The famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht used to say that "to live in a country where there is no humor is unbearable, but it is even more unbearable to live in a country where humor is necessary". The Russian people know this only too well. At the heart of their self-deprecating humor, however, lies something more than a simple coping-mechanism.
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I asked a fellow Russian journalist, if Putin, who has been canceling all press conferences and avoiding any public appearances, will make a New Year’s presidential address to the Russian people. "It is hard to say. I think the president has not yet decided whether 2023 will happen at all," a response that is, in fact, a quote from one of the most common jokes in Russia in the last few months. Cold-blooded cynicism? Dark humor? Neither.

Dark humor has had a special place in Russian hearts for years. It is understandable, given the nation’s past and the oppressive and inhuman regimes in force in the course of their history. In countries where the regime is cruel and distressing, political humor is thriving, even if the only time when you may utter your jokes freely, not worrying about being arrested and suffering repressions, is when you are all bunkered up in your own kitchen, with all the doors and windows carefully shut (with closed curtains), and a radio playing loud in the background. Since the beginning of time, humor helps people to get used to the oppressive, gruesome reality. It was noticed by Bertolt Brecht, who knew very well the reality of Nazi Germany. The famous bard and playwright used to say: "To live in a country where there is no humor is unbearable. But it is even more unbearable to live in a country where you need humor."

Where dreaming about Zelensky can land you in prison

And this is exactly the kind of country in which the Russian people live nowadays, where they can only chuckle softly reading about the Prosecutor’s office starting an investigation against a man from Chita, accused of discrediting the army by "posting an Instagram story where he describes a dream he had about Volodymyr Zelensky." At the very most, it only reinforces their conviction that any smallest criticism regarding the Kremlin’s politics, or any form of protest, may send them to prison. For many, humor is, therefore, a symbolic weapon, the only way to show their disapproval, without openly protesting.

Because of that, in the tenth month of the brutal war against Ukraine, in the time of unprecedented repressions in Russia and war censorship imposed by the Kremlin, the Russian people, just like in the olden, Soviet times, constantly come up with new, barbed jokes. Some, even if it might entail serious legal consequences, decide to post them in social media.

This time, however, these are not the USSR authorities, officials, propagandists, or law enforcement officers (also known as the unshakable pillars of the regime) who are being the most common subject of Russian people’s ridicule. Today, Russians mostly mock… themselves, because they know it is not the right time to deliberate on what Putin is planning. In times of war, they rather think about collective responsibility. At the heart of the discussion, you will find common Russian citizens, and their blame, or responsibility for what is happening.

I learned it the hard way.

"I’m not into politics"

Recently, when speaking to a Russian friend, I shared my fears over the future of someone close to me, who declared himself as apolitical for years, and who might soon be called up to the army. Like many other Russian people, for the past months, my relative has been negating the fact that Putin unleashed a war. Whenever he heard true testimony from the front line, he would react with anger and disbelief, unable to acknowledge, and therefore, come to terms with the fact that such atrocities do take place in the name of his country. "It’s fake news", "all politicians lie", "we won’t know the truth anyway", "I don’t know, I’m not going into details, but in my opinion, it’s not that simple" – I would hear in our conversations, in which we would raise our voices at each other more and more often.

A good friend of mine, who is a renowned human rights activist, distinguished for his understanding and deep aversion towards the regime (but not the people) replied with a sardonic grin – "Tell him that if they knock on his door to hand him the call-up papers, he should reply that he is not into politics." And when he saw my reaction, he added: "Please, forgive me, but it’s like in this anecdote that’s being retweeted by everyone, where one Russian asks another, to which concentration camp they are being taken, and the other one says he doesn’t know, because he’s not into politics. Gallows humor, indeed."

He was right, says Alexandra Arkhipova. The acclaimed social anthropologist points out that after the 24th of February 2022, the Russian sense of humor has evolved from a dark to a gallows kind of humor, and there’s no irony, nor insensitiveness to it. It is also not an attempt to laugh at "the others", nor is it a defense reaction to a crisis and an increasingly morbid reality. "Above all, it is an expression of people’s deep hopelessness, which is at the same time followed by them questioning their own morality," she explained on her blog (Non)Entertaining Anthropology. 

The Russians use Internet memes, jokes, and anecdotes as much as contemporary poetry and other widely understood anti-war work to reflect on their society. In contrast to previous years, Putin is not the main hero of the satire anymore, and contrary to the Soviet era, nor are the dictators, the party, the political officials, the silly Chapayev, or the slightly craftier Rabinovich (still not the sharpest tool in the box, though). "The Russians do not joke anymore about how to trick the state or the party. For the first time, the anecdote is built around another protagonist, 'a common Russian citizen’, with whom the others can identify. The main question they are seeking to answer is: how did we manage to screw everything up so much," explains Arkhipova.

