Vodka, Erotic Dreams and One-Liners

MTA Putin puppet being prepared for the satirical "Kukly" show at Mosfilm Studios in April 2001. The show was canceled shortly after Gazprom took over NTV.
Editor's note: This article, the ninth in a series about President Vladimir Putin's legacy, examines the lighter side of his presidency.

Few people had heard of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin when he became prime minister in 1999. But with his taciturn, slightly intimidating face, one thing seemed certain: He didn't look like a comedian.

While "fun" is not a word widely associated with Putin, his eight-year run as Russia's shortest president -- so far -- has seen its share of the absurd.

"Who is Mr. Putin?" a journalist asked in 2000. Since no one knew for sure, they made up the answers.

Putin was depicted as James Bond with a heart, the red-blooded leader of a G8 country who bites Shamil Basayev to death in the 2002 novel "President" by Latvian author Alexander Olbik.

In the novel, a badly wounded Putin knocks Basayev to the ground and sinks his teeth into his throat. "'It seems I have the grip of a bulldog,' was the sick thought that came into [Putin's] head, and he squeezed his teeth tighter," Oblik wrote. "He savaged the vein until his tongue and palate could taste the salty blood, which was thick like oil."

In between killing Chechens, Putin reads the Roman stoic poet Seneca and is doted on by his wife, Lyudmila, who serves up borshch.

There were plenty of other Putin prototypes as well. There was Dobby, the oily, self-effacing elf in the Harry Potter films whose thin nose, large ears and pleading eyes looked remarkably like Putin. Rumors that the Kremlin suspected a deliberate attempt to mock Putin only made Dobby further resemble the president.

Other Putin sightings seemed to pick up on the chameleon-like air about him. In a 15th-century painting by the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck, Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini looks eerily like Putin.


Not that Putinmania began in the 15th century. It started in 2000, when he was elected to his first term.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
The producers of Putinka vodka say the brand has nothing to do with Putin.
Then-Moscow Times columnist Anna Badkhen had not one but two erotic dreams about that firmest of presidential jaw lines, while a young man in St. Petersburg had a portrait of the firm-jawed one tattooed on his arm. Another man walked 2,000 kilometers to show his support for Putin's presidential bid.

The ingratiation was a mixture of earnest admiration, base careerist toadying and mercantile branding.

You could turn on the television for a morning dose of Putin news or listen to a girl pop band on the radio singing "I Want Someone Like Putin," extolling the sex appeal of the man in the Kremlin. The song's catchy chorus lovingly listed the qualities that a girl sees in the president: "Someone like Putin, full of strength / Someone like Putin, who doesn't drink / Someone like Putin, who doesn't hurt me / Someone like Putin, who won't run away."

Stuffed animals singing the tune were subsequently unleashed on the public.

There were Putin calendars and a book about the Putin family dog -- Connie -- to flip through while munching on a portrait of the president made out of chocolate.

To wind down in the evening -- or to get a morning buzz going -- there was Putin vodka to chase with Putin pickles, stray bits of which could be mined from mouths using Putin toothpicks.

Putin has maintained that he opposes citizens' urges to name things after him -- including United Russia's political platform, Putin's Plan. It remains unclear whether this prompted Novosibirsk officials to force a local watering hole, the Putin Bar, to change its name in 2002.

When Putin turned 50 in 2003, he was inundated with gifts and praise from the political establishment. The most original present was from the former deputy prime minister of Bashkortostan, Gabit Sabitov: three pages of text addressed to Putin made up only of words beginning with the letter P.

For obvious reasons, the president was only referred to by his surname in the three sections, Proshloye Putina, Prazdniki Prezidenta Putina and Perspektivy Prezidenta Putina, or The Past of Putin, The Holidays of President Putin and President Putin's Prospects. The text finishes with the sentence, "Po Planete postavyat pamyatniki Pervomy Prezidentu Planety Putinu" or "All around the planet they will put up monuments to the first president of the planet, Putin."

