The importance of laughing at Vladimir Putin


It's almost too easy to laugh at Vladimir Putin's excesses and weirdnesses and ineffable Putin-ity. But with the Olympics he made now in the rearview mirror, maybe laughter is a good place to start.

First things first: here is Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and scowling supreme ruler, singing Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" at a charity event. Look closely at the shots of the crowd eagerly cheering him on, like eagerly to the point of mania, and you'll notice Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, Sharon Stone, a vest-clad Kevin Costner and what is either a life-size roquefort sculpture of Gerard Depardieu, or Gerard Depardieu. So:

So, what do we make of this? At the most immediate level, and also at the first dozen or so levels underneath it, this is a marginally more danceable version of the dim WTF RUSSIA puzzlement that dominated the Olympic conversation before the events got underway. Putin's not terribly lighthearted Borat-as-Dracula cover version is, in terms of lurid jankiness and attendant bafflement, the Singing Autocrat analogue of a sportswriter's twitpic of a forbidding Sochi toilet.

It's funny in the same simple way: it just doesn't look right to us at all, and the way we respond to things that don't look right in this way is generally to laugh. Factor in the menagerie of marked-down Hollywood types clapping with champagne-eyed arrhythm and swooning delightedly as Putin grimly extrudes his beh-BEE-s over cornball synths, and the effect is heightened. Laugh at it, by all means. What else are you going to do, looking at something like this?

You would have laughed if you'd been shown a video of Muammar Qaddafi, in one of his epaulet-enhanced disco jumpsuits, performing "Rockin' Robin" at a similar event in 1977, or nodding solemnly at a private Mariah Carey performance in 2008. The coke-eyed Carter-era equivalents of Costner and Depardieu and the rest would've whooped just as hard, had they been there. The world would not be free of the cynical predations of autocrats like Vladimir Putin if people didn't keep making this particular mistake where charismatic tyrants are concerned, but also people keep making this mistake.


Here's another video of Putin's, although his authorship and starring role is not quite so overwhelmingly apparent. Where the one above aired on Russian television, the one below did not. It shows the members of Pussy Riot, a punk act critical of Putin and the state, preparing for an impromptu performance in Sochi, and then being set upon and horsewhipped by cossack militiamen.

This is not funny at all, of course. The Russian press running with quotes from doctors in Sochi claiming that Pussy Riot's members suffered "no bodily harm" in the attack -- which, again, involved dozens of men hitting them with whips -- is ridiculous, of course, a bleak joke. But, again, not funny.

Putin does not take jokes especially well, which is probably not a surprise. A man who runs a Twitter feed satirizing the Kremlin awoke one morning to find a 200-pound wooden penis chained to his car; a Kremlin-backed pro-Putin youth group likely put it there. Protestors are sent up for years for doing things like throwing lemons at riot cops; politicians who oppose Putin are imprisoned for even longer, for even less. LGBT activists protesting Putin's anti-gay laws at public kiss-ins are beaten savagely, and then arrested for kissing each other in public, which has been criminalized as "homosexual propaganda." It seems strange for a nation's supreme leader to declare war on a punk band, but this sort of thing is just what Putin does.

Putin had previously imprisoned the members of Pussy Riot for more than two years, because they played an impromptu show in a Russian Orthodox church. He released them in time for the Sochi games, but it seems a good bet that he'll find some reason to imprison them again soon enough. It's equally likely that a follow-up to Russia's broad 2013 law against "homosexual propaganda" -- enforced as a ban on public homosexuality, and honored more broadly by various vigilante groups as a license for all manner of anti-gay violence -- will be taken up shortly after the Olympics. That new law, presently tabled in a Duma that passed the previous anti-gay law by a vote of 436-0, would allow the state to seize the children of LGBT parents.

It is not quite inaccurate to say that Putin is doing this, instead of the Russian state; the transference between the two is total, and there is a sprawling and appalling impunity that comes with that. Putin is replacing civil society with himself, or with the cartoonish version of muscular Russian-ity -- picture him wrestling a leopard, shirtless and pickle-faced as ever, while state photographers' cameras whirr on command. Russia has massive problems, few of which Putin has done much to redress and many of which he has actively abetted. These are what he obscures with the bullying theatrics and stunt governance that increasingly define his presidency.

It works, too. His popularity has dipped the more he has revealed himself, but has never been below 60 percent. Some Americans -- here's the conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson, for one -- have decided that he is the impressive type of tyrant, with the zero-sum reasoning that at least he gets results. And Putin does get results, of a sort. He got the Olympics to come to Sochi, after all.

He did what he needed to do to get the Winter Olympics in a small city whose average February temperatures are in the 50's. He spent a record $50 billion taxpayer dollars on the event, an astonishing percentage of which simply disappeared into the pockets of the well-connected people who won those contracts. The Olympics that resulted were almost exuberant in their heedless headlong jankiness; they appear to be an ecological disaster to boot.

And yet, in a sense, this all worked, too! Russia won the most medals, the Olympics were watched by record audiences around the globe -- if slightly smaller than usual audiences in the United States -- and that is more or less what Putin wanted. The missing billions, the snowless slopes and myriad other mess-ups, all of that mattered less than the sheer and inarguable existence of the games -- that they happened was what mattered.

So, this is success. Putin has created a society that is unequal and corrupt and cruel in a macro sense, that's defined by various institutionalized uglinesses and un-freedoms, and he was rewarded for it. The IOC gave him an Olympics that he used as an excuse for graft and waste at a level never before seen even in the graft-positive and waste-intensive history of the Olympics, and that all more or less worked out as he'd planned. We are in the realm of a different, darker type of humor, now. This is too dark to be anything but a Russian joke, one whose punchline is either a laugh or a sob or both, and at which we may not yet have arrived.


There is a case that can be made for giving a global event like the Olympics to Russia or the World Cup to a nation like Qatar, another country with a terrible track record on basic human rights issues. That case, in short, is that the event could serve as a catalyst of change. This is a complicated, ex post facto bit of sunshine-mining, but it's not totally specious where Qatar is concerned.

For all the many appalling problems that persist in how Qatar allows foreign laborers to be treated, it has also engaged with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in an attempt to formulate a better -- or at least less outwardly abhorrent -- way of doing business. If this is crisis PR or an earnest recognition of a problem hardly matters; it may well result in positive change either way. Qatar, interesting place though it is, probably shouldn't have gotten the World Cup in the first place given its many problems. But it may well happen that the World Cup will lead Qatar to solve some of those problems. This is not what happened in Sochi.

What happened in Sochi was the opposite of that. Putin does not engage and does not moderate, which is his appeal to those that find him appealing, and the reason -- or that and a morally null ruthlessness -- why he has been able to keep control of his country even as it falls apart in public.

And so the Olympics became a sort of celebration of Putinism In Action simply by dint of their existence. The events were the events; the thing itself was more proof that he can and will do whatever he wants, and will not be stopped from doing it. If he wants to sing, he'll sing. If not, then not. People will applaud no matter what. That is the dark side of it.

The other side, though, is the one we can see more clearly now that the games are over. The games and the athletes are invariably bigger and brighter than the grandiose pettiness of Putin and his like; their simple greatness reveals his smallness in contrast. Everything that worked about the Sochi Games was out of Putin's control; everything that failed has his name on it. The world thrilled at the games themselves and laughed at the lopsided ziggurats of cravenness and stupid graft that Putin made for them. There's no better satire of an egomaniac than the kind dealt out in time by fate and gravity. Putin got his Olympics, for better and worse. The rest of what he's got coming is on its way.

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