The anthropologist points out that for the first time, society began to acknowledge the flaws, and the wrongdoings of those who, until recently, were untouchable, and who enjoyed full immunity from any form of criticism – the parents, and the fatherland. The war in Ukraine contributed to more Russians looking at their close ones from a more critical perspective. A process that has been slow, gradual, and often painful. They have started to notice that the propaganda and the long-standing politics resulted in the Russians growing accustomed to violence and contempt towards another human being to the extent that they have lost the ability to spot it. "– Mummy, I’m in Ukraine. I’m so scared, we shoot, we kill, this war is like a meat grinder."– says a boy to his mother, who shouts back "– A meat grinder will be of no use, better take a blender!"

"Nothing would force me to participate in the war. Except for a mortgage…"

This hard, painful transition can for now be observed in a trickle of people who are capable of self-criticism. Having said that, according to the analysis ran by the independent newspaper Cherta, the vast majority of anecdotes referring to the situation in Russia and the invasion of Ukraine, which only in the first two weeks of the war were shared on social media over a million times, seem to always depict a miserable, inert, frightened Russian citizen too scared to protest, one who thinks that Putin is ageless, that nothing can be changed, and that it’s better to stay away from the politics.

Alternatively, there is also a second type – a Russian who is not ready to forfeit the comfort and the peaceful life; who is not capable of reflection, or who does not make the effort to analyze the cause and effect of what is happening – just like those who participate in the campaign, and yet admit that "they have nothing against the Ukrainians." They justify their choices by saying that "they have to live off something," and that working in the army or in other war-implicated institutions is their way of providing for their family. The common dissonance, which I also noticed during my discussions with Russian soldiers, is perfectly rendered in the joke about a man who vowed that "nothing would make him join the army." "Even a mortgage?", asked his interlocutor. "Well, nothing except for a mortgage."

The Russians are aware of the reality they have been stuck in for years - psychologists describe it as learned helplessness. The term signifies a solidified conviction that there is no correlation between your own actions and the bigger, social, and political consequences. It may be caused by exposure to difficult situations with no solution. "Antidepressants, please. As many as you can get. – No, I don’t have a prescription, but shouldn’t a Russian passport be enough?", they ridicule their suffering. Also, as sociologists point out, by posting such jokes, they hope to find those who share their views. "You can’t fake humor, or at least it’s very difficult. If people find our jokes funny, they laugh or publish them on their social media, you’ll know that you are with your own kind," explains Arkhipova.

You laugh about it, so you know about it

It’s very hard for the Russians. Political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky is convinced that, contrary to what the polls would suggest, the vast majority of society does not approve of war. Sociologist Grigory Yudin agrees with this statement as he believes any Russian opinion poll to be as reliable as one that could be run in 1941 Nazi Germany. According to Preobrazhensky, only 10-15 percent of Russian citizens are content with the war in Ukraine. However, it is their voice that is portrayed to be the most common, as pointed out by lawyer Dmitry Zakhvatov: "This is how propaganda works - it highlights only the voices in favor and completely obscures those against. As a result, the people who do not support the war, gradually lose their faith that they are more and that they could change something. They feel isolated, intimidated, and helpless."

At some point, German director Rudolph Herzog took a closer look at the anecdotes that circle around in a totalitarian society. In a book based on Nazi Germany press materials and literature, he concludes that the Germans, too, would let off some steam through anecdotes, which could put them in big trouble at the time. "One German says to another: – What are you doing after the war? – I’ll finally take some time off and travel across Greater Germany. – Should be fine for the morning, but what after lunch?" At the same time, as pointed out by Herzog, the mere existence of such anecdotes singlehandedly dismantles the argument that the Germans "didn’t know," and were fully manipulated by the propaganda. "People who are hypnotized are not capable of irony."

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote "Laughter is a defense mechanism, just like tears. Maybe even a better one, as laughter doesn’t cause any wetness."

When the Russians clap on a plane 

Not all Russians find the nerve to use irony and tell anecdotes. Many still decide to emigrate, thus solidifying another common joke about the "Russian passengers who start clapping not when the plane lands, but when it takes off." Even though it sounds funny, behind all the laughter there is sadness, helplessness, confusion, and a sense of loss. A friend of mine, who left Russia shortly after the outbreak of war, told me: "I always thought that the worst thing that could happen to someone was the loss of one’s parents and that because of that, the worst part was already behind me. However, it turns out that the loss of one’s fatherland is even worse. The fatherland was my rock. I feel incredible pain because of the subsequent explosions, shelling, deaths, and the level of madness of what’s happening, but at the same time, I feel that I can’t help any of it. Never in my life did I feel such deep sorrow. How to keep on living? No one knows." 


Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. Our journalists are on the front lines in 32 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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