Knife. Munich. Putin.

Free media in Russia? A recent evening show on state-owned Rossia television, generally known in the West as ‘one of the Kremlin’s more servile media outlets’ has led again to debates on the issue. As usual, two positions are voiced, explaining the show: Russians fear their leaders. Russians admire their leaders. But is there not more to it than this? First, a summary of events according to the Moscow Times, (interpretations below the video).

In a live broadcast of the show “Phenomenon,” which features magicians and mind-readers, Alexander Char, a self-proclaimed telepath, swore that he could plant the plot of a detective story in the minds of audience members merely by looking them in the eye.

The story, Char said in the Sept. 5 broadcast, had already been put on paper and locked in a safe, and now he would telepathically relay to three spectators three key details of the crime: the murder weapon, the place of the crime and the name of the perpetrator.

The first two participants answered “knife” and “Munich,” respectively, responses that Char’s assistant dutifully wrote down on what appeared to be a dry-erase board.

Char then asked a third spectator to name the perpetrator. “Tell me the name of a famous person not in the auditorium,” he said.

After a long deliberation, the young man answered, “Putin,” prompting a burst of laughter and applause from the audience.

Char gave his assistant the go-ahead to write down the response, resulting in a curious combination of words staring out at viewers: “Knife. Munich. Putin.”

It was only a matter of seconds before the host, Denis Semenikhin, rushed in from offstage, his earpiece visible, informing the startled telepath that he was being told the use of the prime minister’s name was unacceptable. “This is simply inappropriate,” Semenikhin said.

Confusion reigned for several seconds while the host, the psychic and the assistant tried to figure out what to do. Attempts to erase Putin from the board proved futile, and the eventual solution only seemed to make things more awkward.

Putin’s first name was acceptable, they agreed, and was subsequently written at the bottom of the list, which now read: “Knife. Munich. Putin. Vladimir.” When Char read the list aloud, he omitted the third line.

You don’t need to speak Russian to understand the video(s). Watch Part 1 from about minute 4:50. Key Russian words:
нож = knife / мюнхен = Munich / рутин = Putin / владимир = Vladimir

Three potential interpretations:
1. Yet another example of the cow-towed Russian media, and the atmosphere of fear in the country:

Viktor Shenderovich, former screenwriter for the political puppet show “Kukly” on NTV, said Putin has “created an atmosphere of fear in the country.”

“Fear is something irrational, and the irrational played the leading role” in the incident, said Shenderovich, whose show openly mocked Putin before being axed when NTV fell under state control in Putin’s first term.

2. An example of Russian loyalty to their leaders; sometimes called the Russian’s desire for a ‘strong hand’.

Television journalist Maxim Shevchenko, a vocal supporter of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, said the reaction by the show’s host and producers was natural because Russians are loath to lampoon their leaders.

“This is not Oprah, where they freely parody the [U.S.] president,” said Shevchenko, host of the political talk show “Sudite Sami” on state-run Channel One television. “Russians have a different mentality.”

Sergei Dorenko, once the country’s most famous television personality, said the leader of the country is a “tsar” and a “sacred figure” in Russia. “To mention him in an ironic context is to desecrate him, [and this] fills Russians with consternation,” Dorenko said.

3. Looking beyond this binary, check the huge grin on the audience member who said ‘Putin’ (video Part 1, min 5:18). And even the Moscow Times describes the ‘burst of laughter and applause from the audience’ which followed. There’s something far more humorous and playful in this incident than either (i) fear or (ii) loyalty. Is it perhaps an articulation of a subversive reading of media texts and playful interaction with the media? Could it be a playfulness which has developed over the years in Russia? (Some would say mentality; I’d much prefer to say habits and discursive consensus.) Perhaps the media doesn’t work in such a linear way as many commentators on the Russian media seem to assume.

It is crucial to remember that two separate issues are often mixed together in debates surrounding the Russian media. (1) Is Russian state television ‘servile’ to the Kremlin? (2) Do the viewers blindly believe their television? Rarely is blind belief attributed to (active) western audiences. Strange that it is ascribed to Russian audiences.

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