Weekly 5 September 2021

Undesirable comedian

Hello! This week our top story is about a comedian barred from Russia for life because of a joke. We also look at a hacker attack that targeted The Bell and briefly made us a top news story, and the right-wing hate group that pressured a sushi delivery company into pulling an advertisement featuring a black man.

Comedian banned for life from Russia after joke

When Russia first started to brand media outlets ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations’, the joke on social media was that we would soon see ‘undesirable’ individuals’. Sadly, it wasn’t long before the joke became reality. The Russian Interior Ministry designated stand-up Belarusian comedian Idrak Mirzalizade ‘undesirable’ Monday and said he was barred from entering Russia for the rest of his life.

What happened

  • Mirzalizade appeared with other comedians in a YouTube show earlier this year in which he joked about the xenophobia he encountered when renting a Moscow apartment. The punchline played on the fact that many landlords demand ‘Slavs only’ in apartment listings, yet it is often the Slavs themselves that trash rented properties. That’s an abbreviated version — you can see the whole joke (in Russian) here and judge for yourself.
  • Xenophobia is alive and kicking in Russia today and a man with a ‘foreign sounding’ name like Idrak Mizalizade could hardly have escaped becoming a victim. Many advertisements on Russia’s biggest rental property websites openly state ‘Slavs only’ (remember that many Russians are not Slavs). In many countries, this would be illegal.
  • For several months, nobody paid any attention to Mirzalizade’s joke. Then, suddenly, it became a ‘scandal’ and Mirzalizade was attacked by far-right hate group Male State and pro-Kremlin media. Vladislav Pozdnyakov, the leader of Male State, urged supporters to demand that Mirzalizade be branded ‘undesirable’ and kicked out of Russia.
  • A few days later, the comedian was attacked in a Moscow street. Then, the police opened a case into the incitement of interethnic hatred and Mirzalizade was jailed for 10 days. This was the first time in contemporary Russia an individual had been put in prison for telling a joke.
  • Mirzalizade protested his innocence and apologized to anyone who was offended. He said the joke was about the stupidity of judging an entire nation (in this case, Russia) on a single individual. But officials were not impressed. Mirzalizade — who is a Belaursian citizen — was labelled ‘undesirable’ by the Interior Ministry on Monday and banned from Russia for life. There was no need to deport him, however, as he had already left the country — a friend of the comedia said Mirzalizade was not in either Belarus or Russia.

Why ban a comedian?

  • It’s very rare that an individual is labelled ‘undesirable’ by the Russian authorities, but it does happen. One of the first cases was in 2007 when New Times journalist Natalie Morar was banned from the country. The same law was used to stop rock group The Bloodhound Gang from entering Russia after a show in Ukraine in which the bassist mimed wiping his backside with a Russian flag. But this is the first time a comedian has been branded ‘undesirable’.
  • We can only speculate on the reasons. Artur Chaparyan, another popular stand-up comic and a friend of Mirzalizade, suggested that, in the build-up to parliamentary elections this month, the authorities want to play the ‘nationalist card’. He said Mirzalizade is of the same opinion.
  • But there are other theories. The decision might be a warning to other stand-up comics to stop dabbling in politics. Or it could be the revenge of Igor Sechin, the head of state-owned oil giant Rosneft, after a Mirzalizade’s joke that he would take Sechin’s portrait to a rally to frighten the cops. Sechin is notoriously sensitive to criticism.

Who is Mirzalizade?

  • Mirzalizade is best known as a resident comic at ‘Stand-up Club #1’, an association of independent Russian comedians.
  • Stand-up comedy is a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. For many years, TV program KVN (and its namesake student group) had a monopoly on comedy shows (KVN dates back to the Soviet era and its 80-year-old host has been in the job for 30 years). KVN graduates often went on to work on state-owned television comedy shows. In the 1990s, there was a strong political satire element to KVN, but this has dwindled to nothing.
  • In recent years, stand-up acts have begun to gain a new popularity. Several stand-up comedians have been interviewed by Russia’s most popular YouTuber, Yuri Dud, and made appearances on big entertainment shows. In contrast with other TV comedians, they joke about politics and are not shy of saying what they think. Most of the leading comics are also residents at Stand-up Club #1

Why the world should care

It’s entirely possible we will see similar expulsions in the future — the toolkit for tackling people unliked by the Russian regime is always growing. BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford, who has worked in Russia for 20 years, was also expelled this week after being told she was a “threat to national security”.

