Kenny Will Live!

Vladimir Putin's war on South Park


Forty years ago, eight brave Russians came out on Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the "Prague Spring" with a banner that said, "For your freedom and ours." (As one might expect, it ended quite badly for them.) Last month, a banner with these words showed up in the hands of one of hundreds of demonstrators in a Moscow park protesting the Russian government's attempt to crush the television show South Park. And, for now, it seems to have ended in a victory for the protesters—at a time when victories for freedom in Russia are a rare treat.

It started on September 7 when a prosecutor's office in Moscow, on a complaint from an evangelical Christian group, brought charges of "extremist activity" against 2×2, a television channel that specializes in cartoons. The offense was a January broadcast of the South Park episode, "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Special," in which characters including Satan, Adolf Hitler, and the anthropomorphic human excrement Mr. Hankey perform in a Christmas variety show. The episode, prosecutors said, "insults the honor and dignity of both Christians and Muslims" and could "provoke ethnic conflict and inter-religious hatred." (Under a 2006 law, Russia's "extremism" statute includes not only incitements to violence but loosely defined hate speech.) A few days later, the General Prosecutor's Office lodged a complaint with the Federal Mass Communications Control Agency accusing 2×2 of "violating the rights of children" by broadcasting "propaganda of violence, cruelty and pornography." The complaint named twelve animated series, including South Park and The Simpsons.

With 2×2's broadcast license up for renewal in mid-October, these actions raised concerns that the channel would be shut down. Further alarm bells went off when Pavel Tarakanov, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Youth Issues, suggested that 2×2's frequency could be given to a new channel reflecting "the government's position with regard to youth policy." "We need to raise a generation of 21st Century Russians who are proud of living in a civilized nation, so we need our own media outlet that would reach the largest possible audience," Tarakanov told the Interfax news agency.

But in the meantime, something else was happening. The Russian public, grown notoriously apathetic during the Putin era of relative prosperity, stability, and rising authoritarianism, suddenly stirred. Starting in mid-September, Moscow and St. Petersburg saw a flurry of pickets, flash mobs, and rallies protesting the moves to squash the channel. Passing drivers honked in solidarity. While the demonstrations were held with prior permission from the authorities, one of the organizers of a September 22 rally in downtown Moscow was briefly detained because the turnout of about 700 vastly exceeded the estimate in the permit application. That evening, over a thousand people gathered around a club that hosted a free rock concert in support of 2×2; some clashed with police when attempts were made to disperse the crowd. In a few days, the protesters collected 34,000 signatures to keep 2×2 on the air.

Judging by photos, the atmosphere at the rallies—which drew mostly young men and women—was both defiant and exuberant, with much sharp humor and creativity. In St. Petersburg, men in black capes and Ku Klux Klan robes slapped "Signal lost or scrambled" notices on the screens of two TV sets. In addition to the inevitable "They killed Kenny!", a particularly inventive sign read, "Kenny lived, Kenny lives, Kenny will live!", in a play on the once-ubiquitous Soviet slogan about Lenin. Many handwritten signs, like "For your freedom and ours," had broader political overtones: "This is a free country—we don't want censorship!"; "Today they came for Kenny, tomorrow they'll come for you"; "Let's ban banning!"

The people's voice, apparently, was heard. On September 25, Russia's Federal Competitive Bidding Commission on Broadcasting voted unanimously to recommend that 2×2's license be renewed. The final decision is up to another federal agency, but it is expected to follow the recommendation. 2×2, in turn, will comply with the commission's request to expand its programming to include TV movies and non-animated series, as stated in its official description; the channel's general director Roman Sarkisov has promised that the new fare will be "faithful to the style of 2×2." Meanwhile, South Park stays on the air except for the "offending" episode, which has been shelved pending further investigation of "extremism."

Despite this partial victory, Russian opponents of censorship (even leaving aside the political kind) still face an uphill battle. Polls show that some 60 percent of Russians think the government should be able to ban "immoral" TV programming. Nonetheless, the protests in support of 2×2 are a hopeful sign, and not just for uncensored entertainment. "True, this is not about…the fight for democracy and the future of Russia," activist and journalist Alexander Podrabinek wrote on the EJ.ru website. "And yet these events give cause to hope that not everything is lost…that not everyone in Russia is under the yoke of submission, fear and apathy. People who have nothing to do with politics have come out to defend their right: the right to watch a TV channel they like." In a verse commentary titled "The Last Bastion" in the weekly Ogoniok, the astute satirist Dmitry Bykov wrote:

The days of liberty are now behind us,

And yet here is a fact you can't avoid:

As long as we can say, "Don't have a cow, man!",

Freedom in Russia cannot be destroyed!

Ironically, both Bykov and Podrabinek seem to regard the disputed cartoons as dumb, crude comedy with lots of poop jokes; to Bykov, this makes 2×2's victory a bittersweet one. In fact, South Park and The Simpsons have had a lot to say about individual freedom, censorship, intolerance, and other issues extremely relevant in today's Russia. It may even, in the end, teach more about liberty and independent thinking than some weighty political debates.

This would not be the first time that "vulgar" entertainment has played a role in advancing political freedom—from Pierre de Beaumarchais's bawdy, aristocracy-bashing comedy The Marriage of Figaro under 18th Century European monarchies to rock music under 20th century communist dictatorships.

