Arrest of TV network boss revs up Russian satirists; Puppet program continues to skewer Putin's government


MOSCOW - The owner of their station is in jail, and the NTV television reporters and satirists have learned a serious lesson about the dangers of criticizing the Kremlin and the limits on freedom of speech in President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia.

Yesterday the satirists - about 25 puppeteers, writers, artists, technicians and a director - assembled in a cavernous film studio, putting that lesson to good use.

They were training their cameras, lights and wicked wit on a rubbery puppet in their midst. They were preparing, once more, to skewer Vladimir Putin.

"This is how we can resist," said Grigory Lubomirov, director of NTV's weekly "Kukly" ("Puppets") program.

"Maybe they'll arrest us tomorrow," a cameraman offered.

Vladimir A. Gusinsky, who oversees a media empire that includes NTV - Russia's only independent television network - was arrested Tuesday and taken to a dank, overcrowded jail notorious for inedible food, ubiquitous lice and rampant tuberculosis.

The arrest has been treated as a sinister warning to the media here, dominating the news all week.

Gusinsky, who also leads Russia's Jewish Congress, has not been charged with anything, though the prosecutor general's office said he is being investigated on suspicion of embezzling $10 million connected to the purchase of shares in a St. Petersburg company called Russian Video.

Yesterday, the prosecutor announced that Gusinsky would be charged today, but he did not say what the charge would be.

The great majority of politicians and commentators dismiss the embezzlement accusation as ludicrous.

Gusinsky is in prison, they say, because NTV reporters dared to broadcast reports critical of the war in Chechnya, because the puppet show regularly made fun of Putin and because Gusinsky ignored Kremlin warnings to muzzle his employees.

The general feeling here is that all businessmen can be found guilty of something if the authorities so desire, so other motives must be at work.

"It is allowed to violate the laws as much as you want," said Viktor Shenderovich, a "Kukly" writer, "but it's forbidden to contradict."

Gusinsky was taken to prison, he said, to humiliate and break him psychologically. And the West should understand that it underestimated Putin, who spent most of his career as a KGB officer.

"This is only the beginning of their campaign," Lubomirov said, asserting that Kremlin operatives were orchestrating the action against Gusinsky. "Their goal is to remove the present leaders of NTV and replace them with people of their own."

In May, Lubomirov said, Putin's chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, told NTV to stop using a Putin puppet on "Kukly" and to stop criticizing the war in Chechnya. As if in emphaiss, masked tax police raided the headquarters of Gusinsky's holding company, Media-Most.

Lubomirov and the other "Kukly" writers responded in their usual way: brilliantly. They dressed Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and an assortment of powerful governors as ancient Hebrews and showed them wandering 10 years in the desert.

Finally, Moses (Voloshin) appeared bearing commandments from a God so powerful none dared mention his name. He warned them against false idols and worshipping other gods. He told them not to steal. "Don't steal?" they exclaimed in shock.

When they appeared unwilling to submit, the sky darkened, thunder rolled, and a bolt of lightning struck nearby. They quaked in fear and submission.

Putin, never mentioned, never appearing, remained a huge, threatening presence. The program ended with the camera lingering on a burning bush.

Then, Gusinsky's people apparently went too far.

During a summit with Putin, President Clinton appeared June 4 on an NTV program called "Itogi" and on Gusinsky's Ekho Moskvy Radio in a show of support for freedom of the press.

"When I heard Gusinsky was arrested," Lubomirov said, "it was clear it was revenge for Clinton's appearance.

"It was a demonstration to everyone of who runs Russia and how they run it. It was a warning to the American president he should not get involved where Russian leaders don't want him to get involved.

"Today a real coup is under way," he said. "The world shouldn't have any illusions about who has come to power here."

Yesterday, Gusinsky sent Russians a message through his lawyer.

"This is political intrigue, organized by high-ranking representatives of the government who consider freedom of speech a danger," his statement said. "It is an obstacle to their attempt to build their understanding of a new Russia, which is in fact a return to the totalitarian past, with gulags and a dictatorship of the law."

A prison official assured reporters that Gusinsky would not be harmed, that he was not in a cell with criminals.

The prisoners were being fed kasha - a buckwheat porridge - and bread and butter, he said.

Putin, who was been traveling in Spain and Germany, said he had not known of the arrest, denied that it was an attack on the media and asserted that he believed Gusinsky should not have been arrested.

"I personally believe that this is excessive," Putin told reporters in Berlin.

All this, said Shenderovich, provides great fodder for "Kukly."

"Extreme situations are the best possible for the program," he said, "but I'd rather have a dull program and a stable country."

The "Kukly" crew expects to finish filming Sunday's episode today. As might be expected, it is a lively one.

Voloshin is cast as the great Russian artist Repin, who is creating a famous painting done from 1901 to 1903 called Solemn Session of the State Council.

The plot involves how Putin and the other politicians will be portrayed in the painting. In the end, all the political maneuverings matter little. The Russian people appear in prison uniforms. The puppet-politicians stand before them.

And then, with great finality, an Iron Curtain clanks down, cutting them off from the rest of the world.

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