WITH A heat wave baking my Stalin-era apartment building, I went to visit friends at their dacha outside Moscow. On the veranda of their simple wooden house, the table was set for a colorful feast, and over coals, cubes of lamb and pork sizzled on skewers. Perhaps it was the cooking meat that inspired someone to tell this joke:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is roasting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on a spit, working up a sweat as he rotates the spit as fast as he can.
"Why are you turning him so quickly?"
"I have to, otherwise Yushchenko will steal the coals."
The joke hinges on Moscow's claim that Ukraine steals Russian natural gas. But it was the closest thing to the old Soviet political jokes, or anekdoty, that I had heard in a long time. Intrigued, I began some informal field research on Russian political humor today. Here's one I heard repeated:
Putin gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the refrigerator. When he opens the door, a dish of jellied meat begins to tremble.
"Don't worry, I've only come for a beer."
Putin jokes tend to play on the Kremlin's consolidation of power, on the efforts to eliminate the opposition, on the silencing of independent voices and the domination of other branches of government:
Putin goes to a restaurant with the leaders of the two houses of parliament. The waiter approaches and asks Putin what he would like to order.
"I'll have the meat."
"And what about the vegetables?"
"They'll have the meat too. "
Back in Soviet times, anekdoty were an essential social safety valve. Many jokes compared life under Vladimir Lenin, Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev:
Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are traveling together on a train when suddenly it lurches to a stop. Stalin has the conductor shot. The train doesn't move. Khrushchev rehabilitates the conductor. The train still doesn't move. Brezhnev closes the curtains and says, "Now, we're moving."
Brezhnev took a beating for the Soviet Union's stagnation under his increasingly geriatric leadership, as in another old favorite:
Brezhnev begins his speech opening the 1980 Summer Games: "O! O! O!"
An aide interrupts him with a whisper: "The speech starts below, Leonid Ilyich. That is the Olympic symbol."
The anekdoty art form survived glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev was taken to task for his anti-alcohol campaign, and Boris Yeltsin for his drunken behavior and slurred speech. But Putin poses a problem for whoever it is who makes up these jokes. He's always in control, always on cue. He dresses well, speaks well and drinks in moderation.
The most telling thing about Putin jokes is their scarcity. This joke, for example, is 3 years old, and I haven't heard it lately:
Putin is sitting in his office with his head in his hands, when Stalin's ghost appears. Putin tells the ghost his problems, bemoaning the incompetence of his Kremlin underlings.
"That's easy to fix," Stalin says. "Shoot all the bad officials, and paint the Kremlin walls blue."
"Why blue?" Putin asks.
"Hah! I knew you'd only ask about the second part!"
Most people I asked, including a taxi driver who keeps his car radio tuned to a station called Humor FM, said they hadn't heard any Putin jokes, that Putin jokes would not be funny anyway, or that the public wouldn't like Putin jokes because the president is so popular.
There are no jokes about Putin, and if there were, they would be in bad taste, snapped an art historian, an old friend.
But Russians also have reason to be afraid of making fun of their president. For one thing, if a bill working its way through parliament becomes law, slandering the president would be a crime. Political candidates and their parties could be barred from elections. Journalists could be jailed and their news organizations shut down. Even without this law, the editor of an Internet newspaper was called in for questioning and had his site closed down in May after satirizing Putin's plan to encourage families to have more children.
A newspaper columnist who writes on foreign affairs said, not without irony, that there are no jokes about Putin because he is seen as a kind of god. "You don't make jokes about God, do you?" the columnist asked.
The NTV television channel dared to compare Putin to God on its satirical puppet show, "Kukly." Shortly after Putin's election in spring 2000, NTV announced that in response to pressure from presidential aides, it would do a show without the Putin puppet. Instead, Putin's chief of staff was depicted as Moses bringing commandments down from a God so holy that no one was allowed to see him or speak his name.
But the joke was on NTV. By the following spring, the privately owned channel had been taken over by state-controlled Gazprom, and "Kukly" disappeared. All three national TV channels are now under state control, and the president gets blanket coverage, none of it critical.
Perhaps most revealing about Putin as a leader is his own crude sense of humor and the tough-talking street language he uses. He recently told his ministers that no economic changes could be expected until they stopped "chewing on snot" -- slang for getting down to work.
One of the very few people who has been successful at poking fun at Putin is Maxim Kononenko, who set up a website in 2003 that spoofed the president's lowbrow slang. Many people expected the site to be closed down fast. Instead, Kononenko's hallmark sendups of conversations between Putin and a key aide, which begin, "Listen, Bro," won a coveted Saturday night spot on NTV -- hosted by a Kremlin favorite. Putin likes being portrayed as a tough guy.
Putin may not be funny enough to inspire a new generation of political humor, but what is happening in Russia is not always funny. Perhaps allowing a few more jokes would help.