23 October 2016

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Russian satirist Shenderovich: Putin will continue to torment Ukraine. We have resources for that.

In an interview with UNIAN, a Russian satirist and legendary journalist Viktor Shenderovich explains how the Russian society and the Russian media has changed over the past 16 years. He has come up with a rather disappointing forecast for Ukraine: Putin will continue to torment our country, in order to embellish the internal problems in Russia against this background.

Shenderovich explained how Russian society has changed / Photo from UNIAN
Shenderovich explained how Russian society has changed / Photo from UNIAN

Russia sees a rapidly decreasing number of opponents of the current government. Many of the dissidents are becoming conformists, many choose to flee the country, while those remaining prefer to keep a low profile, and even more so, to avoid public political debate. The legendary satirist, TV host, journalist and human rights activist Viktor Shenderovich is anything but the latter. Shenderovich complains that Ukrainian journalists have been asking identical questions lately, although he does not accuse his colleagues of notorious Ukraine-centrism. Our conversation dwelled on the topic of Russia itself – Russian journalism, Russian society, and survival in the present circumstances. The discussion happened to gain a philosophical twist. However, the ideas voiced by Shenderovich let us realize that no peace with Ukraine’s northern neighbor should be expected anytime soon.

In the late Soviet Union, and then - in Russia – there used to be high public demand for satire. Today, there’s no satire. They say that humor and satire are vital for the nation – they help maintain a critical world view. In this sense, what is to be done about the Russians whose choice of humor has boiled down to corny jokes about "stupid Americans"?

There definitely is a demand for satire. The acuter the problem, the more authoritarian the government and the smaller the range of the ways for the public to channel its reaction - through the parliament, courts, rallies, and media – the greater the demand for satire! In Uzbekistan, I believe, the demand for satire is huge ... It’s just that in contrast to England, it is impossible to imagine a caricature of the father of the nation on a front page there. Same thing with us.

But the holy place is never empty, and the water will find its way. That what at the times of [Boris] Yeltsin’s rule found its way through "Kukly" [Viktor Shenderovich’s satirical TV show involving puppets of representatives of Russia’s top political elite] reemerges in Putin’s Russia through memes, caricatures, and jokes... A huge amount of first-class satire can be found on Runet. Its absence on television is a serious problem, indeed. What we witness is an absolute degradation: a minimum level of self-irony, the increasing aggression - against the Americans, the “hohols” [a derogatory term used in Russia for Ukrainians], anyone. Under Putin, yet another generation of Russians is growing, focused on the external aggression, not self-examination and self-irony. Satire is always directed inwards! The satire of Jonathan Swift is against the Brits, satire of Saltykov-Shchedrin is against the Russians. This is a mirror put in front of a nation, and this is a chance for common sense. Meanwhile, state propaganda satire – jokes about Obama or Clinton – is something completely different.

Again, the Soviet citizens were sort of “vaccinated" against radio and TV. Why aren’t the young Russians immune to it, while the senior citizens’ defenses have failed? Why do people believe in propaganda and nonsense so easily?

Today the situation is, in some ways, worse than it was in the Soviet Union. Indeed, there used to be a vaccine: no one believed in communism. It was a dead ideology, which was meant to be filled – and it was filled - with something new. Now we are dealing with the aggravation of the imperial ideology. This bacterium is now in its active phase: nationalism and imperial topic have really captured the masses thanks to Putin's television during these fifteen years of Putin’s rule...

Then here’s a question about the bacteria, or rather, the "hazardous transmitter stations" of modern Russia. You probably know in person some of the stars of the Russian journalism, so popular nowadays: Dmitry Kiselev, Vladimir Solovyov [both TV hosts of Russian propaganda shows], and the incarnation of manipulation management, Konstantin Ernst [CEO of Russia’s Channel 1]. According to your observations, how are they overcoming the cognitive dissonance? They lie and they know that they lie; they voice nonsense, and they know that it’s nonsense; they manipulate, and they know it. What is the secret to these people’s mental stability?