Stan, Cartman, and the gang as keepers of liberty's flame in Russia? Whyever not? Indeed, one might say that Kenny is not a bad metaphor for the spirit of freedom in Russia: killed again and again, and somehow always alive for another round.

NEXT: One Reason Why This Is Still a Great Country (South Park 12th Season Semi-Premiere Edition)

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  1. Jesus, did you see this week’s episode? If I were Russia I would have done the same thing.

  2. ? ??? ???! ??? ????? Kenny!

  3. I have yet to see this week’s episode, but if descriptions are correct SP will probably go the pay-per-view way of Howard Stern, both here and in Russia. Sad. But it’s not like the people who want tasteful comedy would be watching South Park at this point in history for *any* reason besides “to bitch to a government censorship agency,” so maybe they’ll survive on the “free” airwaves.

    And as an American, I think The Simpsons represents me better than the US Embassy, so I’m very happy that it’s popular in Russia.

  4. At least someone mentioned it.
    BTW the Simpsons ceased to be funny years ago. And while I didn’t love this week’s episode (too much dick-shooting) the season overall has been okay. I would prefer, of course, for something like the 4-7 seasons (in my opinion, the best run in any comedy series ever).
    SP isn’t going pay-per-view. It’s the only thing that makes Comedy Central worth watching.

  5. @James Butler LOL

  6. Stand-up isn’t worth watching, economist? None of it? Sure they put on a lot of popular comics that aren’t necessarily the best, but they certainly give plenty of up-and-comings a chance and have quite a variety. Their podcast has also been pretty awesome and has introduced me to some awesome comics.

    And I agree with the sentiment that there is a lot of value to South Park, and most fundies (aka my family) could never appreciate it’s message and purpose. Such art is absolutely brilliant, and it appeals to younger, more vulgar audiences who just watch it for the cussing. Impressive, if you ask me.

  7. James Butler,

    I should have seen it coming, but I had to put that into a translator. Nice work.

  8. Danny,
    Maybe I should rephrase. It’s the only regular program on CC that’s worth watching. That said, the stand-up comics can sometimes be funny, but I also think a lot of their humor is flat.

  9. This is just a sidenote: Has anyone noticed that the “Russian Beauty” model doesn’t look very Slavic?

  10. In Soviet Russia, Kenny kills you!!111!

  11. Question here – as far as I can tell, 2×2 is a broadcast channel. South Park could never be shown on broadcast in the US. So Russia’s airwaves are *more* free than ours?

  12. Having watched South Park on Russian TV while I was on Moscow this summer, I have to say I think this is waaaaaaaay overblown. 2×2 shows South Park on regular broadcast TV, which the American FCC would never, ever allow. In their drive to greater broadcast “morality,” Russian authorities are merely following in the footsteps of generations of moralist blowhards who have fought to make our airwaves “safe for impressionable young minds.” As in many aspects of policy, Putin’s Russia is merely following America’s bad example on this one.

  13. Channel 6 in Phoenix, Arizona runs South Park. They may omit some of the most offending episodes, I’m not sure about that.

    Anyway, it’s good to hear that Russians are still willing to stick up for their rights, even after all they’ve been through in the rocky road to Russian capitalist democracy. I hope that willingness extends beyond the right to watch vulgar television shows. The ‘lessons’ contained in South Park are increasingly deeply veiled in vulgarity, to the point it’s sometimes hard to discern what the message is beyond “censorship sucks”.

    It’s also sad to see that Russians are just as ignorant about the concept of cartoons for grownups, and the idea that they can simply change the channel if they don’t want their children watching a show they don’t approve of. Televisions and cable boxes come with pretty sophisticated parental controls these days; parents need to get off their lazy asses and take five minutes to block the channels they don’t like instead of whining to the government to take them off the air. It’s ridiculous, in this country or any other.

  14. Oh, Russia is SO going to get it in an upcoming episode.

    “Holy #&*%! Russia killed Kenny!”

  15. south park is indeed broadcast over the air in the US, albeit a tad cleaned up and late at night

  16. I see SP on broadcast all the time, it is edited, but it is there.

  17. Ha,

    I am in the middle east. I watched a romantic comedy on Air Jordan on the way over here, and they cut out all of the kissing. It made the movie somewhat more watchable to me, and more interesting, because I had to figure out what was going on.

    Also funny is watching the subtitles, the allow the characters to say bad words, but don’t subtitle them correctly into Arabic.

  18. Simpsons did it…

    “Ban Itchy and Scratchy”

  19. Don’t know about you tards, but “Merry Fucking Christmas” is a classic in my household.

  20. 2 economist:

    There is quite a lot of Russian girls living in Prague, and quite a lot of them are blond. Sometimes, with help of peroxide.

    Polish people are also generally quite fair-haired.

    I do not think that there is a common “Slavic” phenotype; for example, quite a lot of Bulgarians have Turkish blood and looks.

  21. Somehow, I think the libertarian leaning of the wickedly pointed satire of SP is probably lost on the Slavic Orwellian sensibility. One almost has to be immersed in the American cultural inanity to really “get” SouthPark beyond the scat and sex jokes. Its over the top bleeding social satire kids! Now don’t watch it or I might have to explain it. HA!

  22. In the words of Eric Cartman:


  23. There is quite a lot of Russian girls living in Prague, and quite a lot of them are blond. Sometimes, with help of peroxide.

    Don’t forget who went a-raidin’ down the Dnieper way back when…


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