'Borat'? Russia and Kazakhstan are not amused

MOSCOW — MOSCOW -- A British comedian impersonating a Kazakh reporter who clashes with feminists and learns the ways of evangelical Christianity on a cross-country romp through the United States doesn't seem a likely enemy of the Russian state.

But, apparently, Russia thinks he is.


The satirical film, in which the fictional Borat Sagdiyev during a cultural fact-finding mission to America portrays his central Asian homeland as one where women are kept in cages and homosexuals were once forced to wear blue hats, will not appear on movie screens here.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has not officially been banned - a fact constructed around a convenient technicality. But the Ministry of Culture's distaste for it after a pre-release screening created a situation in which its showing in Russia was effectively made impossible.


"The film contains humiliating material," Yury Vasyuchkov of the ministry's Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency said in an interview yesterday. "It humiliates ethnic minorities and religious believers."

If anyone should be upset about the movie, it would seem more appropriate for it to be Kazakhstan, a nation of 15 million people ruled since independence from the Soviet Union by an autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And Kazakhstan, one of Russia's southern neighbors, is upset indeed.

Rather than laugh along with movie-goers who swarmed to theaters to see the film in the United States and Europe, the Kazakh government has come out swinging. Officials have suggested that Borat - played by the same British comic, Sacha Baron Cohen, who brought the irreverent Da Ali G Show to HBO - is part of a plot to discredit the nation. And they have responded to his crude, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and entirely over-the-top antics in such a stern way - even threatening legal action - that they have drawn more attention to him, at least in Kazakhstan, than there might otherwise have been.

The Foreign Ministry denounced Cohen's appearance as Borat at the MTV Europe Music Awards a year ago. More recently, the Kazakh Embassy in Washington publicly refuted the rumor that Nazarbayev intended to make a complaint about Borat to none other than President Bush during a recent visit to the White House. That, inevitably, made news both in Kazakhstan and abroad.

Shortly before the movie's American release, the Kazakh government ran full-page ads in The New York Times and elsewhere in an attempt to right Borat's wrongs. While not mentioning Borat, they pictured Bush and Nazarbayev shaking hands and declared that religious tolerance is "one of the hallmarks of the nation."

Kazakhstan also is running slick TV ads, including on CNN, trying to promote tourism there. They show pleasant pastoral landscapes and ask: "Have You Ever Wandered?"

No one was expecting the movie to play in Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev governs largely as he wishes; Borat calls him "our glorious leader." But it was due to open in Russia at hundreds of theaters at the end of this month.

According to various accounts, before the movie's Russian distributor, the 20th Century Fox office in Moscow, officially applied for the certificate required to release a movie here, it asked the agency to review the film, acknowledging that parts of it might be considered "shocking."


Vasyuchov, who heads the department that issues the certificates, said the agency merely recommended, after seeing it, that the movie not be shown.

But without the agency's blessing, it all but couldn't be.

Marina Bodyagina, theatrical director for 20th Century Fox in the region that includes Russia, said the company decided not to further pursue a run for the movie.

"There was no mention of any ban," she told the newspaper Kommersant. "We made the decision on our own not to run the movie. But that doesn't mean that the movie won't appear in Russia - it will come out on DVD."

Asked yesterday what movies should be prohibited, Iosif Kobzon, a well-known singer who heads the State Duma's culture committee, said at first only ones that were pornographic or nationalistic. Then he broadened his answer.

"I haven't seen this Borat, but if it's true it's mocking Kazakhstan, then they did the right thing to ban it," he said. "Kazakhstan is a friendly country to us and we shouldn't let anyone humiliate it."


In September, after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakh ambassador to Britain, issued a statement defending Kazakh citizens as "a tolerant, decent and welcoming people" and called it "a shame that our character should be traduced in this way for commercial benefit and a laugh."

At the same time, he highlighted his nation's purported commitment to freedom of speech - even Cohen's.

"I would point out that the government of Kazakhstan, like in any civilized country, is committed to free speech and we uphold the right of any satirist to say what he wishes, however unfounded or tasteless the material," Idrissov said.

His words, however, didn't quite ring true because a few months earlier Borat's Web site,, was shut down. It now can be found at

Denis Tsaryov, a spokesman at the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow, said yesterday that he would not comment on the situation, but he offered a few words anyway: No, he had not seen the movie. And, no, he does not intend to.

"It's a fantasyland," he said, urging a reporter to apply for media accreditation to travel to see his homeland first-hand. "It's not real Kazakhstan."