These are very different cases, I suppose. Ernst, in my impression, is in a state of strong cognitive dissonance - and somehow trying to agree with himself that he is a decent person. But these two [Soloviev and Kiselev] are people quite solid; l think they have long ceased to experience any internal disagreements with themselves. Life is good, they converted their small talents into state status and financing. I think they do not have any problems. But Ernst somehow still reflects upon what he used to be, but it’s too late after these news pieces of "crucified little boys".

I’m no priest for this sweet trio. It is a curious case, and I'm trying to explore these characters in my texts. But literature is one thing. Another thing is that in the story of the downed Malaysian Boeing, the conversation went beyond the discussion of quality journalism – whether it’s good or bad. This is pure criminal act, complicity in concealing a serious criminal offense. And I hope that one day it will become a legal issue, not a just a case for publicists.

The only relatively independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, where our colleagues are trying to stay real reporters, is not very popular. It is clearly not for the masses in its style. Why is that? Is it some kind of the intellectuals’ snobbery, lack of foresight, or a conscious choice - this struggle for the minds of only a certain segment of the audience?

Dozhd is what distinguishes us from the conditional Uzbekistan, where even such thing is impossible. This is the gap between the eastern political archaic and modern Europe. On the one hand, some liberal context is still there, on the other hand - the authorities have put efforts into making it become available for a very narrow circle of audience. In Russia, there are several million people who are a cut-off slice for the authorities, in a sense: the audience of Dozhd TV channel will not vote for Putin, but he doesn’t need it anyway. In the 140-million country, these three million affect nothing. Dozhd has been put in a paid content segment, plus a huge number of restrictions have been imposed... For example, I was repeatedly invited to Dozhd to do satirical shows, and just as repeatedly, these proposals dissolved, after some top level consultations. “Not agreed" – that’s what they call it. "Echo of Moscow" is in the similar situation. It’s like speaking in a padded cell - you can do it freely while inside, as in a madhouse – you sit in your cell and speak. There are some 2-3 million people in this chamber. In Benelux, this would affect the fate of elections, but in Russia – the situation will stay within the statistical error.

Photo from UNIAN
Photo from UNIAN

And what is the main problem of Ukrainian media? I would like to hear the view from the other side.

I think nothing about the Ukrainian media, because I don’t know them. I come to Ukraine as a guest and do not know these details; I have enough of the Russian ones. I suspect that Ukrainian journalism, as elsewhere, is varying. I have no doubt that you have some wonderful journalists, and you have servants, pretending to be journalists. For me, this path is closed. I can’t be a lancer in a foreign country, and I don’t want to. With my genre, that is impossible, although many of my colleagues have moved to Ukraine and became Ukrainian stars. I treat them differently, to put it mildly.

In 2010, after the publication of a fake "intimate video", you wrote a very strong and outspoken blog entry. The most remarkable thing in it was a feeling of total surveillance, monitoring, intrusion into the personal life of a person by the state. I think you were the first one to start talking about it after the collapse of the Union. In recent years, this intrusion has escalated significantly, and not only in Russia. It’s just that in Russia, it happens to be particularly brutal, even official. How can one survive it? How is one to live, trying to keep their private life to themselves, in the circumstances when this private life is being taken away, with the legislation being molded to justify such a lousy act?

More exactly, it is not a private intrusion into other people’s lives. It’s the intrusion by the state! Behind that series of provocations against the opposition figures stood the state structures and state capabilities. This is the "big brother". The next step is a political assassination, and that step was taken very soon... Everyone decides for themselves, how to react to it. Someone flees, someone halts their activity. I assume that my enemies are aware of everything I do, write in my correspondence, or discuss on the phone; and that this can be used publicly. I assume this and continue my work. I have committed nothing of a criminal nature, unlike them. And here it is important to emphasize that it has long ceased to be about different opinions, it’s about straight up criminal offenses...