A list of fantastic, hyperbolic descriptions of Putin's abilities also made its way onto the Internet. Examples include:

• When Putin smiles, a child is born in Russia. If the smile is wider than usual, expect twins.

• A fork that Putin ate from can slay a vampire with one stab.

• Putin helps the Russian economy by filling the Earth with oil from his personal reserves.

Putin himself was not unaware of the excessive zeal that had seized those around him. He was showered with praised by then-Primorye Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko during a meeting early in his presidency, said journalist Grigory Pasko, who attended the meeting. "Come now, Yevgeny Ivanovich, you're praising me like I'm already dead!" Putin said, according to an account posted by Pasko on the web site of Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Puppet Regime

Public perception of Putin might have been different if NTV television's scathing political puppet program "Kukly," or "Puppets," had not been brought to heel and ultimately axed.

The show was merciless in its satire of the political elite during President Boris Yeltsin's reign, and it initially pulled no punches with Putin. Ahead of the 2000 election, it portrayed Putin as a playboy picking up high-class prostitutes in the guise of leading politicians, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"Political Kama Sutra! Top class," the Zhirinovsky puppet said.

Then addressing the Putin puppet in a hushed tone, he said: "I'll bend over so far backward that you'll forget yourself. Well? Want to play, darling? We can play at the victory of democracy."

Putin hated the show, NTV insiders said at the time, especially when he was portrayed as a dwarf from a German fairy tale. The show dropped the Putin puppet but was finally canned for good when state energy giant Gazprom took over NTV.

Jokes about Putin's height -- he is 170 centimeters, tops, while Yeltsin was pushing 190 centimeters -- rarely raised their head after that. And it looks like they will be comparably rare when the mantle of Russia's shortest-ever president is assumed by Dmitry Medvedev, who by some accounts is a full 10 centimeters shorter than Putin.

But Putin did not disappear from the country's joke landscape. There were still Putin jokes going around, many of which were compiled in a small book published in 2001. Jokes in the book, appropriately titled "Jokes About Putin," play on claims by Putin's critics that he is an autocrat to the bone:

Stalin appears to Putin in a dream and asks: "Can I do anything to help you?"

Igor Tabakov / MT
Dobby of Harry Potter fame, pictured here on the Arbat, is thought by some people to bear a resemblance to Putin.
Putin says: "Why is everything here so bad -- the economy is falling to pieces, and so on. What am I to do?"

Stalin, without pausing for thought, answers: "Execute the entire government and paint the walls of the Kremlin blue."

"Why blue?" Putin asks.

Stalin replies: "I had a feeling you would only want to discuss the second part."

Perhaps the most enduringly popular satire of Putin during his presidency has come from Maxim Kononenko, whose web site,, casts Putin as a bemused president who uses criminal slang and has robots for deputies.

In a recent joke, Putin asks Prosecutor General Yury Chaika whether former Yukos vice president Vasily Aleksanyan, who claims that he was denied treatment for AIDS-related lymphoma while in jail, is infected with polonium-210 as well. Chaika advises Putin to keep Aleksanyan jailed so they can see what other illnesses he has. "I read the latest news in the morning like a soap opera," Chaika says.

"You're a cruel man," Putin replies. "I was right to name you prosecutor."

Yevgeny Petrosyan, a comedian who pulled no punches while mocking Yeltsin in the 1990s, bristled in a 2005 interview when asked whether he would be as harsh on Putin. "Don't be naive. You are aware that people in power are criticized less today. You want me to be a hero, but one can say the same thing about journalists. We're in the same boat, but you're asking me, 'Why aren't you swimming?' I'm not swimming because I'm not [Andrei] Sakharov," said Petrosyan, referring to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was sent to internal exile for his protests against the Soviet regime.

Indeed, one satirical news show's idea of a Putin joke last year was to say: "All good things must come to an end, just like second presidential terms."

