Wit That Hits Home

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Could the televised escapades of a rubber puppet really be responsible for the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky? To understand how relations between Gusinsky's media empire and the Kremlin soured, you have to understand Kukly The Puppets ntv's immensely popular show that presents outsized caricatures of Russian politicians at their most unflattering.

For the past six years, the program, inspired by Britain's Spitting Image, has been must-see-TV, drawing top viewer ratings every Sunday night. Puppets of Russia's political and business elite quarrel and conspire against each other in hilarious sketches that more often than not accurately reflect Moscow's murky politics. And while Media-MOST's news coverage has long frustrated the Kremlin, Kukly may have been the most consistent irritant. After state agents raided his offices last month, Gusinsky even said that he had been warned by Kremlin officials to tone down the show.

Kukly, the brainchild of Viktor Shenderovich, a 42-year-old standup comic and writer who has been called "the best political analyst in Russia," has come under attack in the past. Five years ago, its portrayal of then President Boris Yeltsin as a drunk led to a criminal investigation later dropped. In 1995, Yeltsin's prosecutor general tried to have it taken off the air. Yeltsin sacked him.

Putin has claimed that the show does not bother him. But his backers protested over an episode in which he was depicted as a crazed psychiatrist wielding a hatchet and blowtorch, and another, during the run-up to the election, in which Putin selected candidates for his cabinet from a clutch of politicians depicted in drag as prostitutes in a brothel.

On May 28, ntv news anchorman Evgeny Kiselyov begged listeners not to turn their sets off for Kukly, which followed his broadcast. It would be marking a new epoch by not showing Putin's puppet. "In order not to fan the flames, if someone high up is so worried about a rubber puppet of the President ... we have decided to try an experiment," said Kiselyov. "We will try one program without the Putin puppet." That night, however, Kukly still managed to get its licks in: Putin instead became an offstage presence God in a sketch about the Ten Commandments, with Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, as Moses. Among the commandments: "Thou shalt not kill (except persons of Caucasian ethnicity)" and "Thou shalt not steal" an imperative that caused the assembled puppet-politicians to quiver.

Putin was not off camera for long. On the weekend of the U.S.-Russian summit, in a sketch written by Shenderovich, the Putin puppet tried to recruit a Clinton puppet for Russia's intelligence service. When asked later on a Gusinsky-owned radio show if he had seen his own Kukly puppet, Clinton said he had not, but would love to see a tape of the show. "It does not bother me," he said. "I've been lampooned in America a lot. There is almost nothing anybody can say to make fun of me that has not been said already.'' Putin, perhaps, is not quite so relaxed.