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Fear and laughter

“In conditions of shrinking freedom and fewer independent media, the internet became filled with jokes, anecdotes and lampoons,” says the Russian author and human rights activist Liza Aleksandrova-Zorina. In this essay she describes how satire and laughter, which have become part of the people’s political struggle, manage to frighten those in power in Russia and how a virtual iron curtain has divided the country. Can a regime silence a people’s laughter?

Credits Text: Liza Aleksandrova-Zorina Translation from Russia: Natasha Perova Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson January 13 2020

I was born in 1984, and I still live in 1984. Because to all intents and purposes any year in Russia is 1984: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, propaganda declaring that “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery”, official news such as “Oceania is at war with Eastasia / Oceania was at war with Eastasia / Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia”. All this remains commonplace in today’s Russia. We live in a dystopian environment. True, it is not yet as grim as the Orwellian world. In our anti-utopia people can split their sides laughing all they want. The Soviet dissident author Andrei Sinyavsky observed that the political anecdote was the main Soviet contribution to 20th-century world folklore. Even some popular American jokes about Bush Jr. were largely adaptations of Soviet anecdotes about Brezhnev. Russians had always been laughing privately, especially when everything else was forbidden. People made jokes about the Tsar, the War, the Revolution, the Bolsheviks, famine, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev, the Gulag, food shortages, and what not. Initially the Soviet authorities were indulgent to anecdotes because they mostly circulated within the educated minority, but they seriously punished people for singing anti-Soviet ditties, which were widespread among simple people. However, in the 1930s they started jailing people for anecdotes. There was a joke about this as well: “Diggers of the White See Canal were on the one side those who told anecdotes and on the other side those who listened to them.”

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, political satire disappeared. What was the point in using Aesopian language when you could express yourself without watching your tongue? But then came Putin…

I remember large-scale protests in Moscow in 2011-12 when huge youth crowds and groups of middle-class people came out into the streets. Particularly striking were the posters, which competed in creativeness and wit. Before the police started chasing us with clubs, we wandered in the crowd reading the slogans and roared with laughter. Some people, though, saw those frivolous posters as a sign of weakness: they believed that the authorities would hardly regard such opposition seriously. However, the reaction of the authorities was quite serious. To quote Gogol: “Even those who fear nothing would still fear laughter.”

The first to be detained by police were the people with the most funny and provocative posters. The protesters started making more subtle jokes, such as “2х2≠5. Hi, Orwell!” The arrests intensified and we continued to laugh in the police vans and police stations. It became fashionable to post selfies from police vans with other smiling prisoners on Facebook. Some people were even willing to get arrested for the sake of a coveted picture. So again there were lots of pictures, memes, jokes, albeit behind bars.

Then the authorities doubled the fines for participating in meetings: many people simply could not afford to pay them. Moreover, the police started detaining participants right and left, using force, and also persecuting protesters by making them redundant at work, expelling students from universities, threatening the annulment of parental rights. I’ve been on police record for the last three years. Every three months a policeman visits me at home for interrogation and “prophylactic talk” (applied to ex-convicts and person who present a threat to society in the police opinion.)

Year after year the Russian authorities suppressed independent media, political movements, public venues, until all the social and public discussions moved to the internet. There we now find online periodicals whose headquarters have moved abroad; the publics which have become the last free venues for independent-minded journalists, writers, political analysts, sociologists; video-blogs created by government-disapproved oppositionists who are barred from appearing on television; and social networks which play the role of Soviet-era kitchens, the only place where people were not afraid to criticize the authorities.

In conditions of shrinking freedom and fewer independent media, the internet became filled with jokes, anecdotes and lampoons. Laughter is a form of political struggle and public discussion, and simply a way of letting off steam.

The poisoning in Salisbury, raising the retirement age, family violence, outbursts of homophobia, Russian politicians’ threats to use nuclear weapons, floods, forest fires, shortages of medicines, closing hospitals, the beating of protesters, whatever happened, the Russian internet responded with jokes, anecdotes, lampoons and memes. Hundreds of people laughed at the fact that they wouldn’t make it to pension age and would never be able to independently choose a president, deputies, or a village head. This attitude appears to be a weakness, or even stupidity: instead of fighting and protesting, people tell anecdotes and draw lampoons. The thing is that people are afraid of serious actions: they believe that criticism of the authorities packed into a joke will save them from repressions.

However, this is a delusion. The powers-that-be fear laughter. Their power is based on fear – one who looks funny is no longer fearsome.

Therefore, as a hundred years ago, they started persecuting people for jokes, ditties, and anecdotes. One Russian woman was convicted on charges of extremism for some ditties about corrupted courts published in the internet. Another person was taken to court for an anecdote published in the internet and was subjected to forced psychiatric examination. Young people are repeatedly taken to court for internet-memes. The number of arrests for publications in the internet has grown markedly in the last few years. And, as you would expect, jokes about this have flooded the internet.

