Staunton, July 2 – Political anecdotes about Vladimir Putin and his regime are becoming more numerous because they fill exactly the same role that stories about Stalin and his system did in Soviet times: they allow those who write and share them to express their feelings about a leader that they fear to express directly, Aleksandra Arkhipova says.
The anthropologist, who works at the Russian State Humanities University and the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, says that “the political anecdote as a rule flourishes in those countries and in those regimes” where a dominant group oppresses other to the point that the latter can’t openly express their views.
Indeed, she continues, it is “a consistent pattern that “the fewer opportunities people have to express themselves, the more they will turn to political anecdotes, jokes, stories and songs.” They use all these things not to prepare for action but in response to a situation where they fear to speak or act (mbk.media/sences/anekdot-krivoe-zerkalo-epoxi/).
Consequently, Arkhipova continues, “an anecdote is a mirror of public attitudes but it is a distorted one. In this mirror are reflected what an individual is afraid of and doesn’t like but not necessary that against which he will fight.” Indeed, telling anecdotes may be a way of avoiding that choice.
In recent years, she says, Russian anecdotes have focused on inequality and corruption, the rewriting of history, and the sanctions regime. One about the last that is widespread goes: “A partisan was shot while carrying parmesan cheese across the border.”
Just now anecdotes are emerging about the government’s plan to raise the pension age. One of the best has it that Moscow has changed the warning label on cigarettes to read “Smoke, Drink, Party because whatever you do, you won’t live to get a pension.”
A second on that subject, Arkhipova says, is that Russians today say that “along with the pension reform, the government is talking about reducing the time of pregnancy from nine months to five. But of course, not all at once but rather gradually, by one month each year for the next four.”
Many of the first anecdotes about Putin were reprisals of ones told about Yury Andropov, including the party leader’s address to the Politburo in which he declared “Everyone has voted and unanimously! Now you may lower your arms and move away from the wall.” Others focused on Putin’s KGB past.
One of the best ran: Putin was scheduled to meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder but didn’t show up on time. The German leader went looking for him only to discover that Putin was still in his hotel room putting his head in the refrigerator, an iron to his heart, and all the time nervously washing his hands.
The chancellor naturally asked “What is going on?” To which Putin replied: “Every chekist must have a cold head, a warm hear and clean hands.”
Anecdotes about Putin alone have declined somewhat in the last few years not only because he says fewer things in public that people can focus on but also because he is viewed as being under the influence of women like his reputed girlfriend Kabayeva. That has led to one of the most widespread Putin anecdotes of all time.
Kabayeva tells a friend that she asked Putin for cream for her birthday but Putin got confused and seized Crimea. She says that she is afraid to ask for a stroller because that in Russian sounds like Alaska.” Another one has Putin finding Shoygu in bed with Kabayaeva. The defense minister confesses that he “lost his way.”
Increasingly, Arkkhipova says, Russian anecdotes don’t have a single hero or even a hero at all. “This is connected with the fact that the form of its existence has changed. Earlier, it was transmitted orally and that required a hero.” Now, it is often disseminated on social networks where no hero is required.
An example of this latest kind, she continues, is the following: a Russian goes to a pharmacy and asks for an anti-depressant. The pharmacist asks to see his prescription. And the man answers: “What, is a passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation insufficient?” Another group involves the amount of money the siloviki have stolen from the population.
Dmitry Medvedev sparked some anecdotes when he declared that “there isn’t any money but you hold on!” However, Arkhipova says, “now, it is difficult to recall them,” not because of our memories but because Russians have ceased to repost those anecdotes. Others have taken their place.
Some in Russian political life have tried to use anecdotes but they haven’t been very successful, she says. “In Soviet times, the communist party struggled against anecdotes but in the mid-2000s, it actively attempted to use them. It thought up a whole series of anecdotes but they weren’t very funny and the attempt collapsed.”
According to Arkhipova, Russia is today living through a period with regard to anecdotes most like the Russia between 1905 and 1917, although there are some differences in that there is more repression now. When football trainer Leonid Slutsky mentioned Aleksey Navalny’s name, that became the basis for numerous anecdotes.
One involved another commentator saying that England’s defensive arrangements “looked doubtful,” to which Slutsky replied “the referendum in Crimea looks doubtful as well.”