No laughing matter: Cartoons and the Kremlin

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Mikhail Zlatkovsky has been lampooning Russian leaders since the days of perestroika. But he has discovered that satire permitted by Gorbachev and Yeltsin is dangerous under Putin. By Shaun Walker

With his easily recognisable features, his omnipresence in every area of Russian politics and foreign policy, and his penchant for withering, snappy one-liners, Vladimir Putin is a cartoonist's dream. At the beginning of his eight-year reign, he was launching a bloody war in Chechnya and promising to "waste" terrorists; as it draws to a close he is denying rumours of secret plans to marry a 24-year-old gymnast, and telling journalists to keep their "snotty noses and erotic fantasies" out of his private life. There's plenty of material for even the most unimaginative cartoonist to have a field day.

There's only one problem for Russian cartoonists, however – they're not allowed to draw him. Mikhail Zlatkovsky is perhaps the most famous cartoonist in Russia, with his sketches appearing daily in Novye Izvestia newspaper and a history of political cartoons and existential artwork dating back to the 1970s. He was the first Russian cartoonist to draw Mikhail Gorbachev, and actively caricatured Boris Yeltsin. He has also drawn Stalin, although the cartoon that he did as a teenager in 1959 took until 1988 to be published.

When Yeltsin named Mr Putin as acting president on New Year's Eve 1999, Zlatkovsky drew the ailing Yeltsin dredging a mermaid-tailed Putin out of the sea and putting a crown on his head. Putin became a regular feature of Zlatkovsky's cartoons. But the new President was officially inaugurated on 7 May 2000, and the next day, Zlatkovsky's editor at Literaturnaya Gazeta, where he then worked, came into the newsroom, fresh from a Kremlin reception.

"He said to me, 'Misha, we're not going to draw Putin any more,'" recalls Zlatkovsky. "The young lad is very sensitive." From that day onwards, Zlatkovsky has not had another cartoon of Mr Putin published. Nowadays, the only cartoons of the Russian leader to appear in the Russian press are those that depict him in a positive, or even heroic light.

As Mr Putin's rule went on, says Zlatkovsky, the number of taboo subjects increased – ministers, Kremlin aides, Chechnya and top military brass all became off limits. Recently a cartoon depicting Alexy II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, propmpted a phone call from the patriarchate and a strong request never to draw him again.

"There's no central censor these days," says Zlatkovsky. "Instead, we have the censorship of the fire safety inspectorate; or the censorship of the tax police." Satirise the ruling class today, and tomorrow the newspaper offices will be paid a surprise visit by fire inspectors who will find a bureaucratic regulation that the office does not meet, and close it. Or there will be a call from the printworks stating that the price of paper has inexplicably risen tenfold. Many cartoonists have given up, finding other work, and newspaper editors prefer to err on the side of caution and not publish cartoons at all.

Zlatkovsky is taking partin a series of Cartoonists for Peace exhibitions to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He has worked as an artist and cartoonist since 1971, but during the Soviet period he would never have dared to draw cartoons depicting party leaders. The cartoons that appeared in the press praised socialist development, or railed against the imperialist West. Perhaps the only cartoonist at the time who was bold enough to subvert the system was Vyacheslav Sysoyev – his cartoons were published in the West, and he was arrested in 1983 and jailed for "distributing pornography".

Then came perestroika, and one day in 1987 Zlatkovsky got a call summoning him to APN, a Soviet news agency. He was met by three young men – probably KGB agents – who told him that they urgently needed cartoons featuring Mikhail Gorbachev.

"They told me that Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] travels abroad all the time, trying to show off the new, human face of socialism," recalls Zlatkovsky. "But at a conference in Paris, a journalist had asked him how there could possibly be democracy in the Soviet Union if there were no cartoons poking fun at the leader.

"They told me I should come the next day with a cartoon of Gorbachev, and offered me very good money by the standards of those times. But they made it clear that I shouldn't draw anything too offensive or cutting."

Zlatkovsky duly complied, drawing a cartoon that satirised Gorbachev's political battle of wills with the top brass of the Soviet army. A suited Mr Gorbachev, with a hammer-and-sickle birthmark on his forehead, tries hard to toss a giant bear in military uniform over his shoulder.

The agency was pleased, but when Zlatkovsky asked where the cartoon would be published, the commissioners looked at him in disbelief: "It's not going to be published anywhere in the Soviet Union!" they exclaimed. "We'll just distribute it in the West to show that we have real democracy."

As Mr Gorbachev's perestroika gathered force, the sham freedom of expression became more and more real, and then came the Yeltsin era. Western reminiscences of the Yeltsin period as halcyon days of media freedom and democracy often gloss over the many flaws of the time. In fact, local and national media were widely used to serve business and oligarchic interests, and the media agreed to play by Kremlin rules to get Yeltsin reelected in 1996 and ward off the Communist threat. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the opportunity for satire and humour was far greater during the 1990s.

"Satirists ought to build a monument to Yeltsin," says Zlatkovsky. "Of course there was a lot wrong with those times, but in comparison to what we have now it was a golden age."

Many newspapers employed cartoonists to poke fun at the government, mocking Yeltsin's drinking and ailing health. Television also got in on the act. NTV's Kukly, a Russian version of Spitting Image, was merciless in its mocking of the ageing Russian president and his dubious entourage, and drew enormous viewing figures. When Mr Putin was made prime minister, and then acting president, a puppet of the neophyte politician soon appeared and became one of the stars of the show.

In one Putin sketch, he is portrayed as a young king on his wedding day, marrying a woman called Federation (the Russian Federation). Egged on by cronies and advisers, he takes Russia into his bedroom but finds himself impotent and does not know what to do with his bride. In another sketch, Mr Putin is portrayed as a malevolent baby who is put under a spell by a fairy-like Boris Berezovsky, who was then seen as the kingmaker in Russian politics.

Like Zlatkovsky's Putin cartoons, there was not much future for Kukly. Shortly after Mr Putin was inaugurated in May 2000, the channel got calls from the Kremlin requiring that the Putin puppet be removed from the show. The show was eventually axed. Comparing its biting satire and merciless mocking of top political figures with the bland variety shows and sitcoms that pass for comedy on Russian television today, it's hard to believe they are products of the same country.

Yuly Gusman, a satirist and head of the Russian Film Academy, agrees. "Yeltsin can be reproached for many things," he told Radio Liberty. "But he attached great value to freedom of speech and of the press which attacked him and bit him. He ground his teeth but bore it all."

Gusman presented a film award ceremony in Moscow earlier this year, and made a light-hearted joke to the audience that nobody knew who the real president was these days. A spoof film of Mr Putin as a tsar with Mr Medvedev as his son was also shown. But during the televised coverage of the ceremony, all of this was cut.

For now, the internet remains a place where Russians can laugh at their leaders, and blogs and websites are full of Putin jokes. In one joke currently doing the rounds, Mr Putin calls an aide to his office and says that as he is standing down, arrangements need to be made for every eventuality. He sends his advisers to Israel and instructs them to arrange for him to be buried next to Jesus, whatever the cost. After painful negotiations with all the parties involved, the aide returns and says that the plans are sorted but it will cost $10bn. "Ten billion dollars?!" asks Putin incredulously. "For three days?!"

But many fear that as Mr Putin prepares to leave the Kremlin next week, even the internet is coming further under governmental control. Purposefully vague "anti-extremist" laws have been used against websites critical of authorities. Last week, the internet site of a local paper was closed after users wrote derogatory remarks about local authorities on the paper's blog.

"The authorities fear satire and mockery more than anything else," says Zlatkovsky. "Nothing dents their aura of greatness like satire."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick