In the distance, a baby wails. Above him drape the angel wings of a pillow fort’s white blankets. As we step closer, stained glass emerges, and a cradle, a candle on cloth. “Waaaaa!” goes the baby. A man hovers over it. “God,” the man says, “why did this have to happen to me?” It’s a gross baby. A fairy buzzes in. “Yes, yes,” the fairy agrees, “your first ones were prettier.” The fairy has a fly’s wings and disposition. The father sighs. His bloated cheeks crumple in self pity.
“But I grew to dislike all of them, and then, this . . .”
Exhausted, he falls asleep. But the baby remains awake. Suddenly it yells in a voice like a gnat: “Kill them in the crapper! Kill them in the crapper!”
Vladimir Putin hates this. He hates seeing himself in the cradle rocked by a despairing Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s former president, although he did actually say, “Kill them in the crapper,” or near enough. It was one of the lines that made his reputation as the hardman the nation needed during a blizzard of pansy politics in the 1990s. When Putin was a mere prime minister, accelerating from obscurity in the FSB (or KGB) onto the oligarchs’ shortlist to lead Russia’s crony capitalism, the country was scared, desperate, running in the dark. Four bombs had levelled apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk, killing over 300 people. The freshly minted Putin, a month into the job, blamed Chechnya, the northern territory that liberated itself in 1996. Never mind that they’d already won a war for independence and signed a peace treaty — this was clearly the work of Chechan scum. He appeared on TV to proclaim, “The question is closed once and for all. We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, then in an airport. And forgive me, if we catch them in the crapper, then we’ll rub them out in the crapper.”
Years later, evidence would arise from cobwebbed corners of Russian intelligence suggesting the Kremlin had built and triggered these bombs. But it was too late. Putin was a star. He invaded Chechnya again and won. Tens of millions of Russians saw a figure striding manfully up red-carpeted stairs, looking his enemies — imagined or otherwise — dead in the eye. That bored gaze. The pressed lips getting on with business. After so much crippled by Yeltsin’s economic mismanagement, tottering drunkenness and heart attacks, Putin appeared to be the only man who could jam adrenaline into the nation’s chest without wincing. So yes, he’d kill anywhere. He’d do what he had to until pride was restored and his citizens walked tall.
But then of course, little Vlad was a baby. Yeltsin a knackered dad. That fairy, Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s infamous businessmen. On Sunday nights in the ‘90s they became puppets — real puppets. Money and politics circled each other and you never knew who was pulling whose strings. A team of writers, actors and prop-makers tried to show us.
Kukly, which just means ‘puppets’, was a sensational comedy. Aping Spitting Image, the grande dame of latex lampoonery, it was broadcast on NTV — Russia’s first Western-style independent network — from 1994 to 2002, shamelessly satirizing domestic and world affairs. It was a huge hit. Around half the country tuned in week after week. They’d never seen anything like it.
From economists to mayors, shills to sycophants, Tony Blair to Bill Clinton, Kukly skewered society in 12 minutes. Created by executive producer Vasily Grigoryev and four voice actors, the program was a standout on NTV, which was already pushing the limits of Russian news coverage with its fiery reporting on the first Chechen war and the government’s attempts to hide Boris Yeltsin’s ill health. But with this strange, grotesque little mirror on current events and the corridors of power, it went further to imitate America and Europe, offering televised entertainment that could be sad and silly and a callback at social occasions. In 2002, Grigoryev claimed that as many people watched puppets knocking the shit out of each other as had voted Vladimir Putin in office.
Yeltsin’s fall from hero to bozo was already the subject of many classic Kukly sketches, such as Don Quixote wandering aimlessly on a donkey or as he stumbled drunk through alleys as a beggar. The administration didn’t approve. A prosecution statement at the time cited “conscious and public humiliation of honor and dignity, expressed in an indecent way.” NTV disagreed. Before they went to court, the charges were dropped. Yeltsin’s distaste had scant effect other than telling Kukly’s producers that they shouldn’t do this, they shouldn’t want to. The Kremlin claimed it was democratic, but didn’t appreciate any opinions on the issue, especially in primetime.
As Putin ascended, Kukly took aim at him too. One segment depicts Berezovsky combing the new president’s hair with a “magic TV comb,” maybe preparing him for makeup. Watching from a window, Yavlinsky observes there are three red hairs: “We need to rip them out!”
“But he’ll be bald and ugly,” moans Sergey Kirienko, a disgraced reformer. Of course, Yavlinsky replies. He’ll lose his grip on Moscow.
