Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Many Pay More Attention to Putin’s Jokes and Offhand Remarks than to His Actions – and Perhaps They’re Right to Do So

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 7 – Attention to Vladimir Putin’s comment that he’d like to travel after “successfully completing” his political career is just the latest example of how many Russians and others focus on his offhand remarks and even jokes as better indicators of his thinking than his scripted statements.

            On the one hand, such attention reflects the increasingly short attention span of many and their desire to fasten on to a memorable catch phrase rather than to engage in a more serious consideration of his policies and practices, a shift that Putin himself and the media he controls certainly encourage for all the obvious reasons.

            But on the other, Putin’s words like “drown them in the outhouse” at the start of the Chechen war in 2000 and like “Russia has no borders” in remarks to a student recently capture better than his more formal statements the nature of his thinking and provide a guide to what kind of a ruler he is and what kind of a system he has put in place.

            In a lead article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the Moscow newspaper’s editors call attention to this phenomenon and suggest that there are real dangers in focusing on jokes and offhand remarks, taking them out of context and reading too much into them especially by Putin’s political opponents (

                Indeed, they write, it is “sad” that these opponents focus on such chance remarks by the Kremlin leader rather than pay attention to his specific actions and directives and come up with their own ideas and proposals.  And it is still worse when “representatives of the power vertical” pay more attention to the jokes than to these other things.

            It would be far better, the editors argue, if they would consider what Putin is actually calling on them to do and then implement it. At present, these officials are not fulfilling more than a quarter of all of Putin’s directives, something that he has called attention to in his messages to the Federal Assembly.

            There are of course objective reasons why officials don’t carry out Putin’s directives – the lack of funds at the regional and local level being the most obvious. “But evidently there are even more subjective ones,” as jokes by officials about Putin’s jokes make clear. That shows that they are confident that they can ignore him with relative impunity.

            And “Nezavisimaya gazeta” ends with what may be the most amusing and troubling thing of all. The editors say that if Putin sometime were to issue a decree giving Russian officials the right to ignore his decrees, then such officials almost certainly would “by custom” not fulfill that order either.

            But all joking aside, humor is a serious business in Russia, as Pavel Merzlikin points out in today’s “Bumaga” portal. In some countries, people may only laugh at jokes but in Russia once again as at many points in the past, people can be heavily fined or even sent to prison for offhand or humorous remarks (

            That is serious enough, but on his blog today, Russian commentator Pavel Pryannikov points to something that may be even more significant about humor and offhand remarks by a leader like Putin: they can help people evaluate his psychological state and determine whether he has fallen into dangerous hubris ( -признаков-психопатологий-у-глав-госу/).

                To make his points, Pryannikov discusses a 2012 article by two Russian psychologists, Ye. Molchanova and A. Umnyashkin  on hubris and some of other “psychic disorders of those in power” “Istoricheskaya psikhologiya I sotsiologiya istorii, no. 2 (2012) available on line at

            Hubris, the two psychologists say, consists of “the combination of signs of a specific professional deformation arising as a result of the misuse of power of any kind and at any level,” although they suggest that it is most common among those at the top of power pyramids and among those who have been in power for a lengthy period.

            Molchanova and Umnayshkin identify 14 signs of hubris in such leaders, including:

1.      “A tendency to view the world as an areana in which one can use ones force and achieve glory and not a place filled with problems that require solutions.

2.      “A predisposition to taking actions which in the future will be presented exclusively in a positive light and whose importance will be exaggerated for everyone else.”

3.      “An extraordinary concern about one’s own image and the ways of its manifestation.”

4.      “A messianic manner of conversation about one’s own actions and a tendency to self-promotion in speech and manners.

5.      “An extraordinary identification of oneself with the nation or another group of people to the pont that one’s own desires, thoughts and needs begin to be ascribed to the entire nation or group of people.”

6.      “The use of the royal ‘we.’”   

7.      “Extraordinary faith in one’s own judgments, experience and opinion.”

8.      “Disregard and contempt for the opinion of others.”

9.      “Recklessness and impulsiveness in decision making.”

10.  “A believe that the leader is not subject to the courts of the opinion of colleagues and that only God and history can assess his or her actions.”

11.  “Extraordinary self-confidence in oneself as a personality and in one’s own strengths.”

12.  “The loss of contact with reality and self-isolation from simple mortals.”

13.  “A tendency to allow oneself ‘a broad vision of problems,’ especially of their moral side and to avoid discussion of the practicality and safety of one’s own decisions.”

14.  “Consistent incompetence in the conduct of policy which may be called ‘arrogant incompetence.’”

             Putin of course is far from the only leader who displays one or more of these characteristics, but he has been in power for so long that the probability of a display of hubris, especially in jokes or offhand remarks is greater than for many others. And they may provide some of the clearest indications of this problem.

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