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Analysis & Opinion
19.05.11 No Laughing Matter
By Natasha Doff

The dropping of a play from the program of a drama festival in the Russian regions is not the kind of thing that usually makes the news, even in a country as obsessed with theater as the homeland of Anton Chekhov. Unless, of course, it is about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and involves him turning into a rat.

The satirical play Prebiotics, penned by former political analyst Vladimir Golyshev, is based on the sacking of long-standing Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov late last year.

Monday’s decision by a youth theater’s director in the regional center Rostov-on-Don to scrap a performance of the play has reopened a debate about the nature of political censorship in Russia.

It’s worth pointing out that the Russian authorities – officially at least - played no role in banning the play and are only now examining it to see if it constitutes an illegal use of Putin’s image. The decision to cancel it was taken by the theater’s acting director, Alexander Bliznyuk, presumably when he realized the possible consequences of such a controversial performance.

"As a citizen of my country, I consider it impossible to mock the country's leaders, especially when there is a low artistic level," Bliznyuk told the Gzt.ru news site.

But the act of self-censorship has only served to promote the play. Had it been performed in Rostov-on-Don later this month, the piece would have been watched and discussed by a handful of locals. Since it was banned, it has been read and debated on by thousands of bloggers, many of whom have no prior interest in theater.

Free from the restrictions placed on the press and state-run TV channels, the Internet has become a forum for controversial discussion and political dissent, where even the sacred figures of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are mocked.

Numerous websites have cropped up that are devoted to the long-established Russian tradition of satirical cartoons and jokes. One, umorist.ru, publishes annotated stories about Don Putione and his childish friend Medvedone, parodying Russia’s ruling tandem, in which Putin is largely regarded as the string-puller.

But, almost simultaneously, self-censorship in almost all other performance and visual arts seems to be a growing trend, especially as the country gears up for a presidential election in 2012.

“In the Soviet Union we had censorship committees, now people have become so worried about getting in trouble that they censor themselves just to be on the safe side” says Tanya Lokshina, a researcher at the Moscow bureau of Human Rights Watch.

In March this year, a recital by two prominent Russian poets, Dmitry Bykov and Mikhail Yefremov, was pulled from the liberal TV channel Dozhd (Rain) for personally attacking Putin and Medvedev. Dozhd general director Natalia Sindeyeva said on her Facebook page that the poem went “beyond political satire” and contained phrases that “could insult not a politician, but a person.”

The taboo on publicly discussing the lives of Russia’s ruling elite began with the axing of satirical TV show, Kukly, in 2002.

The popular series, based on Britain’s Spitting Image, regularly mocked then president Boris Yeltsin and portrayed Putin on different occasions as the ugly puppet of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a faceless, talking suit, and a wicked dwarf. A product of the relative freedom of the 1990s, the show was one of the first to be dropped after Putin became president.

"If it had been a totalitarian regime, they would have shot us. Because it's an authoritarian regime, they closed us down," Kukly’s scriptwriter Victor Shenderovich told BBC Radio 4.

Political satire made a mild comeback to Russian television in 2009 with the launch of the show Cartoon Personalities (Multi Lichnosti.) The show parodies foreign politicians – especially those who have fallen out with the Russian authorities – but steers well clear of domestic politics. The furthest the show has stepped into the no-go area of the Putin and Medvedev duet was when it created a special new year’s cartoon of the two leaders dancing and singing on Red Square. Though lightly comical, the clip barely brushed the edges of the forbidden world of political satire that Golyshev dove into headfirst with Prebiotics.

And despite his new-found popularity on the Internet, the play is unlikely to be staged any time soon.

“Our people live in deep fear of the authorities, of the imaginary iron fist that will hit back at them,” one blogger commented on Golyshev’s live journal page.
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