The scene cuts to a church where Putin’s lumpy head sings beautifully to men in suits. He fumbles the lyrics sheet. The audience holds hands to their hearts. Putin starts floating and — PLUCK. The hairs are torn. That gargling infant voice returns, worse than ever. Ministers and lackeys pelt him with bread.
More episodes heap indignities on Russia’s savior. One has opponents looking for the source of Putin’s sorcery in a dusty book, saying that he is neither, “a gnome [...] nor the King of Beetles.” They conclude he’s an ordinary bloke with help from a UFO. Another presents the president in his limousine, cruising down Tverskaya Street while hookers beckon him from a bandwagon.
The rest, sadly, are lost to us. NTV has wiped every trace of Kukly from its YouTube channel and archives. You can find clips on low-res uploads but that’s it. The network has changed too. Actually, it’s unrecognizable. Metal-eyed reporters and anarchic comedies have been shoved into the cold for remakes of Jeopardy! and Child’s Play, Korean dramas and puff-piece journalism. In some ways, the downfall began with those puppets.
Putin first threatened the show in 2000 when he locked up Valdimir Gusinsky, a press baron who’d been critical of the administration. Gusinky was arrested while the president was in Spain; he claimed to find out more on his return. Yet carefully, Putin was coiling around the media that sought to undo him, that made him famous. This was more Yeltsin fallout. During the last election, he agreed to an oligarch-led bailout to save his tremulous political career. The deal — what came to be known as the Loans for Shares scheme — landed the government with debts it couldn’t pay unless it sold off state-owned enterprises. One by one, energy firms worth billions of dollars were sold for bargains in sham auctions devised by Russia’s business elite. Gazprom, an oil and gas enterprise, followed suit. And Gazprom was pro-Putin. Drunk on their own small-screen visions, the oligarchs came for the independent broadcasters.
In the summer of 2000, dozens of flak-jacketed police raided NTV’s parent group, Media-Most. Gusinsky was forced to freeze his 19% share vote in jail. By 2001, he was told the fraud charges would be lifted if he gave up his stake completely. Gazprom’s 30% share had already grown to 45% without it. Now calling the shots, the organization pressed a boot heel on the channel’s content producers, who’d been receiving not-so-coded warnings from Putin’s inner circle. “People from the Kremlin made transparent hints to us,” Grigoryev said. “They told us to be more balanced and to try not to cause a scandal every week. But we do not intend to change anything.”
They did, though. They had to. Russia’s last surviving political debate program, Freedom of Speech, was axed. A news anchor met the same fate, accused of “failing to support the politics of the company’s leadership.” Kukly decided to try a show without Putin — at least in the frame. The following episode had a ratty chief of staff bumbling down a mountainside, Moses delivering God’s commandments. No-one could see the Big Man. Nobody could even say his name. It was a needle thrown at the sky, helpless and vicious in containment.
During this rare, astonishing breath between two Russias , anything was possible. Any chance, treat or comfort, and the sharp urge to self analyse. That’s TV for you. It served an audience starved of truth. It was their open window. For a few years, satire savaged a ruling class unused to the vaguest contempt. Kukly’s rise and demise is a scrap for fictional territory, one dream land invading another, nurtured by it, a fight to confirm everything makes sense and life has a dramatic arc. Their arc. Anyone watching. And they had Vlad as the lead, eventually, and he didn’t have room for more characters, least of all a rubber version of himself. He was happy to take the script too.
In a 2020 Dutch documentary, a crew of filmmakers actually go to find the Putin puppet, which was rumored to have vanished without a trace. Initially, they visit Vasily Grigoryev, gray and wicked, searching boxes of old faces in a barn. It’s no use; Putin was meant to have ordered the hit on his doppelganger personally. Yet on the fringes of Moscow, the team talks to a former puppet maker living as a recluse for two decades. This man looks uncomfortable. He waits for the right words, playing with metal emblems on his dinner table. “People can say whatever they like about the puppet. It’s not Putin. Because Putin and Putin the puppet are entirely different things. What do you want to talk about?” he asks.
They want the head. So he goes into another door by the stove. When he comes out, he’s carrying a familiar visage. Natty hair. The nose somehow squashed and long. Lips you can’t read even when you’re making them move. “I wish you all the best with your exciting project,” the puppet maker says, “and show people how to make the world a better place.” As he zips Putin into a suitcase barely big enough for a chihuahua’s nail kit, you can see stress flee his body, the weight of the past expelled and passed on.