Alexandra Arkhipova, a researcher studying political satire, explains what Russia’s political anecdotes tell us about people’s views of the Ukrainian crisis and why some U.S. politicians and officials are becoming characters in these anecdotes.
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, smiles and talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after they made statements to reporters during their meeting at the State Department in Washington in 2013. Photo: AP
In response to the Ukraine crisis and growing controversy over recent events such as MH17, political anecdotes are moving from Russian newspapers and magazines to social media and the Internet. It is an important new trend, according to Alexandra Arkhipova, the author of the books “Anecdotes about Stalin,” "Stirlitz goes along the corridor: How we come up with anecdotes".
She is also researching political satire in Russia as a Senior Researcher at School of Advanced Study in the Humanities in Russian Academy of Nacional Economics (RANEPA), and an Associate Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH).
Russia Direct sat down with her to discuss how geopolitical events impact the development of political anecdotes, how political leaders become the characters of Russia’s political satire and why U.S Department of State spokeswomen Jen Psaki is so popular among Russia’s Internet users. In addition, she explains how the Ukraine crisis has generated so-called “black humor” as a result of events like MH17.
Russia Direct: Who is becoming the major character of Russia’s political anecdotes?
Alexandra Arkhipova: Russian President Vladimir Putin is the dominant character of political anecdotes and no one is able today to gather as many storylines as he does. In addition, because he has been at the helm since the 2000s, these anecdotes have evolved in a kind of literary cycle. Actually, there is a core consisting of nearly 20-25 stories that have given the green light to new anecdotes.
Their sources are different. The sources might be anecdotes about Stalin or Peter I, or they might be derived from the stories that come from the past, such as from the earlier Soviet period. These anecdotes could also have more exotic, for example, medieval origins. And new storylines – related to specific realities, specific deeds and acts of the Russian president – are created around this core.
However, it is worthwhile to mention that now people are joking less about Putin because there is a kind of messianic aura around him, at least in Russia. Putin is seen as a collector of the Russian lands who returned greatness to Russia and helped it rise from its knees, and as someone who opposes the enemy – U.S. President Barack Obama. In this context, people are reluctant to mock Putin.
RD: Why do Putin or other political leaders become the characters of political anecdotes? From the point of view of political publicity, to what extent is it a good sign or bad?
A.A.: There are two contradicting points of view. According to the first opinion, anecdotes should reflect one’s political position. Roughly speaking, if Soviet workers told anecdotes about Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, it implied that they were his opponents and didn’t support his regime by definition. The second view refutes the first one: No matter whether you like Brezhnev or not, you will tell anecdotes about him and it won’t necessarily reflect your position.
Generally, anecdotes are not a sign of popularity, but rather, they are a kind of indicator of a certain reality – a political framework, let’s say. And they become popular if this political framework resonates with people and they understand it well.
And this means that if storylines about Putin are popular, people are following the current political agenda in the country. They follow Putin’s reactions to different events, with almost all of them understanding his quotes and statements. And this is the time when they gain popularity. This means that there is one political framework in Russia and people feel a dependency on what is going on in the country.
The Russian joke about Vladimir Putin and his third presidential term. Putin (61): "Life begins at 60." Source: Pikabu.ru
RD: What role does political anecdote play in creating the image of political leaders today, in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the ongoing information war?
A.A.: Let’s look at the problem from a historical perspective. In the historical context, there are two important differences between modern political anecdotes and those that existed in the 1970s.
First, today people know English and are able to read it. Second, we have the Internet, which makes everything transparent and popularizes those anecdotes that are translated from English. This wasn’t the case in the 1970s, when jokes about American presidents could be popular only among Russian diplomats and high-profile political bigwigs. And this should be taken into account when talking about the role of anecdotes.
Now, American politicians are seen in Russian political anecdotes as so-called foils or partners of Russian characters. They create the narrative background and they commit normative or non-normative acts, while letting the Russian characters overshadow them.
For example, there is an anecdote about Vladimir Putin and George Bush, Jr.
Bush says that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw the mysterious Russian soul there. Putin looked in Bush’s eyes and saw McDonald’s on the opposite street.
Sometimes, they are triggers of the action. For example, there is an anecdote, in which Obama calls Putin and comes across his voicemail and, as a result, is presented in a less favorable light.
