No laughing matter: Cartoons and the Kremlin

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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."

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