The Russian Comedian Who Fled to Israel So He Can Stand Up to Putin

Irreverent ‘Sasha’ Dolgopolov is among Russia's most daring comics. After getting into hot water, he's taken refuge in Tel Aviv

Russian comedian Aleksandr (Sasha) Dolgopolov during his show in Tel Aviv on Monday, February 3, 2020.
Meged Gozani

With 107,000 followers on Instagram and millions of views of his performances on YouTube, Aleksandr (Sasha) Dolgopolov may not be the most popular comedian in Russia, but he’s definitely one of the most intriguing. Dolgopolov, 25, represents a new generation of Russian stand-up artists – those who have grown up on social media and shows in small clubs, and have never set foot in the studios of state-owned television stations or the halls that have been the usual venues for popular, establishment comedy shows since the days of the Soviet Union. Few members of this younger generation engage in political satire, and even fewer dare to criticize not only the government in Moscow but also Russian society, as openly as Dolgopolov.

He looks younger than his age, and somewhat fragile. During his act he laughs at chauvinists and homophobes, and nonchalantly mentions the open relationship he had with his former wife and his bipolar disorder. He is biting and crass, but at the same time exposed and vulnerable – and he shatters the tough and dour Russian masculinity that President Vladimir Putin embodies.

Up until about two weeks ago Dolgopolov wandered freely throughout Russia and its neighboring countries, keeping to a busy schedule of four performances a week. But after the police sent a demand for information about him to a club in St. Petersburg, and investigators showed up there and almost simultaneously at his show in Moscow – he packed up his belongings and left Russia until further notice. The sudden departure was widely reported in media outlets. For now, Dolgopolov is in Israel.

According to reports in the Russian media, the police investigation of Dolgopolov was sparked by a complaint against him for “insulting believers.” A few years ago, after the Pussy Riot affair (involving the anti-religious punk rock band whose members were jailed after performing a provocative “protest” prayer) – the law in Russia became stricter, and insulting pious individuals in public became a criminal offense.

The Pussy Riot anti-religious punk rock band whose members were jailed after performing a provocative protest 'prayer.'
Sergey Ponomarev / AP

For his part, Dolgopolov says his lawyer has yet to receive official information from the police, but he’s afraid to return home before ascertaining whether a formal investigation is being launched against him. He says he’ll remain in Israel for about another week or so and then go on to Europe, where has several gigs scheduled. He has no idea what he’ll do afterward.

In Tel Aviv, he tells me in a video interview, from the apartment he’s renting with his girlfriend from home, he’s surrounded by friends – young people who immigrated to Israel in recent years from Russia, as part of what’s dubbed “the Putin aliyah.”

“If you’re a young Russian in Israel, it makes no difference where you go – you’ll end up in a room with the same kind of people,” says Dolgopolov, laughing at the bubble of young expats that has been created in Tel Aviv. His debut in Israel took place in October, and now, in honor of his “emergency” visit, a few more shows had been organized, among them one at Gagarin Club TLV.

The message sent to a club in St. Petersburg claiming Dolgopolov insulted believers

Dolgopolov: “I never wanted to insult people’s religious sensibilities. I see many reactions on the social media now along the lines of, ‘Ahh, you went to Israel, go try joking there about the Holocaust or about Moses.’ But people who post things like that don’t get that I’m not Jewish and I can’t joke about those subjects with the same tough attitude I use to joke about Russian Orthodoxy. I grew up in a Russian Orthodox family, I was Russian Orthodox for most of my life and I live in Russian society, where that religion is aggressively enforced. The law against insulting believers discriminates against atheists, and that gives me a moral right to joke about Russian Orthodoxy any way I want to.”

Censored jokes

Dolgopolov is known for his courageous quips about politics and religion. Actually, any joke made publicly in Russia today about those subjects is seen as courageous, or at least as not self-evident. Prominent Russian journalist Alexey Pivovarov devoted an online program in April to political humor, in which comedians representing different styles and generations of their profession described the boundaries they each impose on themselves (or others).

Alexander Maslyakov, a game-show host and veteran presenter of the humor competition “KVN” – which began as a performance of student skits in the 1960s and morphed into a popular brand on TV and in Russian culture in general – said on Pivovarov’s show that he doesn’t think it’s proper to allow personally “offensive” jokes on his program.

Another famous comedian, Mikhail Galustyan, admitted unashamedly that the impersonation he did of Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen leader, in the presence of the Russian president himself, was coordinated in advance with Kadyrov. By contrast, the most popular social media stand-up artist in Russia, Danila Poperchny admitted that he had done a skit about Kadyrov with watered-down jokes only to prove to himself that he dares to touch the subject.

