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Mikhail Zadornov, Comic Who Skewered Soviet Rule And Railed Against The West, Dies At 69


Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Zadornov in 2007
Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Zadornov in 2007

Mikhail Zadornov, a stand-up comedian who got hearty laughs skewering the absurdities of life under Soviet rule and later targeted Washington, the West, and non-Russian ethnic groups, has died at the age of 69.

No cause of death was given for Zadornov, whose caustic jokes made him a fixture on stage and TV screens in the final years of the Soviet Union but later prompted accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

He also faced criticism from some quarters for his support for President Vladimir Putin and Russia's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Earlier reports said that Zadornov had cancer and had undergone surgery and treatment in Germany in 2016.

Born in Jurmala, Latvia, in 1948, Zadornov rose to prominence during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the late 1980s.

Many of his early performances were rooted in comparisons of the lives of Soviet citizens and people in the West, with jokes pointing out the bleak realities faced by the former on a daily basis.

"One must learn to be happy even about small things," went one joke. "For instance, be happy with your salary -- it's a very small thing, but still a pleasant one."

Another played on the abundance to be found in the West and the perennial question of when the Soviet Union would finally perfect communism.

In supermarkets in the West, Zadornov quipped, "There's a communism on every shelf."

Or: "In Germany, I learned that it is possible to live there -- I mean to live and not drink alcohol, and even to live and...not steal."

After the Soviet collapse of 1991, Zadornov received numerous awards for performances in Russia and other countries.

But linguists in Russia criticized him for his free interpretation of the origins of some Slavic words, saying that he was laboring to promote Russia and its culture above others.

And with the Soviet system gone as a vein to mine for humor, critics said, his jokes at times were tainted with nationalist rhetoric and connotations of racial bias, with Jews and people from the Caucasus and Central Asia as targets.

In the last years of his career Zadornov was harshly critical of the West, especially the United States, calling Americans "stupid" and using outlandish anecdotes often presented as true stories from his own experience.

In line with Russian state media, his performances became particularly anti-Western after Russia seized control of Crimea and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

When Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015, Zadornov called her "a legalized troll."

"The Nobel Committee again proved that creative skills are not important for it, as the main criterion is to be anti-Russia," he said.

"[Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn also got the Nobel Prize not for being a skilled writer but for his anti-Soviet stance," he said. "This is how the West is against the point of insanity."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on November 10 that Putin, who was traveling in Asia, expressed "deep condolences" over Zadornov's death.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian and Belarus Services, Rossia TV, and Izvestia

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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