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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Humor Thriving in Crisis




It's drive time and Muscovites are heading home after another day of crisis. After the news, all of it bad, an ad comes on the radio.


"The ruble is falling," says the cheerful voice from a private dental clinic, "but with us, at least your teeth will stay in place."


The next ad urges crisis-weary listeners to get away from it all and book a Turkish vacation, now just a dream for what was once Moscow's middle class. The music starts again. The first song, sponsored by a cellular phone company now battling to hold on to its newly poor clientele, is "Sacrifice" by Elton John.


So goes another crisis in Russia, a time when people dip into deep national reserves of fatalism and retrieve a special mix of resolve and self-deprecating humor that thrives best when things go wrong.


"A crisis is nothing special for Russians," said Viktor Shenderovich, creator of the popular satirical show "Kukly," or Puppets, who spent two hours telling old and new jokes at a Moscow supper club recently. "As long as no one is shooting at us or sending us to labor camps, as long as we can find food for our children, we just live life as we have always lived it."


No sooner did the ruble collapse, businesses close down and inflation shoot up than the jokes started flowing, along with a steady stream of practical advice on how to cope with the stress of it all.


"Losing your job is always a stimulus for new projects," says Profil magazine, a weekly that not so long ago catered to the whims of Moscow's free-spending arrivistes. "So, you ask, what do we eat? Almost every normal person has some money set aside for black days."


In a similar vein of roll-with-the-punches advice, the magazine dropped its usual review of high-fashion boutiques and steered readers to a more useful line of shopping f "armored equipment for home use."


"In the last month we have become decisively convinced that keeping money in the bank is an inadmissible luxury," wrote the writer of the Let's Go Shopping section. "It's better to keep your treasures at home, 'in your sock,' according to the old Russian tradition. But you can also keep it in a safe. This is much more modern and reliable." The jokes, told on the air, on the streets and in the corridors of parliament, are also about the gathering gloom. One businessman calls another to check in on how he's doing. "Great," comes the answer. "Sorry, wrong number," the caller says and hangs up.


Then there is the one about the woman who walks up to the teller at a bank. "Whom do I see about opening a bank account?" she asks. "A psychiatrist," comes the answer.


There are old jokes, recycled to fit today's leaders. President Boris Yeltsin addresses the nation. "For years we have stood on the edge of an abyss. Now, fellow countrymen, we have taken a great step forward."


When it comes to crisis, Russians will boast that they are world-class professionals. The elderly remember World War II and stock up on buckwheat, potatoes, salt and matches. Housewives, wedded to the joy of a newly acquired washing machine, buy boxes of imported detergent. Young couples, aghast at the thought of washing dirty diapers, stuff their wardrobes with the disposable variety, which appeared in Russian stores only a few years ago.


"People are again discussing how many pounds of potatoes a balcony can hold before it collapses," was the wry comment from Mikhail Osokin, a television anchor, at the end of a recent broadcast.


None of this is particularly funny, but people make do, counting on their own ability to survive. How the country as a whole will fare is another matter.


One joke making the rounds sets out two scenarios for Russia's escape from its current predicament. The more optimistic of the two is that aliens arrive from another planet to sort out the crisis. The second, more pessimistic version has Russia saving itself.