But this is not at all a laughing matter for the authorities. They issue ever new laws against the jokers. Some of the laws often sound like jokes. For example, “the law on insulting the authorities”, which allows convictions of those who are disrespectful to the president, deputies, and policemen. The first person to be convicted under this law wrote in the internet, “Putin is a fabulous fucker”, which was in fact a quote from a popular Russian comedy film. The effect was the opposite of the one intended: the “Streisand effect” so to speak. The phrase became a meme and the internet exploded with hundreds of jokes and lampoons on the subject. Then many of those jokers were fined under the same law.

Recently a law on “foreign agents” has been passed whereby the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have the right to brand as “foreign agents” those journalists and human-rights activists who write for non-Russian media (or Russian media recognized as “foreign agents”) and receive money from abroad, or who repost articles from foreign media on their sites and in social networks. The above individuals will be obliged to mark all their documents with the label “foreign agent”. Social network users, including those who had not been listed as “foreign agents”, immediately put this label on their sites en masse. What else could they do? Only respond with an absurd act to the advancing absurdity.

The Kremlin’s long-time dream is to be able to shut down all the undesirable sites, social networks, and messengers with some sort of a secret control. Better still, to shut down the entire internet. In fact, they sometimes manage to do this during public meetings in a certain district, city, or a whole republic. The new law on “sovereign internet”, which means to function as an “iron internet-curtain” like the Great Firewall of China, has already been nicknamed “chebur-net” (after a popular comic cartoon character called Cheburashka). And of course lots of anecdotes sprang up about the vagueness of the authorities’ notions of a sovereign internet and about how the project’s budget would be embezzled before they could start work on it.

And yet this is not at all a laughing matter. Even if no iron internet-curtain is created, we can see today how slowly but surely another iron curtain is falling: that of silence out of fear.

I know what fear is only too well. The fear of saying what you think. And I have observed it many times in other people.

Last winter I stood with a poster “No to the War with Ukraine!” in Arbat Street in the center of Moscow (solitary picketing is the only legal form of protest which does not require permission from the authorities.) A girl stopped nearby, she hovered around looking at me sideways, coming nearer and moving off, then pretended to speak on her cell phone. Finally, she summoned the courage to approach me, looked around to make sure there were no police, and stuttered in a whisper: “Thank you.” Immediately she ran away. She was scared stiff saying her “thank you”.

One day I came to a radio station for an interview. I was met by a girl who escorted me upstairs; we discussed the latest news. Her speech was so full of euphemisms that a non-Russian (even one who spoke Russian well) could never have made head or tail of it. For instance, she referred to Putin as “He” raising her eyes to the ceiling, the murdered opposition leader Nemtsov was “the man who is no longer with us”, the FSB was “those who make all the decisions”, a security officer was “the man in a bulging jacket”, and so on. These appellations were accompanied by pantomime for clarity. She was afraid to use their proper names although nothing bad could have happened to her for that.

Many of my friends never use Putin’s name when speaking on the phone: they also say “He” in a low voice and avoid discussing political matters: “Not on the phone, please. Let’s talk about it when we meet, OK?” Many people, just as you start talking politics, look around instinctively, even if we’re walking in the park and there are only trees around.

Now I can feel that fear is increasing in the Russian internet. And no wonder. When you read in the news about court cases against people who just published in the internet a joke about Putin or a lampoon about a Church higher-up, you think twice before writing anything of the sort there or even reposting something. Clearly, joking in the internet must be coming to an end: one activist was accused of extremism and convicted to almost a year of house arrest for a video-blog, and another was sentenced to five years in prison for a comment on Twitter which was interpreted as a threat to policemen’s children. “For killing his wife he might go free in a year” – that was someone’s sarcastic comment in the social networks after the verdict.

The Soviet authorities were once fairly tolerant of anecdotes, believing that they circulated only among the intelligentsia, while folk ditties were sung by the broad masses and therefore more dangerous. But then anecdotes spread to the broad masses as well, and many people went to prison camps for spreading them. The internet, too, was free of censorship at first: the authorities believed that most people watched television. But with time, the internet became a major source of information for people of all age groups, professions, and cultural levels. Now the authorities are focused on the internet.

I’m often asked if I am afraid to openly criticize the authorities in my articles, if I am aware of the danger. I am not afraid because I know that an internet user with only a few subscribers is risking much more than I. When the police come for a well-known opposition author or politician, the news immediately spreads around the social networks and independent media, but about convicted rank-and-file citizens, we learn only belatedly, if ever.

That was the case with a man who wrote that he did the work of three men, but was paid for only one, for which he cursed Putin using obscene language. This cri de coeur was picked up by the special police, who scan the social networks for opposition opinions. The man was fined for disrespecting the president - the fine was one and a half times his monthly wage. Journalists learnt of this case quite by chance, coming across the court decision in the internet. After the trial, the man closed his internet account and wrote to friends that all he wanted was “to disappear from this world and forget everything.” This is the wish of any person who finds himself face to face with the huge repressive machine of the state.

Where the authorities used to hunt for independent journalists and human-rights activists, today the victims are often ordinary people whose blogs are read only by friends and relatives. Moreover, these victims are chosen at random: nobody can say who will be next. This creates an atmosphere of fear.

This is not the kind of fear when you are afraid to be serious: this is the fear when you are afraid even to laugh.

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