No Joke: Russia’s new crackdown on entertainers6 min read

 In Editorial, Politics, Russia

In Memoriam: Zack Kramer 

A fantastic editor and writer and overall a much-valued member of the Lossi 36 team, our Russia Regional Editor Zack Kramer passed away in Prague earlier this month, aged 32. Though we sadly never had the chance to meet him in person, we had the great pleasure of working with Zack for five months, during which he showcased his regional expertise and professionalism in several insightful editorials, the last of which is published here. Our readers can learn more about Zack from those who knew him better here, and in the meantime, our thoughts are with Zack, his fiancee, and family.

Since late 2021, the Russian government has been engaged in a sweeping suppression of all manner of political satire, parody, and critique by Russian cultural and entertainment figures, from popular musicians to minor nightclub comedians. In a country long known for placing limits on political speech, at first glance this may seem like old news. On the contrary, expanding the scope of government censorship from classic targets like opposition figures, foreign NGOs, and investigative journalists to less overtly political domains and personalities represents a subtle but important shift in how the authorities now seek to manage the country’s arts and entertainment. 

Every Russian of a certain age may likely recall the old “Radio Yerevan” joke: 

Radio Yerevan was asked: “Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, the same as there is in the USA?”

Radio Yerevan answered: “In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and yell, ´Down with Reagan!´, and you will not be punished. In the Soviet Union, you can stand on Red Square in Moscow and yell, ´Down with Reagan!´, and you will not be punished.”

The implicit, bitter punchline is that, no, of course there was no freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. But the joke works on another level; at least we friends can enjoy sharing a joke about our lack of freedom, if only discreetly. Political jokes served an important social function in those daysestablishing that you could be trusted, that you were neither a ruthless careerist nor a brainwashed fool. Deciding when, where and with whom to crack a good political joke was a delicate yet widely practiced art for much of the Soviet period. 

For Russians, that need for discretion fell away in the late 1980s and 90s, due to genuine political liberalization and the opening up of private domestic media and entertainment. In the 2000s, the rise of the internet and social media gave the public a voice of its own and exposed it to an even more diverse array of opinions, art, and humor. While Russians might have preferred figures like former President Boris Yeltsin or Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky to have been less of a laughing stock, for the first time they were quite free to openly mock their own officials. 

Many forms of political speech have again been sharply curtailed since President Vladimir Putin began vigorously consolidating authority in the mid-2000s. However, private entertainers and cultural figures have long been given a partial pass. As long as one’s act did not consist of direct, specific, provocative criticism of President Putin, the ruling United Russia party, large state-owned companies, or other key pillars of the state, a certain amount of freedom to joke, sing, paint, act, or film as one wished has lived on. Likewise, Russian audiences have for the most part been free to choose their own entertainment, particularly online. Yet as of late 2021, Russia appears to be drawing the curtain on even the mildest of political critique and non-conformity among its domestic creative class. 

There is broad evidence of the government’s shifting approach across the cultural landscape. A legal case was opened in Moscow against TNT, a television channel, over its airing of a game show in which two male comedians shared a kiss. “Today it’s humor, tomorrow it’s [gay] propaganda”, speculated State Duma deputy Mikhail Romanov. Vedomosti reports that Roskomnadzor, a federal media watchdog, has discussed banning online streaming of all films and television programs depicting “non-traditional sexual relationships and sexual deviations”. Russian streaming services have reportedly created blacklists of actors to be excluded from their programming on the basis of their political views (many having expressed support for Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny). Popular rapper Alisher Morgenstern was placed under investigation for critical remarks about Russia’s WWII Victory Day celebrations, and a similar probe was launched against rappers Oxxxymiron and Noize MC over a mock-patriotic satirical blog post. 

Perhaps the greatest share of government scrutiny has been placed on comedians. Recently, those who have dared to joke about, Covid-19, the ruling political party, and Putin himself have been closely observed by government monitors. According to the Washington Post, plainclothes agents have been attending comedy shows and recording them on their cellphones, on the lookout for offending content. Some comedians have faced penalties beyond simply being shut out of nightclubs, with punishments ranging from fines to extended jail time. In one particularly harsh case, Idrak Mirzalizade, an Azerbaijani comedian, ran afoul of the government for jokes he made in a March 2021 online comedy stream about the discrimination minorities in Moscow face from the ethnic Russian majority. Mirzalizade was convicted of “inciting hatred” and imprisoned for 10 days. The Interior Ministry also ruled Mirzalizade’s presence in Russia “undesirable”, opting to ban him from the country for life. 

It is unclear whether the amount of political satire being included in comedy acts is on the increase; Russian comics have perhaps become more emboldened to mock the government given its recent decline in popularity. Regardless, the aggressive and wide-ranging response against even obscure comedians over fairly innocuous political satire is unprecedented in recent decades. 

The old status quo involved a nominal official commitment to upholding free speech, while public and private figures generally respected the unspoken but well-understood limits on that freedom pertaining to their domain. Only in extreme cases, where the interests of those in power were genuinely threatened by major public figures might swift and severe government intervention be deemed necessary (e.g. in the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or more recently Alexei Navalny, and strongly suspected in the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya or Boris Nemtsov). For those outside of politics and mainstream media, as long as one was just ‘shouting into the void’ of a comedy club, late-night talk show, or internet forum, not attempting to gain a mass audience or mobilize the public, one need not worry about serious repercussions. What began to appear in 2021 is arguably a more fully-articulated censorship regime, in which the government is more vigilant and responsive at a grassroots level. The penalties for deviant speech are more graduated, starting softer with fines, the extraction of public apologies, short but intimidating “investigations”, or brief jail sentences, but much more widely imposed on even little-known, unthreatening figures than in the past.

The Russian government has long dominated mass media, but a return to Soviet-style full-scale government management of culture and entertainment is hard to imagine. In a country as large, diverse, and online as modern Russia, it would be a vast and dismal project. While the government may want to project an image of omnipresence and resolve, the recent clampdown seems to belie a fear of no longer being taken seriously. The more limits are placed on comedy and other cultural venues, the more weight political satire carries, and the more Putin and other authorities risk appearing as dried-up, humorless old men who have run out of ideas. 

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