Оbama called Putin, and Putin put his phone on auto-answer mode. The auto-answer message is: “Hello, you're calling the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately I'm not able to answer you now. If you want to surrender, click on “1”. If you want to threaten me with new sanctions, click on “2”. If you want to discuss the situation in Ukraine, click on “3”. All buttons except “1” activate our intercontinental rockets Topol-M, good luck!”
Actually, it is a very interesting phenomenon: The authors of these anecdotes are Russians and they come up with English anecdotes to attract the world community’s attention to the problems generated by the Ukrainian crisis. As ordinary people see it, the confrontation in Ukraine is adding up to a confrontation between Obama and Putin.
How Russians joked about sanctions before they began to take effect. Obama to Putin: "Do you see democracy?" - Putin to Obama: "No." - Obama: "Yet it does exist." - Putin: "Do you see sanctions?" - Obama: "Yes." - Putin: "Yet they do not exist." Source: Pikabu.ru / LiveJournal.com
RD: However, such anecdotes look almost like cynical propaganda. Sometimes these anecdotes simply consist of a picture and a colorful, catchy caption that mocks politicians or situations. They also might be pretty aggressive and insulting. For example, a recent one mocks Putin amidst the Malaysian aircraft crash in Ukraine, in which, in response to the question “What happened with the Boeing?” Putin briefly and indifferently answers, “It crashed.” On the one hand, it implies the indirect involvement of Putin in the crash; on the other, it might look a bit cynical because the tragedy claimed almost 300 people.
A. A.: Yes, actually, it ridicules Putin’s notorious answer to American TV celebrity Larry King’s question about the Kursk submarine that was tragically sunk in the Barents Sea in 2000 [King: “What happened with the Kursk submarine?” Putin: “It sank” – editor’s note].
RD: Most interesting, some media use this joke just to mock the reaction of some of their Russian counterparts to the Malaysian airplane crash. Western media is reporting they are not paying due attention to the tragedy.
A.A.: This is so-called “black humor.” Yes, such jokes are commonplace. Their authors use the famous model [Putin’s cold, as-a matter-of-fact answer]. If we talk about the submarine, it sinks; if we talk about the skyscraper, it falls. If we talk about the 2004 terror act in the school in Beslan (an event that claimed the lives of more 300 people, including almost 200 children and adults), Putin coolly says it was seized. Putin answered King’s question briefly and this answer was enough to give the rise of the model that created and keeps creating such cynical jokes.
RD: Jen Psaki, spokeswomen for U.S. Department of State, is becoming a kind of star of Russia’s political anecdotes. Why?
A.A.: The fact is, her statements are seen in Russia as very funny, so that their narration by some Russians sounds much funnier than political anecdotes. Thanks to her official quotes, she ideally fits deep-seated stereotypes, which present Americans as superficial and short-sighted people who try to impose their will and values in the world, but lack enough knowledge about this world and other countries. And because now Russia’s foreign policy approach almost encourages blatant anti-Americanism, Psaki in this situation looks like a gift to Russian propaganda.
The most innocent Russian joke about Jen Psaki. Lavrov: "Do you remember how we introduced Psaki to Obama?" Putin: "She is now the face and intelligence of America." Source: Pikabu.ru
RD: In this context, political anecdotes look like an effective tool in information wars.
A.A.: Historically, this was one of the functions of political anecdotes. Anecdotes were actively used during the 1917 Civil War in Russia and after the February revolution. The parties released a huge amount of bulletins that contained political mini-sketches, which became prototypes of the modern anecdote. Their goal was to scoff at the opponent. Such sarcastic and cynical political humor was their main weapon.
RD: Like trolling in today’s Internet?
A.A.: Exactly. Just remember the Soviet revolutionaries – Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. They were very gifted speakers who could mock their opponents. They could spontaneously play jokes concerning the latest news. And this is the origin of the modern political anecdote. During World War II, the Nazi propaganda machine used Soviet renegades to come up with anti-Soviet anecdotes and publish book collections.
RD: Today many experts are talking about a new Cold War between Russia and the West. Do you know any anecdotes that deal with this topic?
A.A.: A tourist is coming to Russia from Estonia and passing through Russia’s passport control. When asked: “Occupation?” he answers “Not yet!” You see! There are some Cold War sentiments in political anecdotes.