Behind the irony curtain: can Russia learn to laugh at itself?

Behind the irony curtain: can Russia learn to laugh at itself?

Traditionally serious, in recent years Russian culture has become decidedly humourless. But there are signs, argues Jan Levchenko, that Russians are remembering the virtues of self-deprecation

30 April 2014
Text Jan Levchenko

Russians only smile at people they know. They laugh benevolently at idiot foreigners. Russian humour is sarcastic and often rude — the result of centuries of violence and slavery — and rarely graced with wit or irony: such qualities are, as manifestations of individualism, intolerable in a totalitarian society. Or so goes the stereotype — and, as with most stereotypes, there is plenty of evidence pro and contra.

The Russians themselves, however, are quite convinced that they are the funniest, wittiest people in the world. In good Russian company laughter will sound for hours as jokes and humorous anecdotes are exchanged and repartee and ridicule offered in proof of friendship. Sure, one can find linguistic traces of violence, but this is true wherever you go. Back in the 1970s George Lakoff and Mark Johnson demonstrated that everyday phrases in English exploit this same potential for violence. In an attempt to restore the good reputation of the English language, Lakoff and Johnson chose to see such aggressive rhetoric as a wellspring of liberal democracy. Russian laughter, in contrast, serves as an expression of both adversity and fatalism. Laughing through tears to ease the pain.

A technical malfunction at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics

To be able and willing to laugh at oneself is a great art. Ever since national poet Alexander Pushkin — a noted joker — Russian culture been striving to acquire this very European art; and yet its most noted exports are still the painfully dull and didactic novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy or the stylised and cynical folk exoticism of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

The same thing could be felt at Russia’s biggest international showcase — the Olympics. The grandiose opening and closing ceremonies presented such a balanced but humourless version of the Russian exotic that there was no danger of them scaring off the foreigners. But not everything went entirely to plan: as you’ll remember, in the opening ceremony one of the Olympic rings failed to materialise on a giant display.

“During the Putin years Russians seemed to have forgotten how to laugh at themselves”

Unable to shake off old Soviet habits, the TV companies managed to cut this incident out of their so-called “live broadcast” in Russia and splice in some shots from the rehearsal. But the rest of the world saw this malfunction, so something needed to be done. Realising that laughing at yourself is important if you want to be accepted by the civilised world, the organisers of the Olympics in Sochi decided to make light of the technical error. And so, in the closing ceremony, the mistake was replayed in dance form. It was cited and thus neutralised — what we might call, if we were feeling Hegelian, a sort of Aufheben. You can hardly say that it was objectively funny, since it was clearly so calculating, but, at least it demonstrated a certain maturity, albeit fleeting, to the wider world.

During the Putin years Russians seemed to have forgotten how to laugh at themselves. We seriously believed that being too liberal with our laughter in the Nineties had had damning economic and political consequences. Russia lost the Cold War and traded its ideals for cheap handouts from the west, choosing superficial consumerism over loftier goals. The west pretended it was willing to help but was really just laughing at its defeated enemy. This simple realisation could only have emerged once the Nineties were safely in the past. At the time no one had any idea that, by laughing at top government officials and exercising freedom of speech and unrestrained irony both in the media and in everyday life, Russian citizens were actually just pawns in a devious plan concocted by the west to discredit traditional Russian values and ultimately enslave our country. This insidious “truth” was only revealed later.

“Even a films like lightweight spy spoof Hitler Goes Kaput! can help develop a new language for discussing the Second World War”

At the beginning of the new millennium the laughter began to fade. When a country sets about recalling its lost grandeur, it doesn’t much feel like laughing. The folk wisdom of the Soviet era returned, reminding us that only fools laugh for no reason and that hard work beats laughter any day.

But laughter didn’t vanish altogether. It simply found a new target. I remember very clearly the moment when the newly minted President Putin demonstrated who and what he intended to laugh at in future. In August 2000, when asked by the television presenter Larry King what really happened to the Kursk submarine, Putin replied with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile: “It sank.” Unlike President Yeltsin, who the whole country had laughed at, the former KGB man showed that laughter was now his prerogative; that he would be the one doing the ridiculing, not the other way round. Putin’s response caused many an instinctive, and prophetic, shudder of repugnance. Directing laughter at external targets became part of the project of restoring Russia’s lost grandeur. It serves as a kind of compensation for the imagined humiliations of the increasingly mythologised Nineties.

“In the 1990s, the Russian people suddenly found themselves living in a country where you could actually laugh at the president without fear of arrest”

Sadly this new vein of laughter even lacks the sense of irony that flourished in the Soviet era, despite the fact that, officially, we were encouraged to do little more than shout with delight at parades and deride the enemy. But a new culture of laughter was born among dissidents. It was their intimate, non-canonical humour — jokes and songs and ironic poetry that in the end turned out to be a force greater than Soviet power. As a result, in the 1990s, the Russian people suddenly found themselves living in a country where you could actually laugh at the president without fear of arrest.

Even now, as the old order is actively restored, the recent past is too fresh in the mind to simply vanish at the behest of reactionary leaders and their cultural lackeys' cultural institutions. One might expect that, given the regnant atmosphere of conservatism, the history of the Russian state would be discussed with the appropriate sobriety. But popular culture lives by its own laws. Thus, even films like lightweight spy spoof Hitler Goes Kaput! (2008) could, despite considerable indignation from “patriotic” critics, help develop a new language for discussing the Second World War — an increasingly sacral source of Russian national pride.

A more successful departure from the usual dull awfulness of Russian film comedy is Now a Kiss! (Gorko; 2013), made by Andrei Pershin under the pseudonym Zhora Kryzhovnikov, which combines two successful recent Hollywood trends: the wedding movie and the found-footage film. The brother of the groom, camera in hand, trails the wedding’s protagonists, who will later watch the sentimental video together with their children and relatives. In pseudo-documentary style the camera captures the tastelessness, drunkenness, hooliganism and barbarism characteristic of a cheap resort town in southern Russia. The strange thing is that, rather than shocking its viewers, the video evokes a sense of recognition and sympathy through tragicomic laughter.

“Now a Kiss! offers the viewer not an indictment, or a patronising lesson, but a declaration of reconciliation”

Unlike typical intelligentsia filmmakers, like Pavel Lungin, whose brutal take on a provincial matrimony The Wedding (2000) puts murder and deceit front and centre, Kryzhovnikov’s attitude to his compatriots seems to be one of love rather than shame, rage and disgust. Consequently, the humour in Kryzhovnikov’s film is healing: Now a Kiss! offers the viewer not an indictment, or a patronising lesson, but a declaration of reconciliation, free of the de haut en bas paternalism that has emanated from the classics of Russian literature since the mid-nineteenth century.

There is enough of the grotesque and the absurd in Russian life, it seems, that there is no need for an artist to add anything more to it. Accepting this grotesque reality painlessly is a skill; making people laugh at it is an act of cleansing, a redemption from the dark and wearying seriousness of contemporary officialdom.

Russian laughter today sometimes seems dumber than ever. But, as a film like Now a Kiss! shows, it has never before been so mature or so benevolent. However frowny are the faces that greet us when we arrive in the airport, fresh from clean and smiling lands abroad, we know that laughter still unites us.

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