How Putin's Russia turned humour into a weapon

By Olga Robinson
BBC Monitoring

  • Published
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during his meeting with athletes at the Russia in October 2018Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
When Vladimir Putin became president, he did not see the funny side of a TV satire show

In the dying days of the Soviet Union, Russians used humour to escape the bleak reality of economic stagnation, food shortages and long queues.

Political satire flourished on TV in the form of latex puppets during the 1990s, but it was quickly slapped down when Vladimir Putin came to power.

In today's Russia, where the media is largely controlled by the Kremlin and its allies, there is little room for genuine political humour unless it is used to deflect the blame from the government.

How Russia turns criticism into a joke

Humour and ridicule were a key part of Moscow's response when the UK said it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.

Russian officials and media figures have since tried to turn the English phrase "highly likely" into a mocking catchphrase that implies Russia is being blamed for everything with the flimsiest of evidence.

They have enlisted a range of popular figures from English literature, such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, to ridicule British allegations of Russian involvement in the poisoning which they denounce as unfounded.

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Roman Dobrokhotov, whose investigative website The Insider was involved in exposing one of the two poisoning suspects, Anatoliy Chepiga, says such mockery is a form of trolling designed to "deliberately lower the level of discussion".

How the strategy works

"They cannot respond in a serious fashion and to the point, so they start to play-act. This is an attempt to mock, to reduce everything to nothing," Mr Dobrokhotov told the BBC.

Along with conspiracy theories and misleading narratives, he argues, this kind of tactic aims to sow doubt.

The result is that many will watch TV and decide there is no way of really getting to the bottom of what happened. In other words, he says: "no-one is a saint, truth does not exist".

Internet audiences are also a key target for this technique.

One social media hashtag - #IamFromGRUToo (#ЯтожеИзГРУ in Russian) - appeared to be inspired by the #MeToo movement. Pro-Kremlin Twitter-users mocked UK allegations against Russia's GRU (now GU) military intelligence agency.

One spoof job advert joked that the GRU was "looking for employees for its cyber-attack department, chemical weapons department and election-meddling unit. There is no need to apply - we will find you ourselves".

Ben Nimmo, an Atlantic Council researcher on Russian disinformation, told the BBC that attempts to create funny memes were part of the strategy as "disinformation for the information age".

Why Putin is out of bounds

Russia's move towards using humour to influence its campaigns is a relatively recent phenomenon.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, one of the first casualties was popular TV satirical show Kukly (Puppets), which had repeatedly had a go at the new president.

Image source, Getty Images
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The early 2000s satirical Russian puppet show Kukly ("Puppets") mocked President Putin mercilessly, but its days were numbered

TV is the main source of information for most Russians and humour was gradually replaced with apolitical or sanitised jokes that carefully avoid criticising Mr Putin or his inner circle.

Most comedy programmes on Russian state television these days are anodyne affairs which either do not touch on political topics, or direct humour at the Kremlin's perceived enemies abroad.

If the president is mentioned, it is in flattering terms, while Western leaders and institutions are fair game.

Take Russia's top mass-appeal TV comedy show, KVN.

Last year, a skit on the G20 summit depicted Mr Putin as an athletic, skilful practitioner of judo who ran rings around his Western counterparts, who appeared ungainly and foolish.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Generally apolitical, comedy TV show KVN has even been joined on stage by President Putin in person

"They have brought the humour inside," says author Peter Pomerantsev who himself experienced the world of the Russian TV producer.

While humour was once a threat to their Soviet predecessors, the Kremlin has now turned it to their advantage.

"It's not a super-serious regime, they do things with a kind of smirk and sometimes just with a smile. It's a system that allows for a certain amount of humour, it's not po-faced all."

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.