Medvedev Already The Butt of Jokes

APFarid Bogdalov showing his Medvedev portraits in the One Work Gallery.
A joke circulating these days has Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev waking up in the Kremlin in 2023 with a vicious hangover.

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.

It tidily sums up the ambiguities of the new power-sharing agreement whereby the baby-faced Medvedev will serve as president with the stern Putin serving below him as prime minister -- tapping into widespread speculation that it is really Putin who will be the boss.

This new odd couple at the pinnacle of power has become ideal fodder for the cherished and once dangerous tradition of poking fun at leaders through satirical jokes called anekdoty. The latest crop play on the contrast between Putin and Medvedev, riff off of the novelty of a two-headed state, or spin puns out of Medvedev's last name, which stems from the word for bear.

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," linguist Sandzhar Yanyshev said. "They remain the main genre of oral tradition in Russian folk culture."

George Orwell once called the joke "a tiny revolution," and nowhere was that taken more literally than in the Soviet Union.

Despite the danger, Soviet citizens told stories lampooning Josef Stalin's heavy Georgian accent. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was ridiculed for his redneck joviality and introduction of corn on collective farms in regions where it was too cold to grow the crop.

Leonid Brezhnev was mocked for his mumbling speech and, toward the end, his senility, and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was ridiculed for his reputedly domineering wife and for his short-lived campaign to eradicate alcoholism.

Anekdoty remained mostly an oral tradition until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the first printed anthologies often outsold serious novels.

Even after the end of the Soviet Union, the anekdoty tradition survived.

People told tall tales built around President Boris Yeltsin's heavy drinking, and even Putin faced a few barbed jokes about his KGB history and his use of salty slang.

People today openly joke about political leaders -- although not on national television. "Kukly," or "Puppets," a popular satirical television show on politics, was closed down on NTV in 2001 after the Kremlin objected to Putin being lampooned. The Kremlin since then has tightened controls on the mass media, and that, perhaps, has led to a modest revival of anekdoty.

The first Medvedev jokes emerged in early 2006, according to popular web site Anekdot.ru, where viewers can share jokes. It was months after Putin appointed his trusted aide as first deputy prime minister, prompting speculation that Medvedev was being groomed to succeed him.

The appointment coincided with the worldwide hysteria about bird flu. In one joke, Putin orders Medvedev to run a flu-prevention campaign and orders his name changed to Kuritsyn, or Chickenov.

Puns are crucial in many Medvedev jokes. His last name stems from medved, the word for bear. The name recalls the Western stereotype of Russia as a country of brutal and drunken bear-men -- not quite the puplike figure cut by the president-elect.

Medvedev himself alludes to the humorous overtones of his name. "I eat honey sometimes, I just have to -- because of my last name," he said in late February.

A Medvedev pun says that Putin has promoted a tamed bear to the presidency to demonstrate that politics is a circus.

In one particularly trenchant anekdot, 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."

It is unclear how long the Putin-Medvedev duo will last -- but the longer it does, the more anekdoty it is likely to inspire. A popular satirist who runs a blog that mocks Putin said he had no plans to launch a separate web site for Medvedev. Maxim Kononenko's virtual Putin uses street slang in conversations with his Cabinet ministers and has a Martian living in his head. It would, Kononenko said, "be stupid to run a similar project on Medvedev."

In the online poll at Anekdot.ru, one of the most popular Medvedev jokes is one that clearly pinpoints the puppeteer in 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."