Consequences for Caricatures

I stumbled across Shaun Walker’s “No Laughing Matter: Cartoons and the Kremlin” while perusing I only realized after a few minutes that the article was originally published in the Independent and translated for (interestingly without the above caricature).

No laughing matter indeed. As noted Russian cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky tells Walker, what was once permitted under Gorbachev and Yeltsin is taboo under Putin. Zlatkovsky’s satires of the vozhd’ abruptly came to an end after Putin’s inauguration in May 2000. It was then that his editor at Literaturnaya gazeta informed him, “Misha, we’re not going to draw Putin any more. The young lad is very sensitive.” Zlatkovsky’s drawings of Putin haven’t appeared in the press since. And soon after that neither did his and many other cartoonists’ satires of ministers, Kremlin aids, Chechnya, and military brass. Even a drawing of Patriarch Alexy II “prompted a phone call from the patriarchate and a strong request never to draw him again.”

Zlatkovsky tells Walker that while there is no official censorship, there is “the censorship of the fire safety inspectorate; or the censorship of the tax police.” Bureaucratic revenge may be softer, but it is just as effective, if not more so, than good old fashion repression. The result, according to Walker is that “Many cartoonists have given up, finding other work, and newspaper editors prefer to err on the side of caution and not publish cartoons at all.” I would guess that this is exactly what those in power hoped.

Therefore it is no surprise that yet again Freedom House has labeled Russia’s press “not free.” There does, however, seem to be a twinkle of light in the darkness. According to Izvestiia, young Robert Shlegel got a finger waging by senior United Russia officials for introducing the media law amendment. One of United Russia’s four factions, 4 November, released a statement saying, “Oversight and law enforcement organs already have sufficient opportunities to put an end to the activities of unscrupulous journalists without jeopardizing the freedom of the mass media.” (Yes, there are four official factions in United Russia. They officially constituted themselves at their party congress two weeks ago. Who knew?) Basically, 4 November thinks that the amendment is redundant. Whether their opposition and Shlegel’s shaming will have any impact on the voting of future readings is uncertain and probably unlikely. Given how widely the amendment hit the international press, I’m sure this is all posturing. After all, the law’s first reading passed unanimously minus one. Boris Reznik of United Russia cast the lone dissenting vote. Um, 4 November members, where were you?