Russia’s Dangerous Removal of Satire

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Political Satire is a pivotal part of both comedy and political commentating, the ability to make fun of something in a witty and informative way being great to both criticise and entertain.

In many ways, seeing how much a satire is present in a culture is a good indication of the state of political commentary itself in that culture. Authoritarian governments, after all, don’t like being laughed at by its people, whereas a liberal democracy can’t do much about it, therefore satire can flourish.

Russia recently took a move against satire, I think demonstrating just how democratic the system really is. I am referring to Armando Ianucci’s film ‘The Death of Stalin’, a lampooning of the political power struggles that played out inside the Soviet Union’s leadership in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, which was recently blocked by Russian censors.

The film, which has been met favourably in countries where it has been released, was blocked by the Russian Ministry of Culture due to it ‘insulting the Russian people’, as well as those featured in the film.

So?

The Russian government may do well to remember that this is exactly what satire does, it’s not usually used to glorify anyone. It’s meant to comment on something through exaggeration.

Take, for example, one of Iannucci’s other works, the satirical BBC series ‘The Thick of It’. Based around showing the madness of government bureaucracy in UK politics, the show has been widely acclaimed for it’s satirical value, and speaking from watching it, is very good at criticising the ridiculousness of what goes on behind the scenes of politics.

The series frequently shows how incompetence and scheming factor into politics, all the while being hilarious.

A prime example being when two characters end up buying a bank because they feel too awkward asking an economist to leave their department.

In some ways, Iannucci’s new film is very similar, and lampoons figures known for their less than moral actions, such as Georgy Zhukov, or Lavrenti Beria. This a testament to how open we can permit our satire to be.

Further than that, it also allows a consumer-friendly snapshot into the situation, as while the film may not literally be true, the situations it presents are no doubt based on fact.

And, most importantly, it’s ability to lampoon one of the most authoritarian governments of the 20th Century, as well as one of the worst, is quite an achievement.

Had we blocked this film from being screened, could we say that we were any better that those governments that openly use censorship to further its aims? Of course not, because we value our right to free speech, and to say what we want in terms of criticism.

As a result, Russia’s blocking of this film from being screened is not a protection for anyone, although if the head of the Russian Ministry of Culture could get in touch to tell me how a single film is able to personally insult every citizen in Russia, I would love to hear his explanation. It is a refusal to allow open political thought and limit what the Russian people are allowed to think, see and do.

Not as dramatic as a secret police, sure, but with a similar principle. What would appear to be the real reason of this blocking, is to protect Russia’s communist legacy from criticism. If it is to create something akin to Ostalgie in Germany, where people look back fondly on the former communist governments, or to simply hide the darker side of Soviet politics, to try and hide behind censors makes you little better than the Soviet leadership themselves unless you can prove that it would do some major harm if released.

‘It offends me’ is something that I don’t count as being all that harmful.

A great example of this blend of satire, and what should be an example to Russia, is Capitão Falcão, or Captain Falcon, a Portuguese film that brilliantly lampoons the dictatorship it itself went through under António de Oliveira Salazar, as well as the anti-communist hysteria that went with it.

If Portugal is able to both produce and acclaim a politically incorrect satire of it’s own dictatorship, then surely Russia can accept a foreign one that’s been cleared for international screening.

Then again, this censorship of the film is only the latest example of anti-democratic, or at the very least questionable, actions taken by the country, and very soon it’s leadership will have to choose. Does it want to get serious about being a democracy, and accept all that entails? Or admit that it is still not a democratic state, and that it is actively removing it’s populace from being involved in politics.

Because from here, it’s refusal to accept satire suggests it is definitely one of those things, but I don’t think its one Putin would go on record to say.

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