Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Real Practical Joke Is on State TV Viewers

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

NTV news had the story of the week last week: the groundbreaking ceremony for a new $6.5 million to $7.5 million water park in the Chechen city of Gudermes. The ceremony was attended by Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov and his first deputy, Ramzan Kadyrov. A number of high-profile guests from Moscow were also in attendance, including socialite and talk show host Ksenia Sobchak, who got a ride to the site in Kadyrov's Hummer. Later, she kicked off a concert and was full of optimism about the construction of the water park, as if to say that one day we will all be able to visit Chechnya in safety. She was followed on stage by the rock groups Myortviye Delfiny, or Dead Dolphins, and Zveri, or Beasts -- rather strange names in this context.

I don't know how you felt, dear reader, but I got the feeling that I was being played for a fool. Surely this couldn't be happening? But it was all for real: the water park -- the last thing war-torn Chechnya needs -- and the fair-haired Moscow socialite in the role of honored guest, and the Hummers (NTV reported that Kadyrov has eight of them in his garage) and the rock groups with symbolic names.

A few days before the ceremony in Gudermes, Channel One featured the return of "Rozygrysh," or "Practical Joke," a show that places celebrities in ridiculous situations and then invites everyone, viewers and celebs alike, to laugh at them. The first victim of the new season was none other than the omnipresent Sobchak, which to me also seemed rather symbolic. The stature of celebrities is shrinking. Some, like Sobchak, come quite literally out of nowhere -- not counting her famous surname and the many friends she must certainly have in high places -- to become the darlings of the society columns, the "faces" of glossy magazines and guests on daytime talk shows. Before you know it, they're famous, and while their fame may be dubious or closer to infamy, it's better than no fame at all. A grande dame like Sobchak isn't cut out for the 9-to-5 grind, after all.

The producers of "Rozygrysh" played on Sobchak's extreme self-confidence and her love of all that glitters. At one in the morning, she turned up at a restaurant with a girlfriend (who was apparently in on the joke) to meet with a journalist about an interview for yet another glossy magazine. The conversation itself was telling. In a businesslike manner, our heroine asked the fake journalist if she would have to undress during the photo shoot. The journalist was embarrassed, but the progressive socialite laid it on the line: "I'll show everything but my breasts," she said.

What people won't do for a little publicity.

Before long, our gal turned her attention to a couple of obviously foreign gentlemen dining at the next table. "Who's that?" Sobchak asked the restaurant staff. "That's Abdul, a prince from Africa or some Arab country. He opened a jewelry store here; he deals in diamonds."

The "prince" sent the ladies an expensive bottle of wine. They sampled it and thanked him. At this point, the two Arabs joined the ladies and produced a small box, which they presented to Sobchak's friend. Inside she discovered an enormous diamond ring. With a knowing air, Sobchak estimated the number of karats, but you got the feeling that she was hurt because the ring hadn't been offered to her.

The Eastern gentlemen were prepared to rectify this situation by giving Sobchak an identical ring, but in order to do so they would have to drive to the embassy where, by the way, a closed party was underway with Iglesias father and son in attendance. After resisting a bit to keep up appearances, the ladies agreed. They were driven in a long, white limousine not to the embassy but to an airfield, where a plane was waiting on the tarmac guarded by tough-looking guys with machine guns. The frightened ladies were told that they were all flying to a wonderful country with a stopover in Morocco.

Sobchak the socialite lost her composure at this point and turned into a raging fury with the manners and mouth of a juvenile delinquent. "What's going on?" she demanded. "Do you have any idea what'll happen to you? Don't you know who I am? You're in deep trouble. They'll take you and your buddy Abu Qadabra here and tear you to shreads!" (The socialite's tirade was largely bleeped out.) But the Arabs didn't back down. Finally, Sobchak played her trump card: "Listen carefully. My name is Ksenia Sobchak. If you don't stop this nonsense at once, you'll be in a world of trouble."

On hearing her name, the Arab fell to his knees and kissed Sobchak's feet. The practical joke was over. Everyone laughed and hugged, and even the frightening guys with machine guns gave their victim a friendly peck on the cheek.

To be honest, I expected Little Miss Priss to threaten her abductors with a different name: Putin. (If she did, the scene was prudently edited out.) What remained was more than enough to allow viewers to make an informed evaluation of this society girl's character. I'm no fan of mean-spirited practical jokes as a rule, but in this case it was warranted. All the more so because in the studio, Sobchak continued to behave like a heroine who had gotten out of a tough scrape by besting a clever foe.

This is why when I saw the same woman in the company of bearded men at the groundbreaking ceremony for a water park in Gudermes, at first I assumed it was a continuation of the same gag -- that any minute now Ramzan and Ksenia would admit they'd been putting one over on all the viewers who had long suspected that the enormous sums allocated for the rebuilding of Chechnya were being misappropriated, and that the $6.5 million to $7.5 million was actually being spent to repair water mains and restore power. Alas, this was not to be.

Our life has come to resemble a practical joke lately. But we -- and not the celebrities -- are the real victims. Take state television coverage of the Ukrainian election, for example. For months, their staff propagandists frightened us with stories about Viktor Yushchenko, whose victory, we were told, would directly threaten not just the territorial integrity of Ukraine but of Russia as well. Without a thought for their own gastric well-being, reporters in the field told us in detail what the glutton Yushchenko had eaten to make himself so sick.

How foolish must the gullible viewer now feel as he watches the news on those same stations and sees President Vladimir Putin meeting with the very same Yushchenko whom state television had portrayed as the devil incarnate. I would note that no one from those stations has ever thought of apologizing to the people of Ukraine, not to mention the viewers they misled for so long. Or to the pensioners whom they duped with reports asserting that everyone would live better following the replacement of social benefits with cash payments.

Compared to practical jokes like this, "Rozygrysh" seems like innocent fun. Then again, they say that many celebrities are on the lookout now and no longer trust the television stations. That's good advice for the average viewer, too. Be on alert. Don't believe everything you hear on television. Think. Don't be played for a fool.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a column for Izvestia, where this essay first appeared.