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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Puppet Leaders: Who's Pulling Their Strings?

A group of instantly recognizable politicians, discarding their familiar suits in favor of beach wear, recline on deck chairs in Sochi to debate the fall of the ruble.


As one with huge black eyebrows, droopy jowls and a hairy chest bemoans the state of the budget deficit by counting out 8 trillion rubles on his abacus, another, much younger character, with a mop of curly black hair consoles him with a dried fish.


These images of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yabloko faction leader Grigory Yavlinsky and a host of other leading political figures, including Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, are the stars of "Kukly" (Puppets), Russia first televised political satire performed with puppets.


"Russian politicians are great material for such puppets," said Leonid Parfionov, presenter of the program at NTV and well known for his current affairs show "Namedni." "Their faces and personalities -- especially Yeltin's -- provide us with very rich possibilities."


Premiered recently on Russia's Independent Television, the first episode, about Black Tuesday, the fall of the ruble, and the privatization battle in Moscow, aimed to get a laugh out of Russia's all-too-serious political life.


"It's a continuation of the Russian tradition of anekdoty, but with a twist," said Vasily Pichul, the show's director, known for his much-acclaimed film "Privately people always poked fun at politicians, but this is the first time it's been done publicly in the mass media," Pichul said.


It is no accident that "Kukly," with its snappy music and energetic, dancing characters, is reminiscent of the British and French puppet satires "Spitting Image" and "Les Guignols de Lenfo."


The Russian version was based on the French program, where five of the original eight puppets were made -- at a cost of $6,000 apiece. "Our puppets are more like the French ones," said Kukly's puppet maker, Andrei Drozdov, who was dispatched to Paris to learn the secrets of making the lifesize characters.


"The English ones were too cruel and vicious for our style; we wanted something a bit softer, a bit kinder, but of course we want to keep the program just as humorous and satirical," he said.


After Drozdov completes a puppet, four actors and eight puppeteers from the Obraztsov Puppet Theater take over to provide the voices and manipulate their characters.


But the roles they play and the jokes they make are always intended to be lighthearted. The program's producers say have no intention of offending anyone.


"We were afraid there would be problems, because the mentality of the people is different here than in England. No one's used to making fun of politicians publicly. But it's important always to relate to everything in Russia with a sense of humor," said Pichul.


In France, politicians whose characters have not appeared on the show for a few weeks will often call the program to find out why, explained Drozdov. They see it as a sign of their political strength that they are satirized once a week.


Plans for "Kukly's" future broadcasts are ambitious. They are expanding their cast to include three new puppets: President Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Liberal Democrats Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.


The new characters will make up for the loss of two of "Kukly's" puppets, which have already been relegated to political oblivion.


"Viktor Gerashchenko and Vyacheslav Kostikov were a bit of a waste to make," said Pichul. "Unfortunately, as it turns out, we probably won't be using them again."


Kostikov -- the president's spokesman who recently announced his resignation -- was depicted in "Kukly's" fashion show segment as a blushing bride in traditional dress who was going on to a new life. And former Central Bank chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, recently fired in the wake of the ruble's dramatic plunge on "Black Tuesday," was on trial as the German spy "Herr Ashchenko."


The three new puppets will join the cast on Dec. 31 for the second 15-minute show, which will review the events of 1994 and have Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov descend into the city's sewage system. The show will then be broadcast once a week, on Saturdays.


"I hope that "Kukly" will help people be more tolerant toward politicians," explained Drozdov. "The ability to laugh at political life is vital in Russia."