Today, after years of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule, it is difficult to imagine that two decades ago one of Russia’s major television channels could regularly lampoon the country’s leaders in a puppet show (titled Puppets, or Kukly in Russian). In late November, that show’s head writer, veteran Russian broadcaster and author Victor Shenderovich, was on an American tour—primarily for Russian-Jewish immigrant audiences—with a retrospective titled “Puppets Twenty Years Later.” We met for a brief interview in downtown Manhattan shortly before his appearance at the Coney Island YM-YWHA in Brooklyn.
Shenderovich’s program, a mix of clips and reminiscences, was a nostalgic glimpse into a time when the winds of change had just blown away the Soviet state and the Russian media basked in their liberation. Puppets, inspired by the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image and aired on the independent network NTV, routinely skewered President Boris Yeltsin and his entourage, along with other Russian pols. In a 1995 skit Shenderovich screened, Yeltsin and his Cabinet have to survive on an average Russian retiree’s pension; Yeltsin is reduced to panhandling on the metro while toting a “baby”—his chief of staff wrapped in a blanket.
Even in those liberal years, the government responded with an attempt at censorship: a criminal complaint accusing the show of “insult in obscene form.” But the charge was soon dropped, and Puppets thrived and became hugely popular.
A few years later, the winds of change blew in another direction, turning chilly as the KGB-bred Putin succeeded Yeltsin and began tightening the screws. While the Puppets’ Yeltsin was a tipsy, inept buffoon, its Putin was a sinister gnome. “Little Zaches,” a skit based on the fairy tale by the 19th century German writer E.T.A. Hoffman, cast Putin as the ugly, malevolent changeling who manages to appear handsome and brilliant thanks to a magical spell, and achieves success and power before he is exposed and disgraced.
“Little Zaches,” Shenderovich told the audience at the Y, almost certainly sped up independent NTV’s already inevitable demise. The skit aired in January 2000; in May, NTV’s offices were raided in a supposed tax investigation. The following year, a strong-arm deal resulted in the network’s takeover by the state-controlled Gazprom corporation; in 2002, Kukly was shut down. Two other TV channels where Shenderovich briefly hosted political shows did not last long, either.
Putin’s Russia, for all its repressiveness, is not quite the USSR; Shenderovich, an outspoken regime critic, can not only travel abroad but appear on the radio in Russia (Ekho Moskvy, also owned by a Gazprom branch but largely allowed editorial independence as a showcase for freedom of the press), write for a surviving liberal magazine, publish books, and occasionally give public readings. He even got to show his Puppets retrospective at a Moscow concert hall in early November. But he is a nonperson on Russian television, still the country’s principal medium, and his dissident status carries tangible risks. His face has appeared on posters denouncing “fifth columnists”; his fellow Ekho Moskvy staffers have been assaulted. Yet Shenderovich, a short, wiry, energetic man who looks young at 59 despite his gray-streaked beard, remains undaunted and cheerful.
As we sat down in a Greenwich Village café (a Chinese place where Shenderovich ordered a very Russian cup of tea), I asked if he had any inkling, in the heyday of Puppets, that the freedoms he and his colleagues were enjoying could be so short-lived.
“No, of course not,” Shenderovich told me. “I say ‘of course,’ because people never learn from the experience of others. In the early ‘90s and especially later, there was a sense that there had been a truly radical change.” Yet once Putin came to power, Shenderovich believes he and his colleagues at NTV were among the first to see what was happening: “Many others had illusions about Putin for years. For me, everything was more or less clear from the moment NTV was crushed. It wasn’t just a new administration but new rules of the game and a new historical era.”
Could the resurgent authoritarianism could have been stopped? Was there a point of no return?
Shenderovich readily names three: The NTV takeover (“The destruction of the free press is what all tyrants start with”), businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s conviction on trumped-up fraud charges, and the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis in which 330 hostages—including nearly 200 children—were killed when security forces stormed the building. Putin promptly used the tragedy as a pretext to abolish elections of governors; but that, to Shenderovich, is almost a postscript. “A country that can swallow the murder of its own children for political ratings is a country you can use in any way you like; which is, of course, exactly what was done.”
Yet, from a long-term perspective, Shenderovich believes that supporters of liberal democracy in Russia probably lost as early as 1992—because they let their guard down, believing they had won when the hardline coup was defeated in 1991 and the Soviet Union was dissolved. As he put it, “In 1992, we were still celebrating the victory of democracy; meanwhile, democracy was going down the drain.” Yeltsin distanced himself from reformers and surrounded himself with a new nomenklatura, unaccountable Soviet-style bureaucracy; “the generals,” military and security brass, captured influential posts; and the “red-and-browns”—communists and ultranationalists—came to dominate parliament.
“Yeltsin was one of us for too long. We saw him as our leader who represented our interests,” Shenderovich told me. “When we woke up, it was too late.” Part of the problem, in his view, is that Russian liberals have never had the knack or patience for the day-to-day work of good governance: “Our national mentality is oriented toward the heroic feat: Beating Hitler, or coming out to resist the coup leaders and their tanks. But obeying the traffic lights, keeping the streets clean, and flushing the toilet—our heroes can’t be bothered with that.” As for Putin’s ascension, Shenderovich sees it as merely “the symptom of democracy’s degradation.”