As Connie, Putin's black Labrador retriever, says in the children's book "Connie's Stories": "I don't want my master to be angry or displeased with me. I like it when he's pleased with me. Bow wow!"

It would be difficult to say Putin provided no material for satirists. What, for example, would "Kukly" have done with one of Putin's most bizarre public moments: his decision to lift the shirt of a young boy and kiss his stomach in front of television cameras?

"He seemed to me very independent, sure of himself and at the same time defenseless, as a child always is, an innocent boy and a very nice little boy," Putin later explained, adding that he "just wanted to touch him like a kitten."

Not long after the kissing incident, published a joke about a Putin-sponsored plot to have self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky killed by an assassin accompanied by a child. Berezovsky dismisses the warning from his security detail, the joke goes, until he learns that the killer has a child in tow.

Putin's One-Liners

Putin himself has often displayed a dark sense of humor. But it's not clear whether his family even thinks he's funny.

His wife, Lyudmila, once said rather mournfully that she preferred simple, ordinary humor. "It is hard for me to understand black humor and irony," she told reporters in 2005. "I like simple and kind humor, although I cannot say that we have only this kind of humor in our family."

There is a Wikipedia entry devoted to Putinisms, although, unlike Bushisms, most of Putin's famous utterances are characterized by menacing precision rather than a blundering command of his native tongue.

Putin is indeed adept at one-liners, though sometimes they are far from funny. When CNN's Larry King asked Putin in 2000 what happened to the Kursk submarine, Putin replied with an eerie smile, "It sank."

In a markedly lighter moment, Putin responded to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism of Russia by recalling an incident in which Cheney accidentally peppered a hunting partner with buckshot fired from his shotgun. Cheney's statements, Putin said, are "the same as an unsuccessful hunting shot."

U.S. President George W. Bush got the same treatment for criticizing democracy in Russia. "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly," Putin told Bush.

Bush was less creative in his response. "Just wait," he said.

But Putin's jabs were not reserved for foreign leaders. After a particularly unsatisfying presentation by a senior official in the Far East, Putin asked the official, "What do you busy yourself with at work?"

Bawdiness has also been a hallmark of Putin's humor. In 2002, Putin suggested that a foreign reporter pressing him on the war in Chechnya have his foreskin removed. "If you want to completely become an Islamic radical and are ready to have a circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow," Putin told the reporter in Brussels. "We have a multicultural country and have specialists even on this issue. And I will recommend that he perform this surgery in such a way that nothing would grow out of you again."

He referenced genitalia again in 2006 at a meeting with foreign media executives, who apparently annoyed him with a speculative question about whether Russia could back sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

"What if my grandmother had certain sexual attributes? Then she would be my grandfather," he said.

Putin's attempts at male jocularity backfired spectacularly, however, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while Israeli President Moshe Katsav was being investigated for the purported rape and sexual harassment of 10 female subordinates. "He raped 10 women," Putin was cited by Kommersant reporter Andrei Kolesnikov as saying at the meeting. "I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We envy him."

"Not nice," Putin later said of journalists who reported the remarks.

"They have been sent to take a peek, not to eavesdrop," he said. He offered no explanation for his rape comments.

Putin's penchant for criminal jargon has also produced some peculiar moments. As prime minister, he famously promised to "waste the criminals, even in the outhouse" at the start of the second Chechen war.

In early 2000, when he was still acting president, he bewildered a translator at a joint news conference with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair by complaining that the Chechens were calling Russians kozly -- an offensive term most people wouldn't use in front of their mothers, let alone Blair.

The translator simply gave the literal translation, "goats," to a crowd of mystified journalists.

Eight years on, Putin is leaving office but not really going anywhere. Some shops have slashed prices on portraits of the outgoing president, the kind that hang on bureaucrats' office walls. It might be an opportunity for investors willing to hold onto them until 2012.

Previous reports about Putin's legacy can be found online at