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Russia Report: October 30, 2002

30 October 2002, Volume 2, Number 36
Since coming to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been given credit for injecting new life into Russia's economy, foreign policy, and any number of other spheres. His prominence has even revived an old series of jokes revolving around a character named Vovochka (a diminutive for Vladimir), and his personnel policies have inspired a new subgenre of jokes about St. Petersburgers. Nevertheless, many experts still consider the state of political jokes in Russia to be in crisis. While political jokes have hardly disappeared under Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, there is a widespread perception that they have become fewer and not as funny.

In a panel discussion organized by RFE/RL's St. Petersburg correspondent last month, a number of analysts and academics in that city suggested a variety of explanations. Linguist Pavel Klubkov suggested that Russian jokes of all kinds have lost their specifically Soviet attributes and are becoming more ordinary -- more like the rest of the world's. Viktor Tikhomorov, a member of the Mitki artistic group, attributed the decline of political jokes to the rise in the average Russian citizen's satisfaction with his lot in life. "Funny jokes happen when they are charged with a kind of energy, the energy of malice or envy or building irritation, for example, at the authorities." He continued: "The Soviet period ended a long period of stagnation [during which] hardly any kind of change occurred. When [Viktor] Tsoi sang, 'Our hearts demand change,' he was expressing what less talented people expressed in their jokes.... [Now] there have been many changes, changes exactly as Tsoi once sung about, and the people, in general, are satisfied."

Others participating in the panel were less convinced that the Soviet period was an exceptional one for humor. Aleksandr Belusov, a lecturer in the Faculty of Children's Literature at the St. Petersburg State University of Culture and Art, argued that there "was nothing unique about Soviet culture -- political jokes existed before 1917, and they continued after 1991." According to Belusov, the reason why there were so many political jokes in the Soviet Union was "simply because for some people, politics was interesting. The peasants out in the provinces were not talking about politics. People who lived in Moscow and had some relationship to politics spoke about it. Remember the huge civil-service apparatus of Soviet power, and how in each apparatus there was always someone who was ready to laugh and make fun of the boss. As politics has started to concern a smaller and smaller proportion of the population, as there are fewer people making a living off of politics, there are fewer political jokes. People who are not interested in politics are not interested in political jokes."

However, Dmitrii Verner, director of the popular humor website, contended that there is in fact no shortage of political jokes. According to Verner, a search on his site came up with 1,000 jokes about Putin alone over the last three years. The problem, according to Verner, is not one of quantity but of quality. "Political jokes are simply less popular [because] there are few very good ones," he said. Likewise, Verner said that the 11 September 2001 tragedy in the United States prompted about 100 jokes a day on the website, but few of them were very funny. In fact, to come up with a joke worth telling, he has to resort to the world of sports According to Russian folklore, there is a goldfish that can grant any wish. And, Verner recalled that this year, a few hours after Argentina was eliminated from the World Cup soccer finals, a Russian was heard standing on the banks of the sea crying, "Fish, the hell with you. When I asked that we should play like Argentina and France, this is not at all what I had in mind!"

Of course, it is possible that despite their disagreements, all the panelists are correct. Perhaps each one of them has described at least a part of the new context for humor in Russia. Perhaps Russian jokes are more like jokes in the West. The energy behind jokes has changed. Politics is less of a preoccupation than it once was. And political jokes are, in general, less funny. But if Tikhomorov is correct, and genuine dissatisfaction or frustration fuels good jokes as opposed to just mediocre ones, Putin and the Kremlin may be well advised to pay as close attention to the state of Russian political humor as they allegedly do to public-opinion polls. (Julie A. Corwin)

By Laura Belin

During the Soviet period, widely acknowledged truths that could not be expressed in public formed the staples of underground political humor. Common themes included the hypocrisy or infirmity of Communist Party leaders, the brutality of the system, and the absurdity of upbeat official slogans and proclamations.

During the 1990s, hundreds of popular jokes mocking the stupidity or vulgarity of wealthy "New Russians" overshadowed political humor in Russia. As a rule, jokes did not feature prominently in political rhetoric (although Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii sometimes played for laughs with outrageous statements and antics).

That said, political humor did not disappear. Perhaps surprisingly, the myriad jokes depicting Leonid Brezhnev as feeble and decrepit were not recycled during Boris Yeltsin's extended bouts with serious illness. But Yeltsin's style of rule did occasionally inspire jokes, especially during election campaigns, when the president often appeared more committed to staying in power than to observing democratic procedures.