On differences in opinions... Russian TV began to speculate on the "Jewish question" recently. REN-TV has aired a documentary in which they presented the Jews as those to blame for all global catastrophes of the last century. Are “pogroms” to be the next thing?

There are  two topics touched here. The first is the topic of the eternal domestic anti-Semitism, not only in Russia: it can be Ukrainian, Ugandan, French, American, whatever... But there is a state-run anti-Semitism, and this right here is really dangerous. Experience shows that countries in which anti-Semitism becomes government policy see a bad finish. It is not about the Jews - they are just an indicator. Because after the Jews, the victims will be intellectuals, or anyone who is “different”. This is a tolerance test, while the Jews, traditionally, are the first ones in the list of “different ones". Then go sexual and religious minorities, just people with other views. It was not by chance that the Soviet propaganda made Andrei Sakharov a Jew. It is a very symptomatic and accurate remark: he is "different", so why can’t he be a Jew? It will be clearer for the public if he’s a Jew...

I cannot but ask a dangerous question. Why is the Russian society, so prone to xenophobia in principle, not liking the Jews, hating the Americans, despising the “hohols” and Chinese, ridiculing Kyrgyz and Tajiks, screaming about Orthodoxy and spiritual ties, - why is it either loyal, or indifferent, to Islam? That is, we hear: "Russian World", Russia is its center, and the attribute of the Russian world is Orthodoxy. You’re your bikers are Orthodox, while Orthodoxy is a synonym for Russia. At the same time, Russia is becoming increasingly Islamized. The issue of female circumcision has even become a subject of discussion, an acceptable tradition. At the same time, there is no global Russian-Islam discourse. Is there not a contradiction? And why does this contradiction remain unnoticed by the Russian people?

The virus of xenophobia roams through the body and finds its ways out with very different symptoms. It’s another question, whether it is poured into disliking Jews, Asians, Caucasians, or, say, Ukrainians. During Putin’s rule, we’ve had plenty of “main enemies of Russia”: Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Georgians ... Putin does not live without enemies. A theme of orthodox Islam is the topic very painful for the world. Russia in this sense remains at the periphery of the problem, but the problems are accumulated. As usual, the position of Russia is very ambiguous: staying with the Western world by its words, in fact, it supports very dangerous regimes, including those ideologically tied with the most aggressive forms of Islam. We are on friendly terms with Hamas, so what are we talking about?...We have our own radical clerics, the Orthodox... Former press secretary of the Russian Orthodox Church Chaplin recently talked about the benefits of physical destruction of the enemies: here's our Mullah Omar, hello there. So I really don’t see any difference, what the reasons are for the fanatics to destroy me. They all have the same price for me.

Based on your observations of Russian society and the state, what should Ukrainians expect from Russia?

I am no psychic. The only thing I can say based on common sense is that as long as Putin is in power in Russia, you will find no peace. Putin in peacetime is a loser who has lost all that is possible, both in the economy and in foreign policy. In peacetime, he is a "lame duck", a not-so-legitimate leader, who has seized power, plunged the currency, led the economy into stagnation, provoked the flight of capital from Russia and the brain drain... Putin’s only political chance is "Russia is surrounded by enemies." Therefore, the enemies are being constantly created and recreated, as he can’t do without them. Putin needs to feed his population with anxiety, distract the nation and maintain pressure: it’s war, comrades – there’s no time to deal with the economy! It is difficult to say what he will come up with and what the scale size of new provocations will be. But one thing is clear that he will not stop and he intends to maintain the tension in Ukraine. Here there is also a public relations thing. Russia is unable to make itself prosper; the economic situation for the Russians has been worsening; and in this situation, Putin needs a good background. The torn, impoverished and dependent Ukraine – this is a perfect background! Putin will definitely continue to torment Ukraine. We have resources for that.

Roman Tsimbalyuk, Moscow

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