Saturday, January 15, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Soviet-Style ‘Permitted Humor’ Returns to Russia, Moscow Writer Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 15 – Just like their Soviet predecessors, today’s Russian rulers recognize they need “the imitation of a critical attitude toward reality” of the kind humor can often provide, but also just like their predecessors, they have set clear rules for what humor is “permitted” and what is not, at least in the mass media, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an article in “Novaya gazeta” this week, Andrey Arkhangelsky describes how this system came into being, how it operates now in comparison with the Soviet past, and, what is particularly intriguing, the set of rules about what the powers that be will permit and what they won’t in today’s Russia (
“In Russia,” Arkhangelsky argues, “it has always been necessary to get permission for a joke, and this phenomenon has distorted the genetics of our people no less than serfdom and the GULAG,” even though in contrast to those, “permitted humor” has been the subject of far less attention.
The occasion for his article, Arkhangelsky says, is both the appearance of two new heroes on Russian television, Ivan Urgant and former spy Anna Chapman and the willingness of the powers that be to violate their own rules once a year. The appearance of Chapman, as some have pointed out, is itself humorous: “the celebration of a spy who failed.”
But more intriguingly, the commentator continues, was the decision to allow the return of Putin and Medvedev as puppets, something that had been prohibited but apparently is to be allowed once a year, albeit “without any chances, not even a millimeter” in the way they are shown on New Year’s.
That reflects the fact that “television recognizes its own current archaic quality, is ashamed of its conformism, and is trying to convince us that it is just the opposite,” Arkhangelsky says. But in fact, these exceptions only call attention to the current rules of the game, rules that government permitted humor and much else.
“Social satire,” the Moscow writer says, “is always a dish in demand, but in Russia it is brought to the table only when the command ‘freedom!’ sounds from the very highest levels.” As one of his colleagues has pointed out, Arkhangelsky says, “a joke in Russia is a very serious matter, a signal to the elites” and one they must not fail to pay attention to.
In Gorbachev’s time, “the command ‘freedom!’ sounded from above, but then were quickly were found people who did not stop and ask permission for the next day. Today,” Arkhangelsky says, “there are no such people – and in this is the principle distinction not only of television but of all of today’s society from that” of perestroika times.
“The ‘new jokers,’” he continues share one common characteristic: “they know precisely” what the limits are, even though they may give the impression that they are acting completely independently and spontaneously. Consequently, no one needs to give them instruction; they “understand everything” on their own.
“They understand that one must not joke about Putin or about Medvedev. One must not joke about their wives and children. One must not joke about the Foundations of the Powers that Be or show any doubt in their professionalism and purpose. One must not joke about Surkov or about the Presidential Administration or about the staff of the prime minister.”
In part, of course, it is not so much that jokes could not be made but rather because “the audience of the First Channel in general is not supposed to know all that much” about some of these officials. The same principle applies to jokes about Khodorkovsky. They aren’t told because people should know as little about him as possible.
“In principle,” it is possible to tell jokes about everything else, but in fact, “it is necessary to feel” just what is allowed. And jokesters on Russian television know that they need to tell jokes somewhat less often about Gryzlov than about Mironov, even as they tell jokes about foreign policy, the Olympics and so on.
“I understand this well,” Arkhangelsky says, “because I am a child of Soviet times.” The late Soviet period clearly provided knowledge about “what one could say and what one could not. “This knowledge or better a feeling like the party was a unique thing which the powers did not need to teach as a particular subject but which everyone had.”
Today, “our young heroes are mastering this completely and are covering up what they are doing in a much more talented way than their Soviet predecessors,” a pattern that had led some to fail to see the continuity that is very much at work, one that reflects both the experiences and the needs of the current powers that be.
The need for “permitted humor” had its origins in early Stalinist times when the ruler recognized that “besides bravura praise, there was a need for the imitation of critical attitudes toward reality,” something that humor directed at approved targets well below the top could help supply.
“Today,” Arkhangelsky says, “everything looks much more contemporary, but the essence [of this system which Stalin created] has not changed: the powers, just like 70 years ago, are controlling laughter” in Russia.
This is a measure of how much Russia musts change if it is to join the ranks of “civilized” countries, where jokes about the rulers are the norm. Arkhangelsky gives as an example the situation in Ukraine where “despite pressure on freedom of speech under Yanukovich,” television personalities did not restrain themselves in joking about it.
On the New Year’s broadcast there, the actors “parodied his manner of speaking slowly to the extent that he thinks in Russia and then is forced to choose Ukrainian analogues.” As one of the stars put it, “’And while the president is thinking about the next word … we’ll look at something else.’”
That people in Ukraine can joke about leaders there “inspires hope.” And “when [Russians] cease to be afraid of joking about Putin and Medvedev and when [they] cease to ask permission for this from editors and themselves, then something will have changed in the country and in ourselves.”
Unfortunately, up to now, “the right to joke [about Russian leaders] belongs only to them – and then only once a year.”

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