Friday, September 12, 2008

Putin, in Munich, with a knife

And now, a relatively light interlude from Russia ... or is it?

On September 5, viewers of Russia's tamed TV were treated to the unusual spectacle of Putin being fingered as a murder suspect on live television.

Only as part of a game, of course. Specifically, a psychic named Alexander Char, appearing on a TV show called Phenomenon on the state channel Rossiya (Russia), telepathically feeding three "witnesses" randomly chosen from the audience clues to a "detective story" he had written and concealed inside a safe. Those clues were then written down with a black marker on a large board by Char's assistant Victor, also randomly selected from the audience.

Watch what happens.

The bald gentleman who strides out onto the stage asking that the name of Putin be erased is Phenomenon host and fitness guru Denis Semenikhin.

The scandalous segment was apparently disappeared in those markets where the show did not air live. Nonetheless, it quickly ended up on Russian websites and on YouTube and its Russian equivalent RuTube.

Conspiracy theories have not been far behind. Some Russian posters refuse to believe that the incident could have been a spontaneous screw-up. A hodgepodge of interesting theories is offered, apparently in earnest, by one Vadim Nikitin at

... Russia’s current media climate makes the spontaneity of what transpired on stage inconceivable.

There is no way that the show would have remained on the air for even a second longer had the management really been nervous about its proceedings. No one at home would have batted an eyelid; after all, Russian TV brims with technical difficulties.

Which leads inevitably to ask: why did it occur?

Who had written the script, and who was its real intended audience?

Why did state television consider it necessary to show the words “Knife”, “Munich” and “Putin, Vladimir” together on a blackboard for minutes of airtime, the memory of which would be reinforced further by the manufactured commotion/controversy?

The possibilities are tantalising.

1. We have a strong visual of a young girl trying unsuccessfully to erase Vladimir Putin’s name.

Was this a message to the young Medvedev? ie. “if you’re getting any ideas, drop them right now! You couldn’t rub me out, even if you tried”.

2. We have a TV presenter publicly censoring his own show, saying that Putin’s name is inappropriate and that ‘management’ are ‘getting nervous’, without any attempt to hide it.

Was this a staged show of force to the media, and the public, that the state emphatically reserves the right to control what is shown on TV?

Was it an FYI to journalists that Putin’s name is now officially out of bounds?

3. We have an undeniable reference to Hitler’s night of the long knives, the ruthless and surprise purge, on June 30th 1934, of the SA storm troopers led by Ernst Rohm.

Was it yet another signal to the West that Russia is prepared to attack Poland and the Czech Republic over the US missile defence shield?

Was it a threat to Nashi, the crypto-paramilitary youth organisation headed by Vasili Yakemenko? (That seems unlikely, as Nashi are already looking like a spent force, and Yakemenko harbours little ambition).

Was it another ’subtle’ piece of advice for Medvedev, whose personal proximity to Putin strongly parallels that of Rohm to Hitler, to remember his place?

Was it, like the Night of the Long Knives, an announcement of the return of extra-judicial killings at the highest level?

A premonition of a ruthless cabinet purge, or even Putin’s return to the presidency?

The idea that a psychic show on TV would be used to send covert messages to Medvedev, Nashi, the West, or the Russian media is rather amusing. (I'm sure Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Condi Rice are all devout viewers of Phenomenon.) The Putinistas aren't that subtle. And if the segment was meant as a (completely unnecessary) reminder that the state controls what's shown on TV, then that lesson was not conveyed very well: the offending (incriminating?) name stayed on the slate for all to see, the show was not immediately yanked off the air, no arrests or (as far as we know) even firings followed, and the studio audience laughed. (In Stalin's day, an audience that witnessed such a sacrilege would have stampeded for the exit.)

It's tempting, actually, to scrutinize this phenomenon for evidence of a plot from the other side. Was someone sending Putin a message that his crimes are known and cannot be erased? Or that freedom of the press cannot be crushed? Consider, ladies and gentlemen, the startling elements of this mystery! For instance: The show was co-hosted by the famous spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller, who has dual Israeli-British citizenship. (Geller is seen onscreen in the full version of the clip, just prior to the "Knife -- Munich -- Putin" segment.) The Russian co-host, Semenikhin, spent several years studying and working in the United States in the 1990s. Israel, the UK and the US -- there's the unholy trinity of the Kremlin's foreign policy. To top it off, Geller informs the psychic, Alexander Char, that he looks a lot like Agatha Christie's detective, Hercule Poirot, who is Belgian. Belgium -- Brussels -- NATO, right? All of them joining forces to tell Putin to know his place.

But there's more! The "witnesses" were selected from the ranks of men in the audience named Boris (for leading Russian mystery novelist Boris Akunin) and women named Darya or Tatiana, for best-selling mystery writers Darya Dontzova and Tatiana Ustinova. Since Darya is a fairly rare name, chances are the female witness was named Tatiana. Could the ominous message to Putin be that he was being denounced as a murderer by his own late predecessor Borias Yeltsin -- whose daughter and top political aide was named Tatiana?

But wait! Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a Georgian! Could there be a hidden meaning in that?

Yes, I'm joking, of course. A much more likely explanation is that when it comes to non-political shows, state control of Russian TV is not as absolute as some think; it could be the good old Russian tradition of absolute control made ineffective by sloppiness. Yet some intriguing questions remain. Why did the man who named Putin, and the psychic's handpicked assistant, look so mischievous? Could they have played a trick on the host?

At the end of the segment, the paper was removed from the safe and turned out to contain the words, "Vladimir committed a crime in the city of Munich, using a knife." Being a skeptic about psychics who do TV shows, and finding it rather hard to believe that Char really telepathically fed those words to the "witnesses," I'm inclined to believe that the "witnesses" were plants and the whole stunt was arranged in advance. But what, then, to make of the "Putin"? A little improvised mischief by the "witness," who was supposed to say "Vladimir" but made a slight alteration to the script? Perhaps.

The host's unseemly nervousness at the sudden appearance of Putin's name (jokes about "He Who Must Not Be Named" already proliferate on Russian blogs), and the plea to remove it, speak volumes about Russian authoritarianism. And yet the segment continued, the camera lingered repeatedly on the "Knife-Munich-Putin" on the slate, and the public laughed. A far, far cry from the communist era, indeed.


Isle Dance said...

Thanks for the interview you did on Greta's show. I really appreciated it.

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