Hacker, state propagandists target The Bell

Our very own The Bell fell victim to an attack this week: first from hackers, then state propagandists. Russia’s leading cyber-security experts are investigating the cyber-intrusion on our website and we’ll share their conclusions as soon as possible.

  • Subscribers to The Bell’s daily Russian-language newsletter received an email Thursday that we did not write and did not send. The fake text said it was written by The Bell’s editorial board, and urged readers to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections.
  • To say we were shocked was an understatement — nothing like this has happened since The Bell was set-up in 2017. We released an announcement that the newsletter was a forgery and had nothing to do with our journalists or editors, emphasizing The Bell does not take part in political activities or encourage our readers to take sides. Our sole aim is to provide objective information.
  • Leading Russian cyber-security firms immediately offered their help and we chose Group-IB to investigate how the hack took place. Group-IB is one of the biggest cyber-security firms in Russia and reportedly one of the seven most influential in the world. We may be obliged to take the findings of their investigation to the police.
  • One of the most important questions for us was whether our subscriber data had been compromised. As far as we are aware, the intruders did not manage to access this information. We operate our mailing via a mail-agent and, even if you gain access to this mail-agent, it’s impossible to get to the address list. The attackers reached the mail-agent — but not our reader database.
  • The hack was not an isolated incident. There was also a cyber-attack on our site last week that took us offline for several hours. And, a few weeks before that, a forged power of attorney was used to obtain the call records of The Bell investigative reporter Irina Pankratova (she informed the police).
  • Another alarming development (again suggesting this was part of a coordinated campaign rather than a one-off) was a propaganda ‘attack’ that followed hackers sending the fake newsletter. State-owned television channel Rossiya-24 broadcast a report Thursday evening hinting The Bell should be designated a ‘foreign agent’ (an official label that means significant financial burdens and making the work of journalists much harder). The Rossiya-24 presenter also alleged we wrote the fake newsletter ourselves and then invented a cover story (for the avoidance of doubt, this is untrue — we were hacked).

Why the world should care

Although we do not know who was behind this attack, it’s clear the aim was to intimidate. It goes without saying that such pressure on independent media is unacceptable and that we will continue to strive to provide our readers with objective reporting.

Hate group Male State takes on Sushi company

Siberian sushi-delivery restaurant chain Yobidoyobi took down an advertisement with a black person this week after racist comments and threats from far-right hate group Male State — another example of Russian companies reversing progressive policies following pressure from activists. Yobidoyobi also issued a public apology.

  • Yobidoyobi began receiving a flurry of messages last weekend that demanded the advertisement, which featured a black man surrounded by three Slavic-looking women, be pulled. The restaurant’s website suffered a DDOS attack and Yobidoyobi’s co-founder started receiving death threats after his private cell number was published online.
  • The group behind this coordinated assault was Male State, which serves as an umbrella group for several ‘nationalist patriarchy’ communities on social network VKontakte. Right now, most of their pages on Vkontakte are blocked. The ideological leader of Male State is Vladislav Pozdnyakov, who was jailed for two years in 2018 for inciting hatred of women (the sentence was quashed after three months). After that, Pozdnyakov left Russia. He was last heard of a few days ago: if you believe a message posted on his Telegram channel, he was arrested this week on the border with Azerbaijan.
  • A few days after the start of Male State’s campaign, Yobidoyobi capitulated, apologized, and posted on social media that “on behalf of the whole company, we want to apologize to the Russian nation for offending Russians with our photos.” The incident was reminiscent of a recent scandal when grocery retail chain VkusVill took down an advertisement featuring an LGBT family after it generated online controversy. The family subsequently fled Russia.
  • Yobidoyobi received unexpected support from rival sushi chain Tanuki as it faced online threats. But don’t be deceived into thinking Tanuki is a progressive force: the company is entirely comfortable with sexist advertising, including drawing a parallel between girls eating sushi and giving oral sex.

Why the world should care

It’s amply clear that Russian society has a strong undertow of racism and misogyny — and incidents like this show how close it is to the surface. Nor is the situation helped by contradictory messages from the state. Any company interested in ‘edgy’ advertising will have to be prepared to step on this rake for many years to come.