The New York Times reports:
It is not, from a purely technical standpoint, impossible to make fun of Vladimir V. Putin. His head is shaped a bit like a light bulb, with eyes that are heavy-lidded, as if to convey that he has just been reading your dossier. He has a needle nose, a prizefighter’s swagger and a fondness for posing shirtless. If all else fails, there is always the matter of height.
But caricatures of the Russian prime minister long ago vanished from state-controlled television. Ten years ago, the creators of the show “Kukly” came under such pressure from the Kremlin to retire their grotesque puppet of Mr. Putin that they responded, rather sardonically, by depicting him as a burning bush. The show was eventually canceled, and caution has prevailed since then. A talk show, “Real Politics,” included Mr. Putin in cartoons, but he was seen only from the neck down.
So it came as a surprise on Friday morning a few minutes after midnight when 3-D animations of Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev appeared on a New Year’s special on Channel One, Russia’s leading channel. The two figures performed a soft-shoe on Red Square, singing slightly raunchy doggerel about gas pipelines and Ukrainian debt. Hardly shocking stuff, except for this: Mr. Putin’s and Mr. Medvedev’s figures are being added to the regular cast of “Mult Lichnosti,” a biweekly show lampooning public figures, according to Konstantin L. Ernst, the channel’s director.
Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political consultant who advises the Kremlin, said “the ability to joke is appearing” after a long pause that he attributed mostly to fear.
“So far, there is a very careful selection of targets,” said Mr. Pavlovsky, who hosted “Real Politics” for three years. “But I think nothing frightening will happen if that selection is lifted. Of course, it cannot happen overnight, because there is still a sense that the president should be above the fray, at a higher level, a level where he cannot be hit by a rotten apple.”
Mr. Ernst said he was exploring a sharper-edged humor because younger viewers demanded it. One of the channel’s recent success stories is “Projector Paris Hilton,” in which four comedians riff ironically on current events, à la Jon Stewart. He said he was not obliged to consult with the Kremlin while developing animations of Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, but allowed that “we have to be careful.”
“One shouldn’t do anything insulting,” he said. “You can insult someone in show business, because a person like that is selling himself, and does not answer for anything else. Whereas the president and prime minister also represent the work they do. When you insult one of them, you insult many things at once. In any case, our authors have no desire to insult them.” He added, “There are some jokes that are unpleasant, but don’t injure your heart.”
But critics of the government say there is no sign that political satire will be allowed to return to Russia’s airwaves, which have become squarely supportive of the nation’s leaders.
The first three episodes of “Mult Lichnosti” (the name translates as “cartoon personalities” but is a play on the Russian for “cult of personality”) dole out their harshest treatment to safe targets: pop stars and politicians out of favor with the Kremlin.
President Viktor A. Yushchenko of Ukraine is shown in a wheat field, idly inflating balloons with Russian natural gas diverted from a pipeline. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia lustily consumes his own tie. President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus sits in a wooden hut, so aching for a call from Moscow that he pays an impersonator to mimic Mr. Putin’s voice.
American leaders are there too: President Obama, perpetually dribbling a basketball, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, mooning over Russia’s foreign minister like a lovesick schoolgirl. Only Russia’s leaders, it seems, are immune.
Until they come in for equal ridicule, this is not satire, said Viktor A. Shenderovich, who wrote scripts for “Kukly” and has since become an opposition activist. He recalled an old joke: An American and a Soviet are debating free speech. The American boasts that he can go to the White House and yell “Reagan is an idiot” with no consequences. The Soviet proudly says that he is equally free to go to Red Square and yell “Reagan is an idiot.”
“A satirist is someone who criticizes the authorities,” Mr. Shenderovich said. “So Jon Stewart criticized Bush, and now he criticizes Obama. Because regardless of where his sympathies lie, that’s where the power is. And on this show there is no Kadyrov, no Putin, no Medvedev.” Ramzan A. Kadyrov is president of the Russian republic of Chechnya.
“It’s a simulation,” Mr. Shenderovich said, “and a simulation of satire might be worse than an absence of satire.”
It is unclear whether the ruling tandem will face real mockery on future episodes of “Mult Lichnosti.” But close observers of Russian television — and some inside it — say the boundaries of televised humor do seem to be expanding, if slowly.
Arina Borodina, who covers television for the newspaper Kommersant, said she was struck by recent episodes of “Projector Paris Hilton” in which the hosts “carefully, and I stress carefully,” made fun of such things as the emblem of the Sochi Olympics and Mr. Putin’s four-hour televised question-and-answer session. That edgy humor, rare on television, paid off last year, vaulting the show into the 20 most popular, she said.
Vladimir V. Pozner, who hosts a political talk show on Channel One, described the change as “much slower than a turtle.” But he said executives were under pressure to engage a younger and more sophisticated audience.
“They’re sick and tired of pap; they want something they can sink their teeth into,” he said. “There’s been some change, I know that. You can feel it.”
Mr. Pozner himself appears on “Mult Lichnosti”; his character occasionally plants his face on his own desk, having put himself to sleep with his stories about the old days. He said he believed that the channel had been “given the green light” to lampoon Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev — but, green light notwithstanding, there is, he said, no way to guarantee that they will not take offense.
“The minute you start making fun of someone, it may rub someone the wrong way,” he said. “If I had a different disposition, I might be angry. There’s always that danger. It depends a lot on the guy — when he got up this morning, was he in a bad mood or a good mood?”