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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Rain of Satire on Russian Television

You rarely will hear me say anything nice about television. But I believe in paying credit where credit is due. So listen up while I change my usual tune, for a moment anyway.

The Russian Dozhd, or Rain, television channel first appeared almost a year ago with live broadcasts on cable and the internet. On the station's Live Journal blog you can read who the channel sees as its primary spectator: "For people with an active civic position, for people who have a taste for life, who are successful, have achieved much and have not become jaded, for professionals in various spheres with a strong sense of involvement." 

Now some of that is de rigueur for any hip-slash-glossy Russian endeavor: "people with a taste for life who are successful and have achieved much." Yawn. Burp.

But wait a minute! "For people with an active civic position… who have not become jaded" and have "a strong sense of involvement."

In short, Dozhd, which calls itself the "optimistic channel," is not, I repeat not, your average lumbering, format-bound, blindered television station.

Its programming, which has clearly been designed to appeal to internet savvy spectators, consists primarily of short video-clip reports, interviews and skits.

But the station has also proved its mettle as an important player in the world of mass media. Dozhd was the first Russian channel to bring real and useful information to the world about the terrorist attack at Domodedovo on January 24.

And in February it began broadcasting "Poet and Citizen," an irregular series of satirical skits that have captured the fancy of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Mikhail Yefremov, one of Russia's most popular actors, is the public face of the project. He invariably takes up a purposefully pompous position in front of the camera and delivers barb after barb aimed at Russian authorities and their apologists. He does so on the basis of witty poems written by the political commentator and poet Dmitry Bykov.

Bykov, in turn, draws his inspiration from Russian classical literature &mdash and from the follies of contemporary Russian politics.

The segment that really got people talking was broadcast within days after the Russian court employee Natalya Vasilyeva publically declared that the second verdict convicting former Russian oil tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev had been dictated from above.

In fact, that interview with Vasilyeva was arranged by, conducted and broadcast on none other than Dozhd.

Despite the fact that many Russian mass media outlets downplayed or even ignored the event, the interview set off a firestorm of commentary, speculation and indignation.

A focal point was the Bykov/Yefremov spoof. Titled "Verse on Woman's Lot," and echoing a famous poem by 19th-century poet Nikolai Nekrasov, it lavished praise on Vasilyeva, "who saved us from dishonor," and praised all Russian women in general with the declaration that "everything that has been done worthwhile [in Russia] has been done by women; children are proof of that." 

"Few people are free today," the poem goes on, with Yefremov rolling his eyes and gazing suspiciously into the camera, "and it is clear that protest can burst forth only from a woman's breast."

Comically muddying the waters by referring to the firing of former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, in part, because of the often shady business-doings of his wife Yelena Baturina, Yefremov asks with mock boldness, "Without the Russian woman Baturina, where would Luzhkov be today?"

As the uprisings in Arab Africa continued to grab headlines throughout February, Bykov, Yefremov and the Dozhd channel dared to ask publically what many Russians were asking privately – how might this all one day affect Russia?

In "Arab Variant," a parody of poet Mikhail Lermontov, Yefremov appeared wearing a dashing Hussar uniform and repeatedly appealed to "Dima" – presumably Russian president Dmitry Medvedev – to consider the historical parallels. 

"It's no coincidence that Mubarak was defeated with a single blow," Yefremov spits out as he swipes the air with a switch, "and yet he was so stable and had such an ample rating."

But as "Dima" replies – "We're not in Tunis, we're not in Cairo. We're in Russia, like mice in cheese, and the Arab variant is not a possibility in the Russian world."

Yet another episode was recorded in early May after a group of 55 public figures signed an open letter defending the honor of the Russian court system. 

Many perceived this rather as an attack on Natalya Vasilyeva and others for casting aspersions on Russian jurisprudence in the wake of the Khodorkovsky trial and the Vasilyeva interview. Bykov and Yefremov were unmistakably among that number.

In the segment entitled "Woe From Wit," based on the 1825 play by Alexander Griboyedov, the old blowhard Famusov comes to his daughter Sofya in the morning with his hands full of paper and pencils. He has written a letter "in defense of medicine," he says, and insists that his daughter sign it. 

In this version, Sofya's old boyfriend Chatsky was committed to an asylum after Famusov and Sofya publically declared him insane. Now, with talk of letting Chatsky out, Famusov is concerned about the consequences.

"Think hard," Famusov warns his daughter, "What will he do when he gets out of the madhouse. It will be the end. They will unleash the dogs on us. Where will I be, and you – and Tina Kandelaki?"

Kandelaki, a famous television talk show host, was one of the 55 who signed the actual letter.

Ultimately, Famusov prevails upon his daughter who signs the letter and pleases her father mightily, for "harmony in the family and authority are upheld."

The "Poet and Citizen" series is currently disseminated on a number of different media. In addition to being broadcast and repeated on the Dozhd channel, it is available on YouTube, Facebook and other networking sites.

The viral nature of the series is almost unheard of in the realm of culture in recent times. There are popular theater shows, films and books, but nothing has quite spread like wildfire as "Poet and Citizen" has.

I recently attended a late-night party at a private home in St. Petersburg. Talk inevitably turned to the Yefremov/Bykov tandem and the hostess ran to the computer to call up "Verse on Woman's Lot." Fifteen people gathered around the screen and howled with laughter.

The click count for the official Dozhd channel YouTube video that night was around 150,000. When I researched this column, it was almost up to 210,000. The count for "Arab Variant" stands at 375,000.

For those interested in watching the regular programming of Dozhd, it is broadcast live on the Internet.