Saturday, September 1, 2018

Russians Get Serious -- Old Outrageous Distractions No Longer Work, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 1 – The Poles have a saying, frequently heard at the end of the Soviet occupation, that when times are bad, people tell political jokes; but when times get worse, they stop.  Something analogous appears to be happening in Russia today – and the new seriousness among Russians may portend a serious new situation for the Kremlin.

            For most of the last three decades, a small number of Russian politicians – Vladimir Zhirinovsky is only the most famous – have by their very outrageousness often served to distract the Russian people from the difficulties they themselves face and the crimes their leaders have committed.

            In the last few years, one of the most active of these public “clowns” has been Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov who could be counted on to enliven the public space even at the most awful times with his outrageous proposals. But this week, his ability to do so appears to have worn out, Dmitry Gudkov says (

            This week, the opposition politician says, Milonov tried to lighten the atmosphere with three of his trademark ideas – a call for closing all adult stores, a plan to frighten Russians who eat Western fast food with pictures of headless bodies, and the suggestion that soldiers be fed shaurma. “But in response was a deafening silence.”

            “The times have changed.” Russians are no longer going to be distracted by such notions. “Reality has overtaken the wildest fantasies because when they (again) put people in prison for anecdotes and pictures,” nothing Milonov “with his stupidities” can do will change the public mood.

            “The jokes are over,” Gudkov says. “The time of bestial seriousness has arrived: even Putin condescended to speak with the people on television. A clear understanding is hanging in the air: this is no time to be smiling!  We have crossed an important line,” and now people are taking things far more seriously than they did.

                Two wars, attacks on people at home and now the destruction of people’s expectations about pensions have made Russians aware that under Putin, they live a life of “total theft, arrests-arrests-arrests, and tortures-tortures-tortures.”  That is no laughing matter, however much clowns like Milonov try to make it into one. 

            “Clowns have always understood that they are clowns,” and they generally know when to exit the stage.  The last year has created that condition, Gudkov says.  “A critical mass of bestiality has taken shape in which it is difficult to breathe and in which one doesn’t feel like laughing.”

            There was a breather during the World Cup when some “fresh air” came in from abroad, but now things are depressed again. No one is laughing at the Milonovs of Moscow any more. Instead, they are silently waiting for “the funeral bell” to sound, signaling the end of the era in which they have been living.

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