(Robyn Dixon’s and Mary Ilyushina’s article appeared in The Washington Post, 12/2; via the Deudge Report.)
MOSCOW — A Russian video comedy troupe in a small provincial city was doing just fine. It clocked up millions of YouTube views with mischievous political satire.
Then the comedians did a gag in which a drunken political boss with a grenade launcher blows up an election poster for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
They each face up to eight years in jail, charged with “extreme hooliganism.”
“We’re not criminals. They’re trying to make us into criminals. We are not hooligans. We are just an ordinary film crew,” said director Andrei Klochkov in an interview with Russian independent media.
The team in Ussuriysk, north of Vladivostok, has since been barred by a court from speaking to media, said its lawyer, Alexei Klyotskin.
For years, Russian authorities have expanded their crackdowns: curbing freedom of speech, sweeping away activists, pressuring rights lawyers and jailing Putin’s opponents. Prosecutors last month called for the liquidation of venerable human rights group, the International Memorial Society, with roots in Soviet-era dissent.
Now they are arresting comedians — seeking to muzzle any edgy comedy that might offend Putin loyalists or be seen as mocking Russian patriotism.
Until recently, stand-up comedy and freewheeling Internet posts were refuges from censors, said comedian Kirill Sietlov, who was jailed earlier this year after claims he organized a protest rally, a charge he denied.
He recently set up a Telegram channel for traumatized comedians to share their stories of persecution.
“It seemed that this was a truly free art form. Everything there was possible. There were no restrictions,” he said.
Now, however, Sietlov said the state “has launched a real campaign of fear — fear and hatred.” Besides the police and intelligence agencies, informers and snitches play their part, drumming up outrage, claiming that comedians offended someone’s beliefs or dignity.
Stand-up comedians are scrolling through their old online content, removing cheeky jokes. YouTube comedy creators are fearful. Police and suspected plain clothes agents turning up at stand-up comedy clubs. Comics are getting death threats.
Even harmless pranksters are targeted.
On an irreverent YouTube channel known as BARAKuda, a fictional character, Vitaly Nalivkin (the name is a play on pouring a drink), parodies a provincial official, slurring his words, issuing crazy orders and making local problems worse.
“This is a guy who thinks he always knows what to do, is very confident, who can never be wrong and is always right. He does whatever he wants. He’s funny because he is so recognizable to people,” said Andrei Ostrovsky editor of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.
He said the sketch mocks the fawning local TV coverage of Ussuriysk’s mayor, Yevgeny Korzh, a member of Putin’s party — although director Andrei Klochkov and the BARAKuda team insist it is not supposed to be political.
The episodes are based on real Ussuriysk problems.
One skit addresses the city’s public toilet shortage. So the fictional character Nalivkin orders up rickety wooden latrines with no internal walls to be installed on every street.