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After a Drought of Political Jokes, Russia's Nouveaux
Riches Give Countrymen a Target

A New Class of Laughingstock

May 22, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — They're so crude and uncultured that few envy their fabulous wealth. They're such tacky dressers that noses wrinkle in unison whenever they penetrate the posh gathering places of the beautiful people. And they're so stupid, greedy and gullible, it is obvious at first glance that the strutting Philistines dubbed "New Russians" could be successful only through thuggery or dumb luck.

But say what you will about the slimy stratum of wheeler-dealers controlling commerce in today's Russia, they have given back something vital to this depressed federation: As the newest targets of this country's legendary anekdoti, New Russians have restored their moody countrymen's sense of humor.

After a long drought of political jokes of the type that kept Russians laughing even through times of terror, people are again knee-slapping over the absurdity that surrounds them. And one of the most absurd developments in post-Soviet capitalist Russia is the rise of a boorish underclass to a level of wealth and power that the pathetic clods are intellectually unequipped to deal with.

While the phenomenon of well-heeled hicks might be met in the West with resentment, Russians have a history of dealing with social injustice by laughing it off.

"Jokes at the expense of New Russians are a way of coping with a dilemma people can't do anything about," says Viktor A. Shenderovich, creator of the immensely popular weekly television serial "Puppets."

Modeled after Britain's "Spitting Images," which also had an American version of the same name, the half-hour show now aired on prime-time Russian Saturday nights spoofs Russia's President Boris N. Yeltsin, his bumbling and bruising entourage and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction cast of characters who would like to unseat him.

In an acknowledgment of the place in the nation's sense of humor that New Russians now occupy, Shenderovich says "Puppets" plans to add an image of Vladimir A. Bryntsalov, a flamboyant millionaire-businessman waging a longshot campaign for the presidency against Yeltsin. That would make Bryntsalov the first "New Russian" in the cast.

"No one even knows what this guy looks like, but that's not important," Shenderovich says. "All we have to do is get a puppet with the appropriately wrong clothes and the swagger and viewers will know instantly what kind of character we are portraying."

Russia's business bigwigs are often identifiable by their penchant for sorbet-colored sports coats, Ray-Ban shades, $5,000 loafers and gold chains--an upscale version of the lounge lizard.

"Puppets," which premiered about a year and a half ago, has already won a loyal following, and inclusion in its cast is the ultimate recognition that a politician has achieved national stature. A government attempt to censure "Puppets" last summer for alleged sedition only boosted the program's popularity and made the Yeltsin leadership all the more comical for picking on rubber dolls.

"I had to defend myself in front of the prosecutors and judges, all of whom seemed to realize how ridiculous the case was," Shenderovich recalls. "The most difficult part was trying to keep from laughing."

The case represented an important milestone, the comedian says, because it proved the new political freedoms are strong enough to resist reversal, especially as the prosecutor was forced to drop the matter for lack of evidence.

Those who have made the peculiar brand of humor shared by Russians their life's work hail the explosion of New Russian jokes and the rebirth of public satire as signs that this society is returning to normal. For Russians consumed by the demands of a daunting economic transition, anecdotes are like a vaccination against social pain.

New Russian jokes are particularly popular now, sociologists say, because they let the well-read masses feel a smug sense of superiority over those whose wealth is merely material.

"For the past few years, we have experienced an unusual and uncomfortable situation in which there were almost no anecdotes," says Boris Y. Grachevsky, director and senior writer of the long-running "Yeralash" comedy series. "True, there hasn't been much to laugh about as the country has been in crisis. But even under Stalin, when there was a risk of being arrested or sent to prison or even executed, there were great jokes about the political leaders."

He recalls one popular Stalin-era anecdote that has a new prisoner arriving at a Siberian gulag.

"What are you in for?" one inmate asks the newcomer.

"Nothing!" replies the distraught arrival. "Can you believe it? They've given me 15 years for nothing!"

"He's lying," another of the inmates interjects. "The sentence for nothing is only 10 years."

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