Monday 31 May 2021

Is the Real Crime of Political Bloggers Making Fun of the Powerful?

The Trabant was the regular butt of jokes in East Germany.

 Foto: Z1021 Peter Endig/ dpa

Posted by Martin Cohen

Last week saw a commercial jet effectively hijacked and diverted to the capital of Belarus on the orders of its dictatorial leader, Alexander Lukashenko, the only person to ever serve as president of this sad country. Elections were held in 1994, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2020. They might as well not have been.

Roman Protasevich, the blogger at the centre of the Belarus plane hijack, had provoked the fury of Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko. The Western media said it was for facilitating protests in the country, and in so doing to some extent endorsed the paranoid thinking of Lukashenko.  On the contrary, I suspect if all he had done was poke fun at the dictator, he would still have been a target. Because dictators have no sense of humour at all.

At the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the liberalization of Russia and Eastern Europe, it seemed that political jokes had become interesting, yet nowadays under not only Lukashenko but his puppet-master, Vladimir Putin, political jokes are once again gaining popularity. So let's take a quick look at the role of humour as the sole survivor of authoritarianism. 

If the Cold War officially ended a long time ago, in the world of jokes, stereotypes hang on and so many play on Putin’s KGB background, such as this one in which Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream. Of course, Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, ‘Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.’ ‘Why blue?’ Putin asks. ‘Ha!’ says Stalin. ‘I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.’ 

Another subversive barb, offers a man who is reported to have said: ‘Putin is a moron!’ and has been arrested by a Russian policeman. ‘No, sir, I meant not our respected leader, but another `Putin!’ he protests. ‘Don’t try to trick me’ snaps back the police man, ‘If you say ‘moron’, you are obviously referring to our President!’ Russians like jokes which play with the ‘referents’ of words, as philosophers might say. 

Another slightly more sophisticated version runs like this.
During the Second World War, a secretary is standing outside the Kremlin as Marshal Zhukov, the most important Russian general in World War Two, leaves a meeting with Stalin, and she hears him muttering under his breath, ‘Mustachioed idiot!’. She immediately rushes in to see Stalin and breathlessly reports, ‘I just heard Zhukov say ‘ Mustachioed idiot!’ Stalin dismisses the secretary and sends for Zhukov, who comes back in. ‘And just who did you have in mind with this talk of “Mustachioed idiots”!?’ asks Stalin. ‘Why, Adolf Hitler, of course!’ Satisfied, Stalin thanks him, dismisses him, calls the secretary back and explains what the Marshal had said. ‘And now, who did you think he was talking about?’
You have to laugh at this joke, with its deeply sinister undertones. And in addition there is an element of ‘just desserts’ in the informer-secretary’s predicament.

But back to ‘real life’ and when Vladimir Putin was elected President, in 2000, one of his first acts was to kill ‘Kukly,’ a sketch puppet show that portrayed him as Little Tsaches, a sinister baby who uses a ‘magic TV comb’ to bewitch a city - a humorous reworking of a German folktale in which a fairy casts a spell on an ugly dwarf so that others find him irresistibly beautiful.. Putin’s predecessor, Mr. Yeltsin, put up for years with the satirical barbs of the TV puppet, and even intervened when officials talked of prosecuting the makers of the show, NTV. But media management meant something rather different to Mr Yeltsin’s KGB-trained protégé. Putin simply threatened to shut down the channel unless it removed the puppet. NTV refused. Within months, it was under state control. According to Newsweek, ‘Putin jokes quickly vanished from Russia’s television screens.’’

The fact is, President Putin himself doesn’t ‘do’ jokes, at least not in the funny sense. He once remarked to a child, ‘Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere’—before adding, ‘That’s a joke.’

Perhaps President Putin would have allowed this joke though. It starts with the scene of two friends walking down a street. One asks the other ‘What do you think of the President?’ ‘I can’t tell you here,’ he replies. ‘Follow me.’ They disappear down a side street. ‘Now tell me what you think of the President,’ says the friend. ‘No, not here,’ says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block. ‘OK here then.’ ‘No, not here. It’s not safe.’ They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. ‘OK, now you can tell me what you think of our president.’ ‘Well,’ says the other, looking around nervously, ‘actually I quite admire him.’


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

One wonders what such humour indicates. In the Pacific, they treated their colonial masters deferentially, then would make fun of them in the meeting house to uproarious laughter.

It seems as if people are play-acting, and those citizens who offer serious resistance, don't get the joke. Together with their leaders, they are the unfunny ones.

Keith said...

A little more fretfully, I see the more-persistent ‘survivor of authoritarianism’ to be the abject fear of ideas! Ideas have always underwritten revolutions. Authoritarians instinctively know that to quell insurrectionary resistance means, above all, quashing ideas.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

My first reaction when I read this was, 'Is he looking for reprisals?' I felt some fleeting dread. Then I realised that I am not in Europe.

docmartincohen said...

Humor probably is our best protection against the dictators… It prises open a vital hole in their armour!

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