The show after whicha complaint criticized Aleksandr Dolgopolov for “insulting believers.”The show after whicha complaint criticized Aleksandr Dolgopolov for “insulting believers.”

The Russian comedy that airs today on TV channels – not only the government ones, but also the supposedly private ones – for example, the TNT channel, which is geared to young audiences but belongs to the government gas company, Gazprom – is even more cowardly in many ways than the satirical shows broadcast toward the end of the Soviet era. Even on the supposedly hard-hitting TNT programs, although their language and style are fairly free, the comedians direct their barbs not at the government or the existing order in the country, but at one another or at minority groups.

Elsewhere, however, at open-mic evenings in dark bars, the situation is different. In an interview Dolgopolov gave about two months ago to Yury Dud, the No. 1 online interviewer in Russia today, Dolgopolov said that when he began to perform six years ago he didn’t feel that he could joke about Putin, because the audience wasn’t interested in that subject or got angry. But that situation has changed radically, he added in the interview with Dud: Virtually no comedian will do a gig at a club that doesn’t include political humor, and the audience for its part usually gleefully mocks their president. Political jokes today, “aren’t overly dangerous for the comedians.” He added that he was unable to decipher the pattern of the repression – why are there people who go to jail [for political activism] while others tell cutting jokes about Putin and nothing happens to them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with students and researchers of an industrial college in Cherepovets, Russia, Tuesday, on February 4, 2020.
Mikhail Klimentyev,AP

Capturing Moscow

At his shows, Dolgopolov tells an anecdote about how he lost his cross when he was a little boy, and when he suggested to his father that he buy him a new one, he encountered a firm refusal: “’We won’t buy a new cross,’ his father said. ‘This is what we’ll do: We’ll go and look for it. Otherwise the Gypsies will find it and put a curse on it.’ And I’m like: Why?!?” he says – his tone, body language and sentence construction reflecting the influence of American stand-up comics.

He also sometimes recalls how his mother took him as a child to church in order to cure him of the many illnesses from which he suffered. She ordered him to kiss the icons there, but was unable to direct him to a specific one, so in the end he kissed the image of Satan in one of the paintings and aroused an uproar among those present.

Religion was never officially prohibited in the Soviet Union per se, but freedom of religion was restricted and the regime invested substantial effort in suppressing religious life and disseminating atheistic propaganda, over a period of many years. In the late 1980s and ‘90s Russian citizens began to return to religion spontaneously and en masse, and at the same time the status of the Russian Orthodox Church and its leaders gradually strengthened. The present head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, who openly supports Putin’s government, has often been accused of corruption, notes Dolgopolov during our conversation, adding, “We’re no longer a secular country. We’re a semi-religious closed autocracy.”

In Dolgpolov’s first YouTube video, filmed in 2016 when the young stand-up was primed to go out and “capture Moscow,” we see him sitting in a crowded room in his parents’ home; above him, on a small bookcase, is an impressive array of icons. He grew up in a city of 25,000 in the district of Voronezh, about 500 kilometers from Moscow. His mother was a saleswoman in a jewelry store. When referring to his father, he says: “I don’t know what he does. He’s simply there, he watches TV all day long. When I was little we had money from somewhere; that’s all I know about my father’s business.”

Aleksandr Dolgopolov's Instagram page.

As to the way in which he’s chosen to earn his own living – his parents have accepted it, but it wasn’t an easy process. “When you tell jokes about homophobia or use the feminine form in your speech [a hot thing in Russia today] in Moscow or St. Petersburg, you feel that it doesn’t arouse dissonance and they laugh at the jokes. But if you go to the small towns, for example, beyond the Ural Mountains, in Siberia, the audience gets anxious and clams up, or they start to laugh at the very fact that you’re saying certain words.”

So how did a child from Russia’s deep periphery become one of the most progressive comedians in the country? Dolgopolov says that foreign comedians have influenced him, as has the fact that he has a lot of contact with feminist women: his girlfriend and his former wife. The three of them even lived together and conducted a three-way relationship, for a time.

“I’ve always felt different, somewhat alienated and rejected by society,” he explains. “Maybe because I was sick a lot and when I returned to a regular framework, I would feel rejected. Or maybe it’s because of the love and strength my mother invested in me, the values she instilled: that it’s important to be a good, honest person and not to need to ask for permission to do things from those around you.”

Even if you toughen yourself and try to assimilate the values of the patriarchal society and become part of it, adds Dolgpolov, you’re still an outsider, you don’t get any favors in return – “So, you start to wonder whether that’s normal and begin to seek support in other value systems.”