Even before Donald Trump was facing impeachment over his dealings with Ukraine, his indifference toward that country’s fate was a punch line in neighboring Russia.
Vladimir Putin is calling the White House, begins one joke that’s been making the rounds. “Hello, Donald? I would like to discuss Ukraine with you.”
Trump: “What’s Ukraine?”
Putin: “Thanks, Donald!”
This genre of dark political joke—the anekdot—has been a staple of Russian humor at least since Soviet times, and anyone associated with the Kremlin is fair game. Though he’s lampooned far less often than Putin is, Trump has become a subject of numerous anekdoty because of his odd fascination with, and deference to, his counterpart in Moscow. Trump has asked Putin to prove that he never helps Trump, declares one current anekdot. Another asserts, Trump has fired all his intelligence chiefs. He will be getting all information from its source: Putin.
When I was a college student in the U.S.S.R., anekdoty circulated mainly by word of mouth. Today they abound on the internet. (Many of the anekdoty in this article are drawn from online forums; the rest I’m recounting from memory.) They still offer a glimpse into how everyday Russians see their leaders and their country’s relationship with the world. Every society has jokes, of course, but cynical humor serves an additional purpose in societies where the media are under state control and intentional disinformation abounds.
In an environment as repressive as the Soviet Union or, to a considerably lesser degree, Putin’s Russia, anekdoty are a medium by which regular people can comment on the world they observe with their own eyes. During the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agents collected anekdoty—partly because the jokes were funny, and partly because they were, as a former CIA official once told Quartz, “reflective of the public mood.” In the years since, doctoral dissertations and journal papers have mined them as a source of intellectual folklore.
Anekdoty are the only thing I miss about Soviet totalitarian socialism. They spat on the boot on our faces. They asserted dignity among the daily insults of lawlessness; they salvaged truth and sanity in the dizzying spin of propaganda absurdities. The anekdoty I remember best deployed sarcasm and humor against brutality, hypocrisy, and poverty. For example:
How do we know that Adam and Eve were Soviet citizens? They had one apple between the two of them, they had no clothes, and they believed they were living in paradise.
Why do the KGB thugs always walk around in threes? One can read, one can write, and the third keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.
Beyond offering powerless citizens a measure of catharsis and the ability to exact a certain kind of revenge, Soviet-era anekdoty bared the entrails of the regime, chronicled its evolution, and offered portents of its future. In the late 1970s, the perspicacity and the nastiness of jokes about semi-comatose leaders such as Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev presaged the radical change that later arrived with Mikhail Gorbachev.
On a sunny morning, begins one late-Soviet-era joke now memorialized online, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony of his apartment, looks to the east, and says, “Hello, sun!” The sun replies, “Good morning, dear Leonid Ilyich, the beloved leader of our glorious socialist motherland, the hope of all progressive humanity, and the guardian of peace on Earth!” In the evening, Brezhnev admires the beautiful sunset and fishes for a compliment: “Hello again, sun!” The sun answers, “Poshyol na khuy—go fuck yourself—I am in the West now.”
Jokes like these spread most widely when the level of oppression is significant but not overwhelming. Under Joseph Stalin, state terror was ubiquitous and savage. Anekdoty about him did not circulate widely while he was alive, just as there are almost certainly no equivalent jokes about the Kims in North Korea today. In a liberal democracy, meanwhile, political jokes are rendered superfluous by the castigation of top leaders in parliaments and the media, and by citizens’ power to change what the government does.
When Putin became acting president on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and was elected president of a fearless and hopeful Russia three months later, anekdoty about him were in short supply. But soon enough, the new leader was an object of fear. Putin opens the refrigerator and sees a plate of quivering gelatin, one joke went. “Stop shaking!” Putin says. “I am only getting the milk.”
Rampant corruption has now become the target of a new generation of anekdoty: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, how much is two divided by two?” In this widely circulated joke, Putin responds: “As always: one for you and three for me.”
How do the Putins divide their property? another anekdot asked, after Putin divorced his wife, Ludmila, in 2014. The answer: Along the Ural Mountains.
In recent years, Putin has reinvented himself as a wartime president. Yet even before the wars in Ukraine and Syria, and before his incessant touting of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the government-controlled TV, from which three in four Russians get their news, had been portraying him as the great defender of a fortress Russia that is perennially besieged yet somehow always victorious. The public warmongering grew deafening after the annexation of Crimea.
Over the past two years, the proportion of Russians who tell pollsters they fear war has risen from one-third to one-half. In some anekdoty, there are additional signs of unease. The Russian words krem (cream) and Krym (Crimea) are not perfect homophones but are close enough, as are kolyaska (a baby carriage) and Alyaska (Alaska). Hence the joke in which the former Olympic-champion gymnast Alina Kabaeva, widely rumored to be Putin’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, calls her mother in a panic. I swear I asked him for krem, not Krym, she says. And now I am afraid to even mention a kolyaska!
Russia’s joke-writers also imply that future conquests are only a matter of time. On the Estonian border, another anekdot goes, a border guard is filling out Putin’s entry form. “Occupation?” the officer asks. “Not today,” Putin replies. “Just tourism.”
The official veneration of Putin is all the more jarring today, as the Russian economy is slowing to a crawl. Annual growth has averaged 1 percent over the past decade, and half of a percent since 2013. According to the official state statistical agency, the Roskomstat, 49 percent of Russian families have money only for food and clothes. Not even the ascent of a Moscow-friendly American president provides consolation. As one anekdot online declares: Trump has won! Great! But who are we now going to blame for all our problems?
Whatever Trump’s faults, real or imagined, the anonymous Russian wags who dream up anekdoty do not presume that he will govern indefinitely. Putin is another matter. Although he is ineligible to run again after his current term runs out in 2024, many anekdoty suggest that he will not leave. Here’s one:
“Do you think Putin will ever relinquish the presidency?”
“Immediately after the coronation!”