Knife, Munich, Putin on State TV

So rare is it to hear anything but fawning praise for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on national television that the mere mention of his name in a less-than-flattering context can put television hosts and producers on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Such was the case on a recent evening on state-owned Rossia television, one of the Kremlin's more servile media outlets.

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.

It was a bizarre few minutes that a Rossia spokesperson on Friday described as "an accident."

"No one is fully safeguarded from such incidents. ... There have not been any consequences," the spokesperson said on customary condition of anonymity, declining further comment.

A video of the episode has made its way onto the Internet, where many have suggested that the entire incident was planned. Putin, after all, completely brought television to heel during his eight years in office.

National television channels, once bristling with criticism of the government and one another, are now more likely to show fawning reports of Putin saving a camera crew from a tiger than give the slightest hint that his persona or policies are anything less than infallible.

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.

As testimony to the existence of free media, the government has pointed to the television coverage of the January 2005 protests over the monetization of Soviet-era benefits, which threatened to topple the Cabinet.

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.

Dorenko, a former anchor on ORT, the predecessor to Channel One, has said he lost his show on the channel after he aired an emotionally charged report about the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 -- Putin's first major crisis as president.

After hosting a radio show on liberal-leaning Ekho Moskvy radio, Dorenko recently took a job as editor-in-chief at the Kremlin-friendly Russian News Service.

Semenikhin, the host of the show, may have been frightened by Putin's reputation as a touchy and vindictive person, said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information.

"The host understands that Putin takes such things seriously, and he wanted to avoid an unpleasant conversation with his editor," Mukhin said.

There was one other glaring reference in the combination of words that began the frantic series of developments, Mukhin said.

At a security conference in February 2007, Putin gave a hawkish address that became one of the more memorable speeches of his eight years in office.

The site of the speech, which was filled with sharp criticism comparing U.S. foreign policy with that of Nazi Germany? Munich.