Readers will remember Robert Fowler's amusing article Caoutchouc Combatants, page 20 in March 2000's Bulletin on Russia's version of Spitting Image, the NTV Kukly. Following the further adventures of the Putin puppet was this item, in January 2001, by Marcus Warren detailing the continuing saga of the Kremlin v Media contest: "If it was a farewell bash, this week's birthday party for NTV showed that Russia's foremost independent television station will make its exit with a bang... One of the smartest events in the calendar... its setting, the art nouveau masterpiece of the Metropol Hotel, was grander than ever and the tables groaned with sturgeon. Rabbis rubbed shoulders with KGB veterans. Political celebrities performed their laps of honour while the comedian who lampoons them all in his scripts for Puppets, Russia's Spitting Image, studied the scene." Telegraph, January 2001.
Putin's attempts to stifle the one free TV station continued in March with the journalists' sit-in at the sacking of the NTV management. The Putin puppet and the Kukly programme has been saved, although they have taken asylum at a different channel, TNT. For more details of this see below.
Not only Kukly but another puppetry show in Russia, Turn the Lights Off, broadcast four nights a week for less than a year, has become cult-viewing. The favourite, Khryusha ("Little Oink") and his friends were stars of a puppet show called Good Night, Little Ones which in Soviet times for thirty years ended its programme by ordering the nation's children to bed and was "a chance to instil a sense of discipline in its toddler citizens." However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union when it was thought "the pig was for the chop," it has now been re-instated but with new title and a satiric revamp.... "For my money," writes Marcus Warren in the Telegraph, "Turn the Lights Off is the funniest satire show on Russian television... It is a phenomenon, with the pig's catchphrase 'Impressive' now firmly embedded in the language…" Many years have passed. From good natured mischievous child, Khryusha has turned into a loud mouthed lout with gaps in his teeth, a male chauvinist pig (of course) and, in a word, a swine. No wonder hundreds of Russian women believe the new Khryusha to be modelled on their husband... "His sidekick with the Bugs Bunny voice is Stepasha, (Stepan Cabbage). A goody goody in childhood, the rabbit has metamorphosed into that Russian phenomenon of the cowardly liberal intellectual, "an appeaser and conformist" in the words of the human referee who tries to keep the peace between the two animals, Lev Novozhenov... Thus, the rabbit, as predictable as always, argues that the Bolshoi Ballet projects a positive image of Russia to the rest of the world. A misleading one, snorts Khryun (Little Oink), "as it makes out that our women are attractive, graceful and never open their mouths…" The puppets appear to be computer generated but Pilot TV, the animators, pioneer their own technique. "Humans in special suits, wired to a computer, control the characters' body movements and facial expressions, the latter created by a multi-dexterous actor using both hands and both feet to manipulate a pair of gloves and a special pedal and joystick…" Originally filmed at NTV, since the journalists' walk-out when new management took control of the station on 15th April the programme has retreated to TNT, the second-tier channel offering asylum to NTV staff. However, their fate hangs in the balance and as we go to press, all we can report is Marcus Warren's final comment: "This much I can reveal. Deprived of their spacious, state-ofthe- art studio, the friends have had no option but to retreat to the site of so many passionate, private arguments in Soviet times - the kitchen."
17th April 2001 Extracts from Email from Russia, Marcus Warren in Moscow, Electronic Telegraph