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Jokes in Russia Are No Laughing Matter

Stand-up Comedian Flees after Authorities Open Investigation into Act

Screenshot from the video Alexander Dolgopolov recorded to comment on police inquiry.  © Alexander Dolgopolov/YouTube

This week, a stand-up comedian fled Russia fearing prosecution over a recent set.

Aleksandr Dolgopolov published, on January 21, a letter sent by police to a bar in Saint Petersburg where he performed last winter. In the inquiry, police demanded “full information” about Dolgopolov and his performance, a recording of which now has more than 2.8 million views on YouTube.

In a video explainer he posted for his fans before leaving Russia, Dolgopolov, 25, said:

"For a while, I was confused. I had been performing for several years and spoke [negatively] about the authorities quite openly without anything happening to me. At some point, I even started having doubts whether this [Russian] government is really that bad. But, don’t worry, it is actually that bad."

Dolgopolov’s act included crude jokes about sex, politics, and Christianity. According to the police, the inquiry was made as part of their investigation into a complaint filed by a “concerned member of the public” claiming that the video “offends the religious feelings of believers.”

In 2013, the Russian parliament adopted a broad and vague anti-blasphemy law, which provides for criminal sanctions for offending “the religious feelings of believers” without defining “feelings” or “believers.” Since then, authorities have been using the law to silence critical expression, including satirical speech. In a particularly notorious case in May 2017, a court in Ekaterinburg handed down a three-and-a-half years’ suspended sentence to video blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky for inciting hatred and insult against the religious feelings of believers by filming a video of himself playing Pokémon GO in a church. Before a verdict was even reached, Sokolovsky spent three-and-a-half months in jail and another five months under house arrest.

“This law on offending religious feelings of believers] is pretty much an ideological oppression because … if a person believes in God, this law allows them to jail whoever they dislike,” Dolgopolov said, explaining that he would rather leave preemptively than risk imprisonment.

Russian authorities increasingly crack down on creative expression they deem out of line with so-called traditional values. The police investigation into Dolgopolov’s act and his consequent flight from the country are yet another chilling illustration of how serious the problem is.

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