How Russians deal

Or, dark wit for dark times

This week, it was announced that one of Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics had been poisoned. This diagnosis came out of Germany, where Alexei Navalny was treated after he fell into a mysterious coma. The original diagnosis from Navalny’s doctor in Siberia: Low blood sugar. 

“We don’t understand on what grounds our German colleagues are in such a hurry to use the word poison,” a Putin spokesman wondered aloud. “Here, I would not sketch out some tendency of murders, occurring in different countries of the world, of those who criticize the president of Russia,” he added helpfully.

It would be a real shame if such sketching distracted from the earlier news that Russia solved the pandemic. Sure, their vaccine, Sputnik V, skipped the conventional randomized control trials that prove safety and efficacy. But Putin said one of his own daughters had taken it, and isn’t that enough to begin wholesale vaccination of the Russian public? It’s not like the man has a tendency of murders or anything.

How do Russians deal with this nonsense? The land of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Yakov Smirnoff has patented a response that, unlike Sputnik V, has been proven effective: Dark wit.

The British historian Jonathan Waterlow has done some terrific work on these anekdoty, culminating in a 2018 book titled It's Only a Joke, Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin. He found them to be both edgy and eternal: They’ve been a coping strategy for decades, but use the wrong one in the wrong place, you’ll find yourself coping in the gulag.

You were probably OK to share this meta joke about jokes:

While riding the tram, a man lets out a long, heavy sigh. His wife immediately reprimands him: ‘I’ve told you before, don’t talk about politics in public!’

But you wouldn’t be long for the world if you taught your third grade class this little ditty in 1935:

Bread gone,
Meat gone,
The Five Year Plan,
Is ten years long.

Similarly, some of the Putin jokes started tame:

Putin opens the refrigerator and sees a plate of quivering gelatin, one joke went. “Stop shaking!” Putin says. “I am only getting the milk.”

And now they’re a bit more cutting:

“Do you think Putin will ever relinquish the presidency?”
“Of course!”
“Immediately after the coronation!”

If these anekdoty act as a pressure release valve for the citizenry, one might wonder if they’d be better off just letting the pressure build till it displaces the man on top. Why merely cope with hardship if you can directly address it? Because, Waterlow writes, “it feels good, it helps us to get on with life, and — most importantly — to share difficult and even frightening experiences with the people around us.”

This strategy applies equally well to autocratic regimes and bad moods, and it was best summarized by Nancy Mitford, who said:

“If one can’t be happy, one must be amused, don’t you agree?”

My gloss on that, from the pandemicky GWQ No. 40, was a little less aristocratic and a little more socialist, and I think it still stands:

If you can’t be happy, at least be amusing. Give those around you reason to smile, even darkly, if only so they can tolerate your company for the next umpteen weeks.

Share Get Wit Quick

Quick quip; lightning

“Luck, like a Russian car, generally only works if you push it.” — Tom Holt

Link link, nudge nudge 

“Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, too and famously, took a ten-day Vipassana course in Myanmar, though it’s left to the reader to decide whether it’s appropriate for a man who launched a billion chatterbots to grant himself the peace of silence.”
— Steve Bryant, writing on meditation in the Why Is This Interesting Newsletter.

“[C]ritics hate to be lost. We’re control freaks, most of us. We like to feel we can tack down the four corners of any situation, even in high wind. It’s a mental habit worth breaking. It’s potty training in reverse.”
— Dwight Garner, reviewing Ali Smith’s latest in the Times.

“A person who will stop at nothing to get what he wants often ends up getting stopped by some nothing. (Though, as recent history keeps showing us, perhaps not often enough.)”
— Eric Betts, distilling the succour-giving moral of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy in The Millions.

That was GWQ No. 61, now including links to some snappy lines from the week that was. A “tendency of murders” sounds like a “murder of crows,” and either could have opened for System of a Down in 2003. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting quivers whenever you open the fridge. If you like the idea of wit links, please tap the ♥️ below.