Kebab House of Comedy

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Russian politics is a joke.  I’m not being sarcastic.  It really is funny.  Perhaps in an effort to one up the inanity of American politics (as we all know Russians just want to be like us!), or because it has a fatuous dynamic of its own, what passes for the political over there often epitomizes the absurd.  Take the most recent scandal involving the Anti-Soviet Kebab House, the Moscow Veterans Committee, the dissident Alexander Podrabinek, and Nashi.  It was a publicity stunt within a publicity stunt. A narcissistic plea of “Look at me!” if I’ve ever seen one. A better political parody couldn’t have been concocted by the Kremlin’s best spin doctors.  The sad thing is that the ensuing scandal would have been really, really funny if the joke wasn’t so bad.

Long story short: After a summer of renovations, the owner of kebab restaurant on Leningradskii prospekt decided to call his place “Anti-Soviet” to poke fun at the Soviet Hotel across the street.   The name went well the the restaurant’s dissident theme of photos of “anti-Soviet” figures of the past.  Plus the moniker was a “jokey name” used by patrons in the Soviet period. Vets, however, didn’t see the humor and complained to the local district administration, demanding the restaurant be renamed.  The “anti-” in Anti-Soviet Kebab House, they said, hurt their feelings and denigrated their sacrifice in saving Russia from Nazism.  Within days, the district’s “crusading environmental inspector,” Oleg Mitvol, paid the Anti-Soviet Kebab House a visit ordering the “anti-” be removed. The owners begrudgingly complied. “We took down the sign under pressure from the district authorities,” Alexander Vanin, the restaurant’s manager told the Moscow Times. “It was to avoid a war and attacks from the prefect, Oleg Mitvol.” Another bad joke bombs to the politics of the absurd.

But the inanity didn’t stop there.  In fact, it was only beginning.

Enter Alexander Podrabinek, the famous Soviet dissident and now Putin foe. Having had enough of the “restoration of the Soviet past,” Podrabinek pounded out a diatribe “Letter to Soviet Veterans,” where he called the name change as “great pity” and lambasted the complaining veterans as “idiotic, base, and stupid.”  He then went on to charge the vets as “the ones who served as whipmasters in labour camps and prisons, political commissars of anti-retreat units, and executioners at firing grounds.”  According to Podrabinek, he and others who defied the Soviet regime are the country’s real heroes.  The letter was published on Podrabinek’s blog and on the website of the liberal rag Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal.

The real pity however, isn’t so much that the Anti-Soviet Kebab House was muscled into changing its name.  Nor is it the substance of Podrabinek’s rant, ridiculous as it is.  It’s the fact that screaming about the “restoration of the Soviet past” is really all Russian liberals have as a political issue.  It’s no wonder your average Russian, many of who probably sympathize with the veterans, can’t stand the liberals (assuming they know the liberals exist).  Instead of engaging in a politics that, I don’t know, actually matters like the economic crisis, layoffs, prices and other issues, Russia’s liberal intelligentsia choose to dig up the old bones of the past, wave them furiously in the air, and use them to beat the citizenry over the head.  The politics of the dead just doesn’t make sense when you could be engaging in a politics of the living. But oh no.  Many Russian liberals believe that constantly screaming about Stalin is going to further their political agenda.  Newsflash: It’s not.

Thus, what began as a joke that flew over the heads of some thin-skinned old-timers, only revealed the joke that is Russia’s liberal intellgentisa.

Sadly, the comedy sketch didn’t end there.

Enter Nashi.  Nashi has been aimless since the election of Dmitry Medvedev.  With “colored revolution” vanquished, a number of its chapters liquidated, and little need for mass street protests, the kids in Nashi don’t know what to do with themselves.  They purport to have all sorts of programs to train the next generation of Putinistas, but none of that makes the headlines in the Russian or international press.  This doesn’t mean that Nashi hasn’t found a niche in the Medvedevian Thaw.  Every generation needs a war, and if you can’t provide a real one, then a virtual one will just have to suffice.  Taking the “anti-fascist” part of their name waaay to seriously, Nashi has decided that anything that criticizes the integrity of Soviet past and the Russian present is “fascism.”  So Nashi’s activities over the last several months have focused on publicity stunts to unmask Russia’s internal enemies supported by the “fascist” West.

As soon as Nashi joined the fray, what was already a political farce quickly turned into tragedy. Soon after Prodabinek’s diatribe hit runet, Nashi began mobilizing its apparatus of outrage.  Members began pickets outside of Prodrabinek’s apartment, released his phone number and address on the internet, and vowed to run him out of the country. According to Nashi’s GenSek, Nikita Borovikov, all these actions are “of the most democratic in nature.”

Fearing for his life, Probrabinek went into hiding.  Not because of Nashi, whose actions he considers a “propaganda stunt” and an “imitation of public outrage” (which it is), but because of  “information from reliable sources” that “serious people” want him taken care of.  That is “taking care of” in the bullet-in-head sense of the phrase.

More outrage ensued.  Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal began an online petition in support of Prodrabinek, which now sports over 3000 signatures, a virtual who’s who of the Russian liberal intelligentsia.  Not to be outdone, Nashi claims to have over 5000 signatures against Prodrabinek.

I just have to ask a number of questions.  Are you kidding me? Hiding? Is this a joke? You do know that this is all because of a shashlik joint? Do you? Someone please tell me that this is part of some Russian version of Punk’d.  Because if this is real then someone call Dr. Phil to mediate between the vets, Prodrabinek, and Nashi. There is a little to much of the “talk to the hand ’cause the face don’t understand” going on.

But apparently it is real or at least appears real enough.  And always ready to jump on the latest scandal in Russia, the Western media and rights groups have hitched a ride on the outrage express.  The Committee for the Protection of Journalists released a statement calling for an end to the harassment of and for the protection of Prodrabinek.  Even the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchnercontacted the relevant authorities to make sure [Prodrabinek] is safe.”

All for the name of a kebab restaurant.

But this is what passes for small-p politics in Russia. A bad joke produces outrage, which in the end exposes what utter jokes Russia’s liberals and Nashi really are.  And the joke isn’t funny any more as the great Morrissey once sang.  Because for Russians like the 27,600 AvtoVAZ workers in Togliatti waiting for their pink slips, the message is clear: Russia’s liberals and Nashi don’t care about you.  Not when there are kebab restaurants and Soviet pride to defend.