For instance, during the run-up to the April 1993 referendum, Yeltsin used his control over Russian television to promote his stands and to shut out his parliamentary opponents. The media drumbeat urging Russians to vote "yes, yes, no, yes" on the four referendum questions was so strong that one joke told of a man offering the traditional Easter greeting, "Christ has risen," only to hear his friend reply, "Yes, yes, no, yes."

A joke making the rounds during the 1996 presidential campaign ridiculed Yeltsin's promises to reverse course on a host of issues, from the war in Chechnya to economic policies.

"Yeltsin proclaims at a campaign rally, 'Elect me and you'll get a brand-new president.'

"'What if we don't elect you, Boris Nikolaevich?' asks a voice from the crowd.

"'Then you'll get the same old president,' Yeltsin replies."

Such humor echoed Soviet-era mockery of empty Communist slogans. But many jokes geared toward supporters of Russia's largest opposition movement, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), inverted a common theme of dissident humor. Incompetent management, manifested in low-quality manufactured goods and chronic shortages, had spawned countless jokes during the Brezhnev-era "stagnation":

Q: What would happen if Communists took over the Sahara Desert?

A: In a few years sand would be in short supply.

Q: What doesn't buzz and doesn't go up your ass?

A: A Soviet machine engineered for buzzing and going up your ass.

Q: Is it possible to build communism in a single small country, such as the Netherlands?

A: Yes, it is possible, but what do you have against the Dutch?

The sharp decline in living standards during the 1990s, coupled with the collapse of Russia's infrastructure, gave rise to humor lampooning the incompetence of Russia's new rulers. The following joke appeared in "Pravda Rossii" (a free newspaper published by the KPRF) during the 1999 parliamentary campaign: "It's winter, and a 'democratic' intellectual wakes up one morning covered in sweat. He can't understand what's going on. He takes one blanket off the bed, then another, but it's still too hot. He takes off a third blanket, but it's still warm. He takes off his hat and his sweater -- it still isn't cold. He gets up and goes into the bathroom. When he hits the light switch, the light comes on. He turns on the tap -- there is both hot and cold water. Then he goes into the kitchen and turns on the stove -- lo and behold, the gas is on as well. He shouts to his wife, "Anya, get up right now and pack your things! The Communists got back into power!"

Of course, not all Russians would agree with the premise of that joke or find it amusing. But as a wise grandmother used to say, "Many a truth has been told in jest." The emergence of humor portraying Communists as effective managers of public services is vivid testimony of how difficult power outages and disruptions in gas and water services have made life for so many Russian citizens. Such jokes are also consistent with numerous opinion polls that indicate a plurality of Russians, perhaps even a majority, remember the "stagnation" era as the best time for the country. As in the Soviet period, the jokes of the political opposition are a window onto widespread beliefs not commonly expressed in the media or acknowledged by ruling elites.

(Laura Belin has been covering Russian politics since 1995. She recently completed a doctorate on the Russian media in the post-Soviet period.)

"The president of the Russian Federation has issued a decree changing the name of the city of Vladimir to Vladimir Vladimirovich."

"Stalin appears to Putin in a dream, and asks, 'Can I do anything to help you?'

"Putin says: 'Why is everything here so bad? The economy is falling to pieces, and so on. What am I to do?'

"Stalin, without pausing for thought, answers, 'Execute the entire government, and paint the walls of the Kremlin blue.'

"'Why blue?' Putin asks.

"Stalin replies, 'I had a feeling you would only want to discuss the second part.'"

"President Putin has released a new program for reform. Its first goal: 'To make people rich and happy.' (List of people attached.)"

"Putin calls in the finance minister and says, 'Listen, what's going on with the economy?' 'Er, I can explain,' mumbles the minister. 'No, no, you don't need to explain. I can do that myself. Just tell me, what's going on?'"

"Putin is addressing the Council of Ministers and says 'Comrades, I should tell you the truth. The situation in our country is simply worthless.' A voice from the hall cries out: 'Aren't you exaggerating?'"

"Putin is arguing with [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton about whose sauna is better. 'Mine is,' Clinton says and invites Putin to use his. Putin enters, pushes a button, and staff wash him in the steam. He is dressed and emerges cleaner. Putin then invites Clinton to use his sauna. Clinton enters, pushes a button but nothing works. He cleans himself, exits the sauna and says, 'Your button doesn't work!' But Putin answers, 'What do you mean it doesn't work? The television showed you for a full hour.'"

Sources: "Novyi russkii vopros," RFE/RL Russian Service broadcast on 16 September 2002; "Anekdoti pro Putina," compiled by Dmitrii Perevyazin, as quoted by "The Moscow Times," 1 June 2001; and "Komsomolskaya pravda," 26 May 2001