Three weeks after becoming Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has pressured the NTV television channel to censor its broadcasts of Russia's most popular television entertainment program. The show is called "Kukly," and it stars a cast of puppets.
These aren't just any puppets. They're satirical versions of Russia's highest ranking leaders. The "Kukly" writers have built up an enormous viewing audience by skewering the arrogance and pomposity of Kremlin politicians.
One of the program's more offensive episodes aired a few months ago, during Putin's election campaign, portraying him as a Japanese robe-wearing playboy being serviced by a bevy of painted-up prostitutes (i.e. his political cronies). This sketch, which may well have pushed Putin over the edge, depicted State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzkov as the madams of rival brothels.
The Zyuganov puppet wore full-on S/M regalia, with tight black leather and a whip. Putin's character was shown visiting the brothel and choosing between the available hookers, all of whom were eager to service him. Igor Igoshin, a member of the Duma's Agrarian faction, told a parliament committee that he and his colleagues were "deeply appalled by the depiction of the State Duma as a brothel and our leaders as prostitutes." He added that programs like "Kukly" "have nothing to do with freedom and democracy." Russian officials have watched the puppet show for years with disdain, but former president Boris Yeltsin always refused to prosecute it.
That was then. Putin is a different beast. He hates the media, and has accused some journalists of being "traitors." And he certainly doesn't want a national television audience watching his puppet visage strutting around in a silk robe and consorting with ladies of the evening. "This show is more damaging to Putin's reputation than any criticism from the Communists or other politicians," says Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
"Kukly" creators boast that their program's popularity rating is higher than that of the Communists. "Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] was the one who dubbed politicians 'political prostitutes,' and he meant the Communists -- so they should be the last ones to take offense. I only developed Lenin's thesis ... it's just been a long time since we last witnessed such a great illustration of the metaphor," said Viktor Shenderovich, one of the show's writers.
But historical context does not matter to Putin the playboy. The Kremlin applied pressure to the network, and the "Kukly" creators backed down. "In order not to fan the flames, if someone high up is so worried about a rubber puppet of the president ... we have decided to try an experiment: We will try one program without the Putin puppet," said NTV anchorman Yevgeny Kiselyov. Other NTV spokesmen said they were uncertain whether the Putin puppet will return.