Thursday, May 21, 2009

Video update


Laughing matters

May 21st 2009

A gas about gas in Russia and Ukraine

YOUTUBE may not be the most scholarly repository of material about energy security and Russian foreign policy, but it is certainly the most entertaining. This, for example, shows a Russian military choir saying that if Ukraine joins NATO “we’ll cut off the gas”. (And not just Ukraine: it also threatens to use the same means to punish Europe for its alliance with America.) The audience—shown during the broadcast on REN-TV, Russia’s fourth channel—loved it. Others don’t. Your columnist showed it to a senior Ukrainian politician. He flinched. “I hate them”, was his unvarnished response.

Comedy and politics are a combustible mix. Rein Lang, Estonia’s justice minister, was quite unfairly tarred as a Nazi in the Russian media when he hired an actor to perform a one-man satirical play about Hitler at his birthday party.

Berliners are laughing uproariously at Mel Brooks’s play “The Producers” (pictured), which has finally opened in a German-language production in Berlin. It satirises New York theatre-land, telling the story of two producers who want to stage a failure for tax reasons; they put on the grotesque “Springtime for Hitler”, only to find it becomes a raging success.


A bit of angst about enjoying an evening of jolly musical comedy that uses themes from the most dreadful period in their country’s history would be understandable for the German audience. So the director has cast the only outright Nazi, a brown-shirted nostalgic sentimentalist, as a thickly-accented Bavarian wearing Lederhosen. So that’s all right. Presumably when the show transfers to Munich, the villain will be an Austrian, and in Vienna it will be a Prussian.

Given that, it would be wrong to be po-faced about Russian comedy programmes that display taste which some may find questionable. The show on REN-TV clearly had some ironic overtones. It could be seen as poking fun at the Kremlin’s supposed tendency to solve all foreign-policy problems by reaching for the gas tap. But the politicians in south-eastern Europe who have been signing up to the Kremlin-backed South Stream gas pipeline should perhaps watch and reflect on it a little before they ink their signatures.

The sight of a Russian audience laughing appreciatively at the sight of soldiers turning off a large gas valve in time to a mocking song about neighbouring countries also puts lines in the Gazprom propaganda film such as this in a different light. “You’ll never ever have a surer friend than Gazprom”, intones the singer. Inside Russia, at least.

It is worth noting that Russian officialdom is not known for its sense of humour. The best TV show in Russian recent history, of course, is no longer on air: Kukly (Puppets), with its sometimes brilliant caricatures of 1990s Russia, was an early victim of the Putin clampdown. Swedes found this skit tremendously funny, partly for the faux-mafia encounter at the beginning (which mocks Swedish naivety in dealing with Russian gangsters) but also for the glorious pastiche of Russian visual and musical clichés in the second half. It is not Russia’s Eurovision entry, but it almost could have been. The Russian embassy in Stockholm was not amused, denouncing the broadcast and claiming that the people involved must be mentally ill.

English humour is an even bigger minefield. Our best-loved musical comedians, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, once sang a song in favour of “patriotic prejudice”. They maintained that the Scots were stingy, the Welsh were “more like monkey than man” and that the Italians eat garlic in bed. It concluded “The English are moral, the English are good/ and clever and modest and misunderstood.” Who could possibly miss the joke in that?

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