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Vladimir Putin is spoofed on the Internet

The videos feature some of Russia’s most famous actors, writers, directors, musicians and other VIPs, all united by the heartfelt slogan: “Why I am voting for Putin.”

Violist Yuri Bashmet compares Russian leader Vladimir Putin to the great violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, saying that his “golden period is yet far ahead.”

One of the country’s most loved actors, Oleg Tabakov, says Putin has his vote in the March 4 presidential election because he “wants to be good and honest.”

As soon as the clips started airing on Russia’s heavily controlled major television networks, the Internet empire struck back.

One user posted a picture of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin raising eyebrows over the phrase, “Why I am voting for our Lord Emperor.” Pushkin is known to have been exiled and had his poetry personally censored by Emperor Nicholas I.

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Another went further, posting a portrait of Putin with a clipped mustache and shock of black hair and the inscription: “Why I am voting for Hitler.”

In the course of the swift and getting-dirtier-by-the-day presidential race that Putin is widely expected to win, he has had to suffer unprecedented humiliation. Much like the authoritarian Chinese leadership, the Kremlin has found it difficult to control the rebellious Internet, let alone protect itself from the biting satire that has been the dissident weapon of choice throughout a Russian history rich in suppression.

It is perhaps not coincidental that one of the first television shows that Putin got rid of after coming to power was the sarcastic puppet show “Kukly,” which in the early 2000s portrayed him as Klein Zaches, a mean and ambitious dwarf from a 19th century tale by the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Putin is quite aware of “the dirty attacks” against him on the Internet but ignores them and doesn’t feel in the least taken aback by them, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“It is all extremely unpleasant, but it is also marginal in its effect, as it aims at people who virtually live in the Internet and their numbers are insignificant compared with the support Putin gets from the rest of the Russian population,” Peskov said in a telephone interview. “We are not going to look for those who make up these things, and we are not planning to sue them in court because it is useless as we won’t catch them in the end, it being Internet and all.”

But if the numbers are so insignificant, how then to explain the 3-million-plus hits for a YouTube spoof that hit the Internet last week?

In a scene that clearly is meant to echo the politicized trials of imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a defendant stands alone in a courtroom cage, shy and timid.

“What is your nationality?” the judge asks. “A citizen of the Russian Federation,” the frail man, eyes cast downward, answers almost inaudibly in the unmistakable rapid clatter of sounds that Russians know so well from Putin’s marathon prime-time TV call-in shows, endless televised reports of motorcycle trips, hunting escapades and diving tours, not to mention daily meetings with workers, intellectuals, scientists and farmers.

The man who has ruled Russia with an iron hand for more than a decade faces a set of sinister charges, including abuse of power, fraud, theft and organizing terrorist acts to intimidate citizens, a monotonous voice-over recounts.

Peskov acknowledged that the quality of this and other spoofs he called “virus clips” was very high.

“It is no secret how many enemies Putin has and how they are ready to spend any amount of money to blacken him,” he said.

The Internet was also quick to seize on a recent slip by Putin’s chief of campaign staff, filmmaker Stanislav S. Govorukhin. In a newspaper interview, he said that under Putin, the notorious Russian corruption has acquired “civilized” forms.

Govorukhin is famous and respected in the country largely for his 1979 Soviet crime miniseries, in which a tough but good cop pronounced the catchphrase that became the series’ slogan: “A thief must sit in prison.”

Govorukhin could hardly imagine how the whole thing could haunt the current campaign more than three decades later.

The day after his “civilized corruption” comment, some resourceful Internet user posted on Facebook a photo collage in which Govorukhin and Putin face each other across the table in the foreground. Behind them is a Kremlin tower with these words flying in the dark sky over it: “A thief must sit in the Kremlin.”

But the campaign manager surmised in the interview that “this anti-Putin hysteria” actually mobilizes people in the provinces to stand up for Putin and makes his victory easier. Govorukhin said he doesn’t use the Internet, something his boss, by his own admission, isn’t very fond of, either.

“The Internet is, after all, a big garbage bin,” Govorukhin said. “I have no time for it.”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com


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