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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More on the Russian Joke

The Chicago Sun Times reports:

A joke circulating among Russians these days has Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev waking up in the Kremlin in 2023 with vicious hangovers.

Putin says to Medvedev: ''Which of us is president and which of us is prime minister today?''

''I don't remember,'' Medvedev replies. ''I could be prime minister today.''

''Then go fetch some beer,'' Putin says.

The new odd couple in Russian politics has become ideal fodder for keeping the cherished, and in Soviet times, once dangerous Russian tradition of poking fun at leaders through satirical jokes called ''anekdoty.'' The latest crop of jokes plays on Russia's new power-sharing agreement -- where Medvedev will be sworn in as president on May 7 and Putin, his stern mentor and predecessor, will serve under him as prime minister. The jokes tend to tap into the widespread speculation that it's really Putin who will be the boss. Puns are crucial in many of the jokes about Medvedev, whose last name stems from the Russian word for bear.

In one, Putin is asked if he will have Medvedev's portrait in his office.

An angry Putin replies: ''I'll put his hide on the floor instead.''

Anekdoty have long been a litmus test of public opinion and individual liberties in a country where in the past people faced exile, prison or worse for expressing their opinions directly. ''Anekdoty sometimes live for a day and sometimes survive for centuries,'' said linguist Sandjar Yanyshev. ''They remain the main genre of oral tradition in Russian folk culture.'' George Orwell once called the joke ''a tiny revolution.'' Nowhere was that taken more literally than in the Soviet Union, where people circulated jokes at their peril about the nation's communist leaders.

Soviet citizens told stories lampooning Josef Stalin's heavy Georgian accent. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was ridiculed for his redneck joviality. Leonid Brezhnev was mocked for his mumbling speech and his later senility, while Mikhail Gorbachev was ridiculed for his reputedly domineering wife and for his short-lived campaign to eradicate alcoholism. Even after the Soviet Union, the anekdoty tradition survived. Russians told tall tales built around President Boris Yeltsin's heavy drinking, and even the popular Putin could not escape barbed jokes about his KGB history and his use of salty slang. Anekdoty remained mostly an oral tradition until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the first printed anthologies often outsold serious novels.

In an online poll at, one of the most popular Medvedev jokes is one that clearly pinpoints the puppeteer in Russia's politics.

In the joke, Putin takes Medvedev to a restaurant and orders a steak. ''What about the vegetable?'' the waiter asks. Putin looks at Medvedev and says, ''The vegetable will have steak, too.''

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