Impressionists have long been popular in Russia. But for a long time now, “top-level” impressions have been, well, less than challenging. It didn’t take a superior comic to parody the Southern accent and sing-song intonation of Mikhail Gorbachev, even less so the slurring baritone of Boris Yeltsin.
Yet, mimicking Vladimir Putin is a different story altogether. Even today, it takes an audacious humorist to parody a former lieutenant-colonel of the KGB. Plus it is not so easy to reproduce Putin’s particular speaking style, which is a bit colorless and insconspicuous as befits a former “knight of the cloak and dagger.”
Then, one year ago, along came Maxim Galkin. Galkin, 24, did not wait for permission from the top to mimic Putin. The latter, then still prime minister, first saw Galkin on stage in 1999, when Galkin did impressions of Yeltsin discussing the oligarchs, improvising on“where one must ‘wet’ and how” (from Putin’s famous words about his willingness “to wet terrorists even in the outhouse”). The following year, after the March 2000 presidential elections, Putin was in the audience again, now to watch himself on stage in Galkin’s interpretation. Putin, Galkin said, was sitting in the front row, laughing from the bottom of his heart.
Like so many other artists from Russia’s “humor and satire workshop,” Galkin is not a formally trained actor. In fact, Galkin is a linguist. He graduated from the Russian State Humanitarian University and speaks French, English and German. He is actually still working on a post-graduate degree and will shortly defend his dissertation, “Correlation of Stylistic Systems of the Original and the Translated Texts.”
At first, impressions were a hobby for Galkin. His mother Natalia recalled how he would mimic her voice over the phone or replay his parent’s occasional quarrels, mimicking their voices and mannerisms. “It was so funny to watch ourselves in his interpretation,” his mother said.
Then, in his first year at university, Galkin joined the Student’s Theater at MGU, where he quickly distinguished himself. In 1994, at 18, he was invited to the famous Teatr Estrady by then director Boris Brunov.
Invitations to prestigious soirées, anniversaries and award ceremonies soon followed, as well as limited television appearances. In 1998, Galkin traveled to the US to perform and also went to Israel along with his patron, the renowned satirist Mikhail Zadornov.
But Galkin’s perfection of the Putin impression, together with Putin’s rise to the presidency, have led to an “avalanche” of appearances over the last two months, his mother said. Which is not to say Galkin is a one-act sensation. Far from it.
On a recent television special dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Russian Tax Police (!), he parodied almost every major politician, from the nasal voice and simple speaking style of Viktor Chernomyrdin, to the high-brow Grigory Yavlinsky, to the ever flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But Galkin’s act does reach its crescendo when he ends his Yeltsin monologue with a hilarious “eh, Volodya?” and masterfully switches from Yeltsin’s squeaky baritone to Putin’s soft falsetto. The mannerisms are also perfect, from the president’s trademark twitching of his neck to his knowing smirk.
Aren’t his parents a bit worried about his mimicking the president? “No,” Galkin replies. “Oh, well, parents always worry, but they are mostly worried for my success.”
And what about the comic himself? “No, I am not afraid,” he said. “I think my parodies are not zlye (evil-minded ) but rather dobrye (kind-hearted). And Putin surely has a good sense of humor.”
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