its most famous characters are Dzhumshut and Ravshan, two casual laborers from Central Asia. Jokes revolve around their incompetence, inability to follow instructions, and their boss’ infuriation at their poor grasp of Russian (Dzhumshut never speaks at all; Ravshan mispronounces every word and repeats every question at least twice with a confused look on his face before attempting to answer it in comically broken Russian). The punch line is their exasperated boss’ exclamation that they are both idiots, and threats like “That’s it! You’ll work for five years without pay!”

Sharipov, understandably, doesn’t find that funny. “It is a most serious problem for us; because we can go unpaid, we can go hungry, we can sleep on the streets, and for five years this show has been going on as active propaganda against the Tajik people.”

The program is a product of the team behind Comedy Club, a hugely successful stand-up show on TNT, a channel that specializes in low-brow entertainment including the reality TV show “Dom-2,” which was recently banned from day-time broadcasts on the grounds that it was “erotic.” When “Nasha Russia” took to the airwaves in 2006 it quickly became one of TNT’s flagship programs.

Its enduring appeal is based on its frank, if not particularly good-taste, stereotyping of recognizable characters in modern Russia. Apart from Dzhumshut and Ravshan, stock characters include a pair of tramps who live off the trash from dumpsters on Moscow’s prestigious Rublyovka Highway, and consequently refuse to eat anything but the finest black caviar and wear the most expensive designer clothes. Then there’s the only honest policeman in Russia, whose family hate him because his virtue keeps them in perpetual poverty, and the two deputies whose constant patriotic pronouncements are belied by their chronic self-indulgence and laziness.

It’s not high-brow, but like all successful comedy, it has tapped a nerve – British readers will perhaps not be surprised to hear that it takes its inspiration and holds a production license from Little Britain, a show that was crudely accurate and outrageously offensive in equal measure. The problem, said Sharipov, is that such is its success that it has begun to set stereotypes in the public imagination. Dzhumshut and Ravshan have become archetypes of the guest worker. Similarly, the character Ivan Dulin, a gay steel worker, has become the defining parody of homosexuality. And so on.

So why take it to court now, after five years of abuse? Sharipov said they had lost patience after repeated assurances. “We’ve supposedly been told that ‘Nasha Russia’ would be taken off air, but it is still there,” he said. But there is also now some extra evidence to take before a court – Sharipov claimed that in the feature-film that the series inspired, the “Eggs of Fate” (“eggs” in Russian slang means “testicles”) Dzhumshut and Ravshan are clearly identified as Tajiks. That finally provides grounds to argue that a national group is being insulted, and Sharipov said the case is also about defamation of Muslims. But in truth, the audience didn’t wait until the “Eggs of Fate,” which was released in January, to make the association. “There’s definitely a widespread racist perception about people from Tajikistan. The word ‘Tajik’ is already used to mean any kind if cheap laborer,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center human rights agency.

The TMW wants a public apology and an end to the broadcast of the offensive material – something “Nasha Rasha’s” producers are likely to fight, since Ravshan and Dzhumshut, in their orange overalls and perpetually confused expressions, are easily the most recognizable and most popular characters, and practically serve as mascots for the show. Sharipov acknowledged that it might be an uphill fight, but insisted he was in with a chance. “We’ve got very good lawyers and we’ve taken very good advice,” he said.

Really that bad?

Russia’s anti-extremism laws have been ridiculed for their openness to official abuse - one recent precedent holds that the police can be considered a “social group” to be protected from defamation – but as Vekhovsky told a Radio Free Europe conference on the subject last year, “they are there for a good reason,” and they can be used to protect genuine minorities from abuse. The prosecutor’s office is effectively being asked to decide where the line lies between legitimate satire and incitement to racial hatred – and it is far from clear.

Verkhovsky himself said that the lot of immigrant laborers was definitely made worse by casual racist attitudes in society, but wasn’t sure that Tajiks were singled out more than any other group of relatively dark-skinned foreigners. And since he said he had never watched “Nasha Russia,” he couldn’t say whether this was one of those occasions. But not everyone thinks the program has crossed the line, wherever it lies. “Nasha Russia is far from the most malignant thing on Russian television,” said Ilmira Bolotyan, a TV critic and scriptwriter. “Compared to some of the so-called humor on the central channels, it is very well produced and the jokes are not absolutely offensive.”

She was also skeptical that the program was reinforcing harmful stereotypes. “I think it’s a reflection, rather than a cause, of the stereotypes in society,” said Bolotyan. “My friends recently asked why ‘blacks’ always work on building sites. When a five-year-old child has the idea that all immigrants from the CIS do that kind of work, it means there’s something deeper than anything TV could create.”

But Sharipov isn’t buying that. “If you want entertainment of that sort, go to the circus. We are not clowns,” he said.
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