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Story Publication logo February 26, 2012

Russia: The Kremlin's Not Laughing Now


Media file: russia-protests-bolotnaya-square-2011.jpg
Bolotnaya Square during the December 2011 protests. Image by mpeake, Flickr. Moscow, 2011.

VLADIMIR V. PUTIN, the Russian prime minister, can barely open his mouth these days without being made fun of. After he compared the white ribbons of protesters to condoms during a televised call-in show, doctored photos of Mr. Putin with a condom pinned to his lapel went viral online within minutes. During the same show, Mr. Putin compared those opposed to his rule to the outcast Bandar-log monkeys of Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book," so the country's most popular satirical television show depicted him as a goofy-looking boa constrictor.

The large demonstrations against Mr. Putin's rule signal many important shifts in Russia's political and civic life—including the return of political satire. Today's political humor, much of it online, is designed to make Mr. Putin and his allies appear out of touch, uncool and, in a way, not especially dangerous—an empowering idea in a country where people had grown accustomed to the unquestioned power of whoever sat in the Kremlin.

In the process, Russia's urban professionals are forging a new political language: light, very much alive and thickly coated with irony. It heralds a significant shift in how Russians relate to one another and to those who rule over them, a cultural change that could last even after the March 4 presidential election that Mr. Putin is almost certain to win.

Poking fun at the peculiarities of Russia and its people has roots in 19th-century literature, especially writers like Nikolai Gogol and Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (Leo's second cousin). In an 1869 parody of the Russian predicament, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin created the fictional Glupov ("Stupidtown"), where citizens simply accepted their fate, got drunk and killed one another.

Satire became something of a national sport in the gray, sterile days of the Soviet Union, when humor served as a portal to an alternative reality—and an escape from the absurd version of Soviet life propagated by the Kremlin. Anekdoty—pithy, somewhat cheesy jokes in the form of mini-dialogues passed among relatives and friends—provided a small but potent way to overcome the fear of a distant and all-powerful state.

In the waning days of the Soviet Union, jokes made fun of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's attempts to reorder the country's economic and civic life, like his ill-fated anti-vodka campaign in the mid-1980s. It remained a potent force into the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, who was mocked for his own one-man pro-vodka campaign.

But political humor began to fade after Mr. Putin was elected in 2000. A few days after Mr. Putin's inauguration, Mikhail Zlatkovsky, one of the country's most renowned political cartoonists, was called into a meeting with his newspaper's editor in chief, who had just returned from a special meeting at the Kremlin. Mr. Zlatkovsky says the editor told him: "Misha, we're not drawing pictures of Putin anymore. It turns out the guy is thin-skinned and holds a grudge."

Early in Mr. Putin's tenure, he led a state takeover of NTV, a feisty, independent television channel that broadcast "Kukly," a show that featured puppet versions of Russian politicians. In one caustic episode, Mr. Putin was portrayed as Little Zaches, a nasty dwarf from a 19th-century German story. In 2002, the network canceled the program.

While Mr. Putin was consolidating his power, Russia's oil revenues increased sharply. Everyday Russians saw their incomes grow and their economic opportunities expand like never before. Newfound wealth and a strong, distant government allowed cynicism, apathy and disinterest to take hold. Any sense of involvement in the affairs of government among the Russian public began to disappear; so, too, did the appetite for political humor. But in recent months, as Russia's middle class—urban, relatively well-off and thoroughly at home on the Internet—has emerged as a political force, the country's rich tradition of political humor and satire has resurfaced.

FOR many of today's protesters, this is the first time they have given much thought to politics, and they are wary of the dour tone that has long defined Russian opposition politics. They use humor to signal that they are not interested in traditional politics and do not take themselves—or Mr. Putin—too seriously.

By contrast, officials who take themselves overly seriously end up looking clumsy and foolish, as when the police in the Siberian city of Barnaul asked prosecutors to investigate a "protest" staged by Lego figurines and South Park dolls.

Ilya Krasilshchik, the 20-something editor of the arts and culture magazine Afisha and one of the original organizers of the December protests in Moscow, told me that the ubiquity of satire gives demonstrators a feeling that "it's a protest, but at the same time not really a protest. We're joking, but we're also serious."

So many new antigovernment jokes, Internet memes and videos have appeared in the last two months that Afisha published a "dictionary" of them in Friday's issue. Entries included "146 percent," a reference to the laughably wrong vote total that state-run television showed for one Russian region. One joke that made the rounds after December's disputed parliamentary vote goes: "The wives of United Russia party members don't fake orgasms. They falsify them."

In keeping with the amorphous, essentially leaderless nature of Russia's current protest movement, the sharpest anti-Putin humor these days is not produced by traditional media institutions but simply shows up on the Internet or on handmade signs at demonstrations. One of the most popular Internet sensations of recent months was a music video called "Our Nuthouse Votes for Putin," in which a supposed mental patient asks where all the country's oil and gas revenues have gone. (He receives a needle jab in his rear end in response.)

Political comedy began to appear on Russian-language Web sites before the disputed election, and it has flourished since. One of the most popular sources of online humor is KermlinRussia, a satirical Twitter account that began in June 2010 by mocking the posts of President Dmitri A. Medvedev.

These days, as Mr. Medvedev has faded from the public conversation after announcing in September that he would not return for a second term, the account has evolved to take on new targets: police, election officials and Mr. Putin himself.

From a purely comedic standpoint, the two young professionals behind KermlinRussia almost relish Mr. Putin's return to the Kremlin, as his macho theatrics—tagging a polar bear in the Russian Arctic, for example—make for easy satirical fodder. One recent KermlinRussia post mocked the almost North Korean reverence that state-run television shows for Mr. Putin's public relations stunts: "In the Ryazan forest, where a fire was put out by the prime minister himself, three harvests of logs have already been gathered." As one of the KermlinRussia authors put it: "Putin stopped being scary. He started to become silly."

Perhaps no one has captured that silliness with greater incisiveness, or popularity, than "Citizen Poet," a weekly show in which Dmitri Bykov, a gifted journalist and poet, surfaces classic Russian verse and gives it a cutting new text based on the week's news, to be read aloud in a tone of mock ponderousness by the actor Mikhail Yefremov.

Though the show has obvious political overtones, Mr. Yefremov insists that its main goal is to get laughs, not advance a particular cause. "You shouldn't take politics so seriously," he told me. "And in that sense I hope our show helped." Or, as he put it, "It's better to laugh at politicians than to be put in prison."

Humor and a sense of irony is empowering for Russia's new opposition, but the mood may soon become more somber. Many fear that after the election Mr. Putin will not tolerate the sort of dissent that authorities seem to be allowing so far. Recent weeks have seen renewed pressure on the news media: a government-led shake-up of the board of an independent radio station; the cancellation of a popular political talk show on Russian MTV; and the call for an investigation into an Internet TV station that has been sympathetic to protesters.

Humor and a sense of irony will not keep Mr. Putin from returning to the presidency, but they have contributed to a sense of civic engagement and vitality that will most certainly outlive next week's election.

As Mr. Krasilshchik, the Afisha editor, told me, "After all, it's not just for the sake of jokes that we're getting together."


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