Russia-watchers in the West have spent a lot of time debating the question of whether Putin is a true believer who sees himself as championing Russia’s national interest, or a power-hungry cynic. Shenderovich has a very definite opinion on the man he has so mercilessly ridiculed in so much of his satire: “One doesn’t become an ideologue at 50. This man was a quiet nomenklatura mouse; by the time he was made heir to the throne, about 1 percent of Russians had even heard of him. Of course he’s not an ideologue; there’s nothing passionate about him. What happened is that the Lubyanka [KGB] corporation seized power in the country, and he turned out to be a symbol of this process. Later on, if we’re going to talk about Putin’s personal case—when someone spends 15 years listening to his own hired propagandists tell him he’s the national savior, even the most stable man will go mad. The funniest and scariest thing that happens to authoritarian leaders is that they start believing their own propaganda. Putin has apparently started believing it. Hence his peculiar Orthodoxy, which has nothing to do with Christ, and his deeply ingrained messianic idea. It’s the thought, salutary to his consciousness, that he has a mission to play a historic role in saving Russia. If you scrub that messianic idea from his poor head, he’s nothing more than a usurper and a thief; all that’s left is a dozen very serious articles of the penal code.”
Shenderovich takes an equally cynical view of Putin’s legendary ratings among the Russian public. (He has written, and performed, a darkly hilarious sketch in which a Russian citizen gets a phone call from a pollster asking for his opinion of Putin and grows increasingly panicked as he tries to answer.) “A rating in the sense in which you use the word simply doesn’t exist in authoritarian regimes,” he told me when I posed the question. “Saddam Hussein also had a rating of 100 percent, and then those same people tore down his statues. So forget the word ‘rating.’ We will know Putin’s rating when he can appear on TV with, say, [Alexei] Navalny” (the anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist) “and they can ask each other questions and lay out the facts, and when this continues for about six months. Right now, what we have is not a rating; it’s propaganda and its results.”
That exchange logically segued into my next question: Is America facing its own authoritarian perils in the age of Trump? Shenderovich was dismissive of the idea. “You can calm down. Trump is another president of the United States of America. His maximum term in office is limited—and that’s if he does finish it out. In America, there is no question of usurpation of power; there is no question of the man who is elected president becoming king of the mountain.”
Indeed, Shenderovich thinks that “the whole Trump story characterizes the American system quite optimistically”: It shows that an outsider can get elected when the voters get fed up with both parties’ established elites (“it turns out that there’s a population that comes in and votes the way it wants”), that election results will be respected even if the establishment hates them (“no special forces came out to defend Obama or Hillary Clinton”), and that even a president with authoritarian instincts will be kept in check by the independent judiciary and the free press. Nor is he particularly fazed by the Trump-Putin love affair—which he sees as more of a mutual quandary, with Trump in trouble from the investigation of his ties to Russia and Putin in trouble because his apparent attempt to “buy” Trump has backfired. “Without this, he would have remained on the periphery of America’s consciousness, and no one would have cared much about him,” Shenderovich told me. “Now, the focus is on him, and this does not bode well for him.”
If there’s a reason to be concerned about the future of American democracy, Shenderovich told me, it’s not Trump’s authoritarianism or the Putin connection; it’s the extreme polarization of society and the lack of dialogue, which he sees among his pro-Trump and anti-Trump Russian immigrant friends, and “the partisanship of the media, which is completely obvious to an ex-Soviet person. The press is partisan—fortunately, bipartisan: There’s CNN and there’s Fox News. But it’s still dangerous.”
In spite of these concerns, Shenderovich is confident that America will survive Trump. His prognosis for Russia is much less sanguine. “There are three possibilities: evolution or development, stagnation, or explosion,” Shenderovich told me. “Russia missed the fork in the road that leads to evolution in 2012, because under Putin there can be no evolution. The choice is between stagnation and explosion; I would bet on stagnation. Russia has a lot of resources, we will still be able to feed ourselves and buy iPhones. But as the world moves forward, we will be left by the wayside—an oil-and-gas patch on the periphery of the globe, living better than Somalia but worse than Poland.”
Yet, on stage in Coney Island a day after our conversation, Shenderovich offered a somewhat brighter vision. At the start of the program, he reminisced about the moment in the late 1980s when he realized that change in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was real: the moment he opened a liberal newspaper to see a cartoon poking fairly mild fun at Gorbachev. (Later, he would learn that the cartoonist, Mikhail Zlatkovsky, had originally been commissioned to draw Gorbachev by the KGB—for Western consumption as proof of democratization in the USSR.) At the end of the evening, he told audience that there is a sure way to know when Russia is back on the path to meaningful change and to a free society: “It will happen the day we pick up a newspaper and see a satirical cartoon of the leader. We don’t know who that leader we be, and we don’t even know what the country he runs will be called; but that will be a sign that things are different.”
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard