Citizens of Russia have become the captive audience of a dystopian “comedy club” run by the government, according to some former Moscow officials.
And the Kremlin, it appears, is not in on the joke.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared last week that beer in Prague, where a summit between Kremlin critics recently took place, contains “female sex hormones” and called the opposition officials who met there “half-wits.” On the same day, his best friend Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council and former KGB hardliner, warned of a deadly “radioactive cloud that is now moving towards Western Europe” from Ukraine.
The bizarre propaganda lines—apparently meant to evoke fear among Russian exiles of cognitive decline by way of drinking beer, or death via the enriched uranium supplied to Ukraine by the West—fell flat. Putin’s remarks were widely mocked on social media, while experts at Russia’s own State Atomic Agency said that “the story with the approaching cloud is somehow exaggerated.”
The outpouring of ridiculous rhetoric in Moscow has gotten so out of hand that some former Kremlin insiders have resorted to creating memes inspired by the words and actions of Russian officials.
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That includes Putin’s former speechwriter, Abbas Galyamov, who put together photos of Putin drinking beer in response to the “female sex hormones” remarks, captioned with the sentence: “The president knows what he is talking about.”
Galyamov worked as a speechwriter for Vladimir Putin from 2008 to 2010, later taking on positions in the regional government and the Russian federal election agency. He made the decision to leave Russia in 2018, when he says he became disillusioned by “the fascistization” of the regime.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Galyamov elaborated on his affinity for making jokes about the Kremlin—and the privilege of being able to do so.
“There is much less respect for them now than before,” he told The Daily Beast. “If not for the political repression, all Russians would have thought of them as inhumane and mocked them.”
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Though men like Putin’s ideologist, Vyacheslav Volodin, have long been feared across Russia, critics appear to have become increasingly bold in their public mockery of them.
In a push to get more Russians to learn Chinese earlier this month, Volodin said that the English language, which is taught in every Russian school and university, is “dead”—triggering yet another wave of jokes.
“They should learn to speak Russian first. Volodin does not even speak English,” Olga Bychkova, a longtime Kremlin observer, said in a public post about his remarks. “That was made clear during his trip to India,” she added, referring to a report about the trip published in a popular Russian blog.
Last week, Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of Fontanka, published a column about a recent incident involving the head of Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin. The Russian official recently launched a criminal case against security guards who wouldn’t let him into a construction site near his home, presumably to scold construction workers.
Written in the genre of classical feuilleton, Vyshenkov mockingly refers to Bastrykin as “phenomenal” and “heroic” for confronting the workers “alone, without guards, without weapons, in civilian clothes.”
Of course, not all jokesters targeting the Kremlin are doing it out of some desire for a less repressive government. Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been frustrated with Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine, recently released a video in which he said that “Dedushka (grandpa) might turn out to be an absolute idiot,” leading many to speculate that he was referring to Vladimir Putin.
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While the Kremlin’s propagandists and state television shows mock Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “an unfunny comedian,” the accidental comedy show starring Kremlin officials offers a glimmer of hope for the future of Russia, according to former State Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov, who left Russia in 2019.
“Putin and his guys are turning into a comedy club, they are not lords of the ring any longer,” he told The Daily Beast. “The Kremlin is making mistake after mistake, which makes it clear to the public that they are just a bunch of ridiculous fools.”
“Humor makes people forget about fear,” he added.
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