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No Joke: Police Probe Russian Comedian Who Skewered Putin, Christianity

The police are "clearly not looking for me just to take a selfie because they're major fans of my work," Aleksandr Dolgopolov said.
The police are "clearly not looking for me just to take a selfie because they're major fans of my work," Aleksandr Dolgopolov said.

MOSCOW -- At a stand-up performance in St. Petersburg last year, 25-year-old Aleksandr Dolgopolov mocked Christians, Belarusians, and most of all himself.

He also promised his audience exactly six jokes about politics -- the first of them targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Our population has split into two camps," it went. "On one hand there are those who support Putin; on the other, there are those who can read, write, and reach logical conclusions."

The crowd -- several dozen people packed into the small Hop Head pub in Putin's hometown -- broke into nervous laughter. "Whenever I joke about politics, I can feel that people in the room tense up," Dolgopolov, a popular performer, said onstage.

Video of the animated, self-deprecating monologue was uploaded to YouTube two months later, and it soon gathered over 2 million views.

In fact, 2,397,504 was the number cited by the Russian Interior Ministry in a notice sent to Hop Head on January 11, asking for "full information about the person who appears in the video."

The ominous-sounding letter may have been kept between the venue's management and law enforcement if Dolgopolov had not been alerted to it 11 days later.

He posted a photo of the letter to his Instagram page with a sarcastic caption. "Guys, congrats to you all, we did it!" it read. "My career has reached a new level."

But later, Dolgopolov published a video address on his YouTube page that took a far graver tone.

"We all know what this means. They're clearly not looking for me just to take a selfie because they're major fans of my work," he said. "I'm convinced that problems are beginning for me."

Like any Russian public figure -- or any Russian, period -- Dolgopolov faces risks associated with remarks about a range of issues including religious believers and government officials -- both of whom are protected by laws that were enacted under Putin.

Dolgopolov's agent, Armen Gandilyan, told Russian media on January 22 that he had no information on what part of the February performance sparked the police reaction.

"We can only guess what exactly offended the authorities," he told TJournal. "What's scary is that they didn't turn to us directly but began to collect information secretly."

But it appears it was his coarse jokes about Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary -- which opened the February show -- that got Dolgopolov in trouble.

Citing the press service for police in the Moscow region city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Russian media report that an unidentified local resident complained to the authorities that remarks by Dolgopolov violated a 2013 law that made it a criminal offense to offend the feelings of religious believers.

A probe into the comedian's performance is under way, the police press service said.

The controversial law was drafted after members of the protest band Pussy Riot barged into Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral in 2012 and performed a "punk prayer" urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, who was in the midst of a reelection campaign.

Dolgopolov appeared skeptical that it was really the jokes about religion that led to the police pressure -- perhaps based on personal experience.

In a November 2019 interview with popular blogger Yury Dud, which has been viewed almost 6 million times, he said that a wisecrack about Putin during one of his first-ever performances prompted the venue owner to warn him that no more jokes of that kind be made in the run-up to the March 2018 presidential election, which coincided with allegations of vote-rigging and brought a resounding victory for Putin.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Dolgopolov said the latest incident had spooked him. He said he had suspended ticket sales for upcoming shows in Moscow and a range of other cities, pending the resolution of the issue. The dates are still advertised on his website.

"I was always aware that this could happen, and I was always afraid," he said of the political undertones of his work. "But what distinguishes a free person from a slave is that he boldly faces his fears and does not allow them to dictate his lifestyle."

Despite his regular criticism of Putin, he told RFE/RL he didn't see himself as part of the political opposition in Russia. "I see myself as a free, law-abiding person, who loves his country and wants it to flourish," he said. "If that is characterized as opposition these days, then we have serious problems."

The clip of his February performance, in the meantime, has gathered another quarter-million views since the police letter became public, and multiple comments in support of the comedian.

"The MVD is helping promote Dolgopolov," one user wrote, using an abbreviation for the Interior Ministry. "So I'm giving this a thumbs up."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.