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A culture of laughter Maxim Trudolyubov explains why authoritarianism isn’t afraid of jokes and memes

Source: Meduza
Alexey Druzhinin / Pool / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Vladimir Putin’s “candid” photo ops in “informal settings” are hard to take seriously. It’s even more difficult to believe that the president’s entourage doesn’t understand this — it’s almost as if they’re deliberately dreaming up meme-able news stories. Why do they do it? Mocking the authorities, after all, is one of the anti-Kremlin opposition’s prized weapons. Humor not only allows challengers like Alexey Navalny to look down on government officials; it also helps his supporters to overcome their fear of the state. In this article, Meduza “Ideas” section editor Maxim Trudolyubov tries to understand how society can use political humor to promote radical change (and why even the Russian authorities allow themselves to become a laughingstock).

European (and to a lesser extent American) democratic culture has never taken itself too seriously. Politics and a culture of popular laughter developed simultaneously. The growing influence of parliamentary rhetoric, and the formation of parties and bitter inter-party struggles, were accompanied by the development of the pamphlet, parody, visual arts, and literature with political overtones.

Democratic laughter

Ridiculing the struggle between political parties has played a significant role in the formation of democratic regimes. The emergence of influential political figures was inseparable from the development of political cartoons — an art form that’s been extremely irreverent since its beginnings. Political cartoons from 18th century England, where the characters can be seen kissing assess or in the toilet, were anything but subtle. Later, in the 19th century, early satirical magazines like Le Charivari in France and Punch in England featured caricatures with elements that are more familiar to us today; the grotesque and prejudice haven’t gone anywhere.

This tradition lives on in old and new forms. The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo follows a radical, non-conformist tradition, while websites like America’s The Onion and Italy’s Spinoza continue the culture of political parody and the absurd. The U.K. recently revived its long-running satirical television puppet show “Spitting Image,” and France had a similar show called “Les Guignols de l’info. And in the United States, much of the public debate is centered around comedic talk shows where the hosts openly take partisan positions and ridicule their opponents mercilessly. Among the many examples are “The Late Show” on CBS and “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central (the same channel that airs the animated adult sitcom “South Park”). 

Magazines and shows like these are constantly testing the boundaries of what’s possible, they don’t shy away from toilet humor, and easily get personal in political disputes. Jokes about the presidents and CEOs of major companies can be risky (“South Park” is full of them), but they don’t pose a threat to the system itself. In Western cultures, political humor and satire are a part of the democratic regime — they developed alongside it and are protected by its laws. Liberals have always harshly mocked conservatives, and vice versa. But here, satire — even the most murderous satire — is part of the struggle between parties, not a struggle against the system.

Laughter with permission

Under monarchic, totalitarian, and authoritarian regimes, the authorities, as a rule, see parody, satire, cartoons, and political humor as a “resource” and a tool for influencing their subjects. Such regimes take themselves seriously and are prone to sacralizing their rulers and rituals. These systems of government also tend to regulate laughter. Here, humor can be as “bold” as you like, but it must pass through the highest degree of censorship. The most famous representative of this culture of laughter is the court jester, who exists thanks to permission from the highest level. The jester is allowed to say and do a lot, but he is, in fact, the ruler’s shadow.

A culture of “licensed” laughter is much more ancient than the political culture of ridiculing one’s opponents that exists in Western modernity with its political pamphlets and cartoons. The various traditions of jesters include the “parasites” (companions or hangers-on) of the ancient world, medieval jesters in caps and bells, and the fools (duraki) in the courts of Russian tsars and emperors. Their task was to entertain the ruler and ridicule those who the ruler wanted to snub; to know the court’s intrigues and to sense what line couldn’t be crossed. 

While these historical jesters are a thing of the past, figures who perform similar functions and act according to similar rules are reproduced under totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. For example, the Soviet cartoonists, satirists, comedy writers, and directors who were allowed to work in the comedy genre could speak out against misfits and ridicule rule breakers (see for example, the satirical magazine Krokodil), tell meaningful parables (like the films of Mark Zakharov), and highlight “individual shortcomings” in the system (as seen in the comedy short film series Fitil), but they couldn’t impinge upon the system’s underlying principles. In this, Soviet humorists and satirists were somewhat like democratic “comedians.” But unlike them, they didn’t work for the public. Rather, much like their court jester predecessors, they entertained the rulers, ridiculed those the ruler wanted to snub, and knew what lines couldn’t be crossed. They weren’t part of the system — they were its support staff,

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia began a mass borrowing of formats and genres from other cultures — including the satirical genres. The show “Kukly” (“Puppets”), which premiered on NTV in 1994 and was produced under a license from the owners of the French show “Les Guignols de l’info,” is just one of many examples.

