ONE of Russian television's premier political-comedy shows has become no joke for its producers, who defended themselves on July 18 against criminal proceedings brought by the government's prosecutor general.
The court case, announced July 14 against Kukly, a puppet show satirizing government leaders, is ''an attempt to scare off the mass media on the eve of the election campaign ... to frighten us and keep us under control,'' charged Igor Malashenko, head of the independent NTV channel that broadcast the program. NTV is Russia's largest privately owned television station.
At the very least, independent observers said, the incident reveals how sensitive Kremlin officials are to the sort of public mockery that is standard fare for politicians in the West.
''It shows that the authorities have lost their sense of humor, or their sense of reality,'' comments Oleg Panfilov of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a press freedom watchdog group.
The Kukly (the Russian word for puppets) episode in question, shown 10 days ago, portrayed President Boris Yeltsin once as a homeless drunk, wondering why his mother had bothered to bring him into this world, and in another segment as a beggar woman on the subway, cradling a baby in her arms. The baby was presidential security chief Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, a shadowy figure rumored to be one of Mr. Yeltsin's closest advisers.
The prosecutor general's office, in a statement, accused the show of ''conscious and public humiliation of [government officials'] honor and dignity, expressed in an indecent way.''
Under Article 131 of the Russian criminal code, such an offense is punishable by up to two years of ''corrective labor.''
THE decision to launch a court case against the show, NTV's Mr. Malashenko told a press conference on July 18, was all the graver in light of the notification he received last week that the prosecutor general had opened an investigation into an interview that NTV ran late last month with a Chechen guerrilla leader.
In that interview, Shamil Basayev, the commander of the Chechen raiding party that seized more than 1,000 hostages in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk on July 14, warned he would continue to carry the Chechen struggle into Russian territory unless Moscow signed a peace treaty with breakaway rebel leaders.
In early July the prosecutor general's office demanded a copy of the tape of the interview and a list of all NTV employees involved in conducting and broadcasting the story, Malashenko said.
''We are dealing with an organized campaign,'' he added. ''If every journalist feels that a criminal case might be opened against him for anything he does, it will be very hard to work professionally.''
NTV has been an especially sharp thorn in the the government's side in recent months. Its unflinching coverage of the effects of the Russian military campaign in the separatist region of Chechnya was unprecedented in the Moscow media, and helped turn public opinion against the war.
Yet the Kukly series, which features grotesque puppets of top government officials such as Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev, is mild by Western standards.
Inspired by the British television parody series Spitting Image, the Russian version pokes as much fun at opposition figures, such as former premier and radical free marketeer Yegor Gaidar, or Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov, as it does at Kremlin notables.
But in a country where government officials have traditionally been above public criticism, the program has broken new ground.
Some officials clearly find new democratic freedoms uncomfortable, opposition commentators have pointed out.
''Kukly is only a mirror, but top officials don't like their reflections,'' commented the communist newspaper Pravda.
Spokesmen for both Yeltsin and Mr. Chernomyrdin deny that their bosses had anything to do with the prosecutor general's decision to launch a case against Kukly. And although Malashenko accused the prosecutor general's office of being ''a tool in the hands of somebody in an influential post,'' he would not be more specific.
Whether the case will ever come to court, or be buried under the wave of indignation it has prompted, is still unclear. But Viktor Shenderovich, the man who wrote the offending Kukly episode, said he has taken away one lesson from the fracas.
''Satire has to irritate the powerful,'' he argued. ''The jester who doesn't irritate the king is a bad jester. But the king who doesn't laugh at himself is a weak king''.