MOSCOW -- Russians have always loved a political joke, mostly because the punch line has always been illicit. Before 1917, people could be put in jail for publicly mocking the czar.
In Communist times, the slightest crack about party leaders landed people in Siberia. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, the rules slackened a bit, and high-minded satire began slipping onto radio and television, but never anything as low-down and biting as the average Reagan skit on "Saturday Night Live."
So most Russians were not entirely shocked last week when the government moved against the popular satirical puppet show "Kukly," a weekly program modeled on Britain's "Spitting Image" and France's "Les Guignols de Lenfo." Unlike France or Britain, Russia does not have a tradition of indulging political satire.
But even in Russia there was something comical about the state cracking down on inanimate rubber enemies.
The prosecutor general opened a criminal case against the creators of the show, which is aired on NTV, Russia's only nationwide independent station. The charge was that "the highest officials in the government were portrayed in an insulting manner."
It was the first time since Boris N. Yeltsin became president that a law prohibiting insults of high officials was invoked against a television show.
"Kukly" (the word means "puppets") first aired a year ago, and it mercilessly tweaks the authorities on such issues as privatization and the fall of the ruble. The life-size puppets are modeled on various political figures, including Mr. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.
On "Kukly," the digs are rarely personal -- there are no send-ups of the private lives or family foibles of the nation's leaders. But just the sight of puppet caricatures of Mr. Yeltsin or his unpopular minister of defense, Pavel Grachev, bobbing, weaving and talking in vulgar street slang, is titillating for many viewers.
The show that caught the attention of the prosecutor general aired July 8 and used Maxim Gorky's play "In the Depths" as the background for a skit on the new minimum wage of $10 a month.
It portrayed Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Chernomyrdin and others as flophouse bums, drunkenly rummaging through garbage and singing old Soviet patriotic songs that, for Russians, recall Stalinist times.
The whiff of alcohol alone may have offended official viewers.
Mr. Yeltsin's drinking, which has gotten sufficiently out of hand on numerous public occasions to generate news stories abroad, is handled quite gingerly in the mainstream Russian press. Columnists deplore the president's rowdy "behavior" without directly mentioning the root cause.
But few in Russia really believed that the prosecutor general acted solely out of concern for Mr. Yeltsin's sensibilities.
Igor Malashenko, the president of NTV, insisted the case was a ploy to punish the station for its aggressive coverage of the war in Chechnya. He and others claimed that the action was a warning linked to the coming election campaign.
Mr. Malashenko said he did not expect the case to ever get to court, and he said the producers planned to run another episode of "Kukly," a rerun, to test the waters.
Officials of the state-controlled television network, ORT, agree that the government wants to rein in the airwaves as the election campaign approaches.
"Definitely, with the election campaign in the offing, television has been subject to more attention from the authorities," said Aleksei Pushkov, director of public affairs at ORT.
"The real question is whether the authorities plan to use a velvet glove or an iron fist," he said. Mr. Pushkov said he found the July 8 "Kukly" show offensive, but noted that the government's reaction to it was equally deplorable.
"The Kukly case -- this was an iron fist."