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‘A satire for our time’ Russian investigators scrutinize popular rappers Oxxxymiron and Noize MC in response to parody complaint

Source: Meduza
Alexander Bastrykin

The Russian Investigative Committee is looking into the work of popular rappers Oxxxymiron and Noize MC after receiving a “complaint” about their lyrics. As it turns out, the basis for the probe was a satirical LiveJournal post by a left-wing opposition activist, who immediately acknowledged that he wrote it as a joke. With a pre-trial check already underway, Russian investigators now have ten days to decide whether or not to initiate a criminal case. Will they get the joke and drop the probe? Meduza asks experts to weigh in.

What happened?

On December 5, Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin instructed his subordinates to conduct a pre-investigation check based on an appeal from a “group of patriots.” These “patriots” had asked Bastrykin to look into the work of popular rappers Oxxxymiron (Miron Fyodorov) and Noize MC (Ivan Alexeyev), whose songs, they claimed, contain “attempts to rehabilitate Nazism,” extremism, and a “negative attitude toward law enforcement officials.”

Within a few hours, journalists traced the wording of the appeal to a post on LiveJournal by left-wing opposition activist Dmitry Yakushev. As it turns out, Yakushev had written a parody letter addressed to Bastrykin, jokingly calling for an investigation into Oxxxymiron and Noize MC. He described their work as more dangerous than “NATO expansion” and alleged that Oxxxymiron had “sexually insulted” prominent political scientist Ekaterina Shulman (the rapper’s track “Agent” includes the lyrics, “J.Lo – into the bin, take your Uma Thurman / There’s no MILF sexier than Ekaterina Shulman”). Yakushev signed the letter from “A group of patriots of Russia.”

The same evening, Yakushev wrote another LiveJournal post. “Damn. Stop. There was no ‘Appeal by a group of patriots.’ It was a joke,” he said. He called the letter a “satire for our time.”

Since it’s a joke, will investigators drop the probe?

According to lawyer Vladimir Voronin — who, in addition to representing the likes of opposition figure Lyubov Sobol, has some experience in stand-up comedy — there’s no way for Yakushev to “take back” his satirical appeal to Bastrykin. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. It’s widely believed that you can take back your statement from the police. This works only in a very limited number of cases. [If] one person hit another over the head with a frying pan — then yes. For all other offenses it does not work,” he explains. 

“Whether the statement was a joke or not doesn’t matter — the presence or absence of something prohibited isn’t influenced by the applicant’s opinion,” adds lawyer Leonid Solovyov, who represented Alexander Dolgopolov. A standup comedian, Dolgopolov left Russa temporarily last year after police began investigating him over a joke that allegedly “offended religious believers.”

How did the Investigative Committee come across the ‘complaint’?

Presumably, Yakushev’s LiveJournal post caught the eye of a state investigator or an agent from Center E — Russia’s secretive Anti-Extremism Center, which constantly monitors the RuNet and then shares its findings with the Investigative Committee within the framework of “interagency cooperation.” Obviously, the official who “discovered” it didn’t get the joke. However, this seems to be a common occurrence, rather than a bug in the system.

“Our investigative authorities, especially those who can mandate [...] the launch of a criminal case or a pre-investigation check, unfortunately, don’t understand jokes. And it’s difficult for them to appreciate the sarcasm or irony contained in the words. The first reaction of a security official is to seize on new information and try to spin this case,” says Vladimir Voronin, the lawyer.

An investigator who “seizes on new information” typically draws up a report outlining his version of the incident and passes it up the chain of command. “They initiate a probe not on the basis of the post itself, but on the basis of a report that an operative will write,” Voronin explains. That said, the Investigative Committee isn’t obliged to disclose the information that served as the basis for initiating the check. (As previously mentioned, it was journalists who traced the probe back to Yakushev’s post).

There’s no repercussions for an official who “didn’t get the joke.” In the logic of the system, he did the right thing: it’s better to play it safe, just in case, and let the bosses work out if the post was a joke or not. At the same time, the author of the post that inspired the report can appeal to common sense all they want. As Voronin puts it, “the criminal and administrative codes don’t know such grounds as ‘I was just joking’.”

Might the Investigative Committee conclude there’s nothing to investigate?

This is possible. The Investigative Committee has ten days to decide whether or not to initiate a criminal case (though the pre-investigation check can be extended). 

Yakushev’s case resembles the lesser-known case of Nizhny Novgorod journalist Alexander Pichugin, who was convicted of spreading fake news about the coronavirus and fined 300,000 rubles ($4,000) in December 2020. The charges were brought against him over a satirical post he wrote on Telegram. 

“Piguchin said in court: ‘Guys, you see I have this kind of satirical, biting style, I write with sarcasm. And it’s clear to any advanced reader that this isn’t serious.’ The expert linguists also said it was a joke, nevertheless, it didn’t have any effect on the verdict,” recalls Mass Media Defense Center director Galina Arapova. “The Investigative Committee and the court replied: ‘You can consider it a joke, but we take it at face value — this post could have caused panic’.”

So there’s no such thing as humor from the point of view of the law?

No, and that’s a problem. The courts also appear to lack a mechanism that can distinguish a joke from a serious complaint, or rather, the mechanisms in place often fail. The judge who read Alexander Pichugin’s Telegram post, for example, saw it not as satire, but as a falsehood, as fake news. This literal interpretation of satirical statements jeopardizes the basic elements of the genre: exaggeration and humor — without which satire ceases to be satire.

“Humor isn’t perceived as a format of dialogue between people. All of this is taken at face value,” Galina Arapova underscores. “Only people who are confident, independent, and strong can joke and take a joke. And if [you’re] not then any joke looks scary or serious.” 

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Explainer by Dmitry Bachedin

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart