Viktor Shenderovich, Russia's sharpest political wit, should be the most tragic of clowns. Once, his audience ran into the millions. Now he's been silenced, deprived of his television stage.
But Shenderovich, too scathing and risky for Moscow's TV bosses, insists he isn't downhearted that he can't appear on television. "The fact I have dropped off the television screen is not really a personal drama," he said. "For me, it's an alarming sign of the times."
Shenderovich is under an unofficial ban. He may be the best political satirist in the country, but no one in Russian television will touch him.
"There's been a change of atmosphere," he said. "The television channels are visibly adopting a more Soviet style.
"It makes me feel 25 years younger when I see 'Vremya' on Channel One," he said, referring to the main news program on state television. "We've gone back to the same intonation, the same editing patterns and the same inability to find out any information."
In the past three years, Russia's faltering steps to a free media have been sharply curtailed under President Vladimir Putin. Shenderovich's weekly TV program, a biting satirical puppet show called "Kukly," died in June, and so has independent television in Russia.
One national television boss bluntly told Shenderovich that in today's political climate, with elections approaching, it was impossible to show his face on TV, or even his name. He could write comic material for light entertainment shows -- but only under a pseudonym, with no political references. It was an offer Shenderovich rejected without regret.
Instead, he pens a column for Gazeta newspaper, circulation 60,000, writes a radio spot and wanders the globe, performing as a stand-up comic for expatriate Russians at tiny theaters and community halls. He wheels into California this week, in search of a Russian-speaking audience.
Shenderovich gained fame in the mid-1990s as the writer of "Kukly," which savagely lampooned Russia's political elite on the then-independent station NTV. At the time, Shenderovich said the nature of satire was to upset political leaders: The clown's job was to upset the king.
Since 1994, the show's writers had been penning jokes that mauled then-President Boris N. Yeltsin and the political elite. Each week, they put their heads down and waited for the explosion. In 1995, Russia's general prosecutor launched a criminal case against the weekly show, but the case fizzled.
The show went on getting cheekier and cheekier, particularly with the rise of Putin. But Putin, elected president in 2000, took exception to "Kukly" and the bulgy-eyed, malevolent Putin puppet.
After his election, "Kukly" portrayed Putin as a nervous czar terrified of his fat bride -- representing Russia -- who waited, calling him eagerly from the bridal suite.
"But she's so big. I don't have experience with anything of this scale," the Putin puppet whispered timidly to his aides.
"Just do what we've all done to her," one of them urged.
Later that year, Kremlin officials quietly warned NTV management that the station had no future unless it took the Putin puppet off the air and changed its coverage. Shenderovich immediately announced that the Putin doll would stay.
Today, the show is gone and NTV limps along, now under state control, a timid shadow of its former self, careful never to upset the Kremlin. NTV's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, fled criminal charges to live in exile and is now facing a Greek extradition hearing.
Now Shenderovich faces a long stint in the desert, but he's not afraid to voice his opposition to what Putin is doing.
"If things in Russia keep going at this rate, we'll be eased out, forced to become dissidents in the Soviet sense of the word," he said, referring to the intellectuals and writers sent to the gulag as opponents of the Communist regime.
"My friends and I are not kamikazes. We try to find compromises. We are trying to stay in the media. But you have to know where compromise ends and defeat begins and to know the point where you have given everything away. If I began to praise the war in Chechnya, they would find me a job at any national television station tomorrow, but I wouldn't be able to practice my journalism anymore."
Most people attribute Putin's desire to clamp down on negative media coverage to his KGB past and authoritarian instincts, but Shenderovich believes the president has an inferiority complex and can't stand criticism.
"If it was only Putin's personal problem, it would be a happy thing for Russia, but it's become our problem too."
Shenderovich's father was an engineer who began writing satire in the Soviet era, in the thaw after the Stalin period, but he could find no one willing to publish his work. It was the same for the son when he started writing satire in his early 20s. Then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched glasnost, or openness, in the mid-1980s, enabling the media to air criticisms and expose problems. Suddenly, Shenderovich had a market.
"I feel as though I inherited my father's soul and intellect. I have been luckier in my era than he was in his," Shenderovich said. His parents are still alive. His mother has always worried something could happen to him because of his work.
Shenderovich acknowledges he has little future as a satirist under Putin's leadership. The real questions are what happens beyond and when the next political cycle will begin.
But until he is free to write what he wants -- under his own name -- Shenderovich is content to remain an outsider.
"I will wait. I'm not in a hurry.
"I was born under Khrushchev and I have lived under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. So somehow I believe I'll see the next ruler.
"And I'll still have a lot of things to say then. The most important thing is not to squander my reputation in the meantime, so that when I am allowed to address the public of Russia again, there will still be people who want to listen to me."
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