Russia's political cartoonists take refuge in Internet
In Russia, political cartoonists sketch online to a mass audience to exercise their freedom of the mocking press.SAINT PETERSBURG -- As Russian newspapers steer clear of mocking top officials, cartoonists have turned to the Internet to post cartoons satirising President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"There is no political cartooning where there is no political battle, and where most publications depend on the authorities," said Viktor Bogorad, one of the few Russian cartoonists to regularly lampoon Putin and Medvedev.
Drawings by the 61-year-old Bogorad are published in Vedomosti, a business daily newspaper, and The Moscow Times, an English-language daily primarily read by expats. Both publications are owned by Sanoma, a Finnish media group.
His Medvedev is snub-nosed and cheery, while Putin is haggard and haunted-eyed. In a recent Moscow Times cartoon, he was portrayed as Napoleon.
"To find anything that has to do with political satire one has to go on the Internet, where freedom remains for the moment," said Bogorad, whose drawings were passed around clandestinely in pre-Internet Soviet times.
Even mocking regional government officials has become impossible, he said. "When did we last see a cartoon of the governor (of Saint Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko)? It's simply unthinkable for the local press," he said.
Unlikely to see their work in print, cartoonists post their drawings on sites such as www.Umorist.ru, www.kremlingremlin.ru or www.caricatura.ru to comment on Russia's political news and the country's leaders. One cartoon posted on Kremlingremlin.ru shows Putin sporting a tie decorated with the Soviet flag and holding up a hand puppet of successor Dmitry Medvedev.
In the same vein, cartoonist Vladimir Molchanov portrayed Putin looking into a mirror with Medvedev reflecting back at him. The prime minister is widely regarded by observers as Russia's most influential politician even after quitting the presidency in 2008 after the two consecutive four-year terms allowed by the Russian constitution.
He presided over a crackdown on humour. The satirical puppet television show Kukly, or Puppets, which was wildly popular in the 1990s, closed down soon after Putin became president. It included a grotesque Putin character.
Political satire still exists but has become secretive, said Viktor Shenderovich, who created Kukly and saw it shut down in 2002 after the channel that aired it, NTV, moved under control of the state.
"Satire has moved underground in Russia. Its existence is impossible under Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime," said Shenderovich. In a parallel scenario during the Soviet era, cartoonists such as Bogorad worked in underground circles while officially approved cartoonists mocked ideological enemies in the satirical magazine Krokodil.
The only image of Putin was dated 2001. In a spoof of a Soviet-era poster, the then-president, dressed in the Red Army uniform, called upon Russians to enlist as volunteers in a war against terrorism.
"Unfortunately, one no longer sees political cartoons in newspapers," said Evgeny Artyomov, director of the Saint Petersburg's Museum of Political History, which hosted the exhibition.
"The attitude of the authorities toward satire reflects the level of democracy in the country," Artyomov said. "Political satire exists in Russia formally, but you can only see it in special places such as museums," said a visitor, who gave his name as Vasily Sergeyevich.
Marina Koreneva / AFP / Expatica