MOSCOW—One thing late-night TV host Stephen Colbert will surely remember from his trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow for his “Russia Week” special reports—which aired on The Late Show last week: The Kremlin’s efforts to control information and people are no joke.
But what the Russian people were reminded of by Colbert is how much they like the Americans, even if they are disappointed, angry, or appalled by U.S. President Donald Trump (who was the prime target of Colbert’s comedy in the shadow of the Kremlin) and shocked by the U.S. Congress.
On Thursday, following a massive vote by the U.S. House of Representatives (419-3), the U.S. Senate voted 98 to 2 to impose sweeping new sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria and its meddling in the U.S. presidential elections. Trump cannot veto the bill successfully, and it explicitly prevents him from waiving its provisions.
Instantly, the Kremlin proclaimed its innocence and vowed revenge. It decided to send dozens of diplomats and staff at the U.S. embassy and consulates out of the country.
Colbert, now something of an expert on Russia’s sense of humor, could tell you the Putin regime is not kidding.
But Colbert’s segments about what he saw in Russia, broadcast here, went down well with the Russian people. Those he interviewed for his shows were either very critical or offended by U.S. politics (as is Colbert)—or suffering from the Kremlin controlling their lives, manipulating their fear.
Colbert’s big journalistic-comedy coup was his visit to the “pee-pee-tape room,” the presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz Carlton. Before Colbert, no other journalist had managed to rent that infamous 10-room suite where Trump stayed on his visit to Moscow in 2013. A secret dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent reported salaciously, but without proof, that Trump had hookers urinate on the bed where Barack and Michelle Obama had slept.
The Late Show host, accompanied by independent journalist and surveillance expert Andrei Soldatov, made some interesting discoveries, not all of which have been reported, as Soldatov told The Daily Beast.
In a sitdown interview with Soldatov, Colbert asked him to keep “a stone face” while the comedian described the “golden shower” allegations about Trump and the hookers. Colbert wondered if there might be a tape. Stone-faced, Soldatov said, “Well that makes sense.”
Then they visited Room 1101, the Presidential Suite.
“You come to the room everybody talks about thinking it is funny to look for hidden cameras, until it is not,” said Soldatov. Behind the scenes shooting “Russia Week” in June, “things turned out to be serious.”
“When we entered Trump’s former bedroom, I suggested that Colbert and I look for the surveillance cameras behind the large mirror and to our astonishment we discovered an electric cable, which could not have any clear purpose, as the mirror had no electronic illumination,” Soldatov told The Daily Beast.
One of the incidents made it to air. “Colbert broke an ashtray, which the crew had brought with them—and immediately the phones began to ring in the suite. The receptionist said that some ‘alarm button’ was activated, warning there was something in the room—that was very weird.”
In part of the sit-down interview that did not make it to the show, Colbert asked Soldatov what sort of methods the KGB used during interrogations.
“I explained that the KGB liked to ask the same questions again and again, so after a while Colbert repeated his questions to me—I thought it was smart and funny,” Soldatov said. “I think Colbert tried to show to the viewers of ‘Russia Week’ that authorities here have a total control over people.”
Understanding Russia is a tricky thing. Foreign journalists are often blamed for touching just the surface of the real meanings and truths with their stories. Speaking on Russia’s “most popular and only late night talk show,” Evening Urgant, Colbert said: “I love the Russian people.”
The host of the show, Ivan Urgant, a famous Russian comedian, asked Colbert: “Why do you love the Russian people? Why all of a sudden you fall in love with us?”
Colbert thought for a moment: “Because they are so friendly and so welcoming.” Later during the show Colbert called Urgant “my brother.”
Was he kidding? Maybe not. Funny as the show was, there was a serious undertone.
Talking about his debut on Evening Urgant, Colbert showed how he and his Russian “comrade in late night” spoke about restrictions for comedians working on Russian television. Colbert asked Urgant if Urgant could talk about politics. “Not so much,” Urgant said without his usual ironic smile.
On a still more serious note this week, the new Washington sanctions have made many in Russia feel angry, if not furious.
The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin obviously did not demonstrate any of Russia’s famous friendliness on Friday, when the Kremlin banned the U.S. embassy from a lovely wooden house by the river with a tennis court that American diplomats and their children had enjoyed for decades.
Russian officials blamed Washington for being unfair to Russia. “The U.S. is stubbornly taking one crudely anti-Russian step after another, using the utterly fictitious pretext of Russian interference in its internal affairs,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the decisions made in Washington.
Some Russian opposition leaders thought that the new U.S. sanctions against Russia did not make sense. Opposition leader Ilya Yashin insisted that only personal sanctions targeting thousands of Putin’s political elite across the country would make the difference.
“Speaking with Russians, Putin explains Washington’s decision for more economic sanctions as ‘America’s gone mad,’” Yashin said. “But if Washington implemented personal sanctions, targeting thousands of corrupt officials who are in power, Putin won’t be able to explain that to Russians.”
Yashin noted that Russia does not have any serious tools at hand that would cause proportionate economic harm tothe U.S. “The revenge will be expressed in small bites,” said Yashin. “And eventually only the Russian people will be hurt and not the policy makers.”