But the Western form of political satire quickly came into conflict with the ideals of government that emerged after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Laughter was one of the first spheres that the new political managers began to regulate. This hasn’t stopped the flow of borrowing, but Russian shows based on Western models — for example, the talk show “Evening Urgant,” which is similar to American late-night talk shows — only bear an outward resemblance. Indeed, they’re produced according to the rules of an old court. Same goes for the Russian stand-up television show “Comedy Club.”

Laughter without permission

If the authorities consider the culture of laughter a resource, then their subjects, in turn, create their own grassroots culture of laughter. Here, one may recall the work of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin contrasts the culture of an “official feast” (a state or religious holiday) with the culture of a carnival. In his words, “the official feast looked back at the past and used the past to consecrate the present,” asserting “all that was stable, unchanging, and perennial,” including existing hierarchies, values, norms, and prohibitions — political or otherwise. “Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions,” Bakhtin writes. 

That said, a grassroots culture of laughter doesn’t have to be directed against the government or even have a clear political direction. Opposition to the “immutability of the world order” imposed by the authorities doesn’t always take the form of direct resistance. In the absence of a political system that presupposes inter-party struggle and elections, direct resistance inevitably leads to conflict with the authorities. And not everyone is able to or has the desire to enter into such a conflict, given that risky jokes can end in arrests or even executions. 

Of course, jokes sometimes contain direct attacks on the system or the ruler personally, but in the context of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes they usually perform other functions. Researcher Elliott Oring writes that people continue joking even when it’s dangerous or senseless because political jokes can be an acceptable way to “let off steam” and to talk about things that are unbearable or difficult to speak about. 

Laughter and political struggle

In this sense, the Soviet tradition of political jokes is very important and remembered by many. These jokes (anekdoty) and the rituals involved in telling them formed communities of “one’s own” (svoie) or “normal” people, writes Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak in his book, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More. But these communities weren’t formed around any active position. Anekdoty weren’t a way of revealing systemic lies or expressing the true thoughts of people who usually hid them: these jokes were told by the system’s supporters and opponents alike. This helped a person to lead a relatively meaningful, creative, and moral life, which wasn’t limited to supporting or resisting the system.

Humor in the form of Soviet and, more broadly, socialist jokes about Communist leaders like the USSR’s Leonid Brezhnev, Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and so on, were a cynical way of accepting reality. 

Today’s authoritarian regimes willingly take advantage of this type of humor. The PR specialists working for Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov have proven that a cult of personality remains a cult of personality, though it may well be absurdly funny. The videos of Berdymukhamedov building cars, lifting weights, and rapping about horses are being disseminated by the Turkmenistani authorities themselves. 

The Russian authorities also publish images and videos of President Vladimir Putin shirtless, on horseback, bathing in an ice hole, flying with cranes, discovering ancient amphoras at the bottom of the sea, and enjoying the taiga with Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — and foreign media outlets willingly republish them, mistakenly believing that they are somehow exposing authoritarianism. In fact, by serving these materials released by official PR specialists to their readers, the mass media is helping these PR campaigns to achieve their obvious goal — to normalize the cult of personality through its “anecdotalism.”

“Humorous” shows on contemporary state television channels or media outlets act according to the old court jester rules. The PR departments serving modern dictators create loyal “jokes” about the top-brass, devaluing the humor. Social networks and messaging platforms are overflowing with memes about the system’s various “individual shortcomings” ranging from the social, to the economic, and the political. The development of a culture of Internet memes can be seen as a quantitatively enhanced version of the culture of Soviet jokes — a culture that helps people to survive morally while not supporting, but also not resisting, the political system.

The culture of laughter has grown so popular that the debunking of official myths and desacralization of the authorities are hardly attainable by means of traditional political humor. However, laughter and irony still remain important as a means — for each person individually — to build their relations with the political sphere. This is exactly what Alexey Navalny does: he distributes a remedy against fear to everyone, continuing to make fun of the authorities even under torture. A society made up of people who can see the humor and build distance between themselves and the authorities is much less frightened than a society made up of people who feel no such distance at all.

This text has been abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full version in Russian here

Read more from Meduza’s ‘Ideas’ section

How Russians see ‘freedom’ differently Philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov reviews the intellectual history of ‘volya’ and ‘svoboda’

Read more from Meduza’s ‘Ideas’ section

How Russians see ‘freedom’ differently Philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov reviews the intellectual history of ‘volya’ and ‘svoboda’

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Maxim Trudolyubov

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart