Dispatch

Russians Actually Are ‘Laughing Up Their Sleeves’ at the United States

But not in the way Donald Trump thinks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA        (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Last week, while he was in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump and his American counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided to take a moment to crack wise.

The town was up in arms over Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James Comey — there was talk of little else. But during a brief appearance before reporters with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov pretended to be in the dark about the sacking.

“Was he fired?” Lavrov deadpanned, in response to a question. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding,” he said, his lip slightly curled in a smirk.

It was an unscripted moment, both playful and cutting. But it also served to give Americans a brief window into how Russia views the unfolding chaos of the Trump presidency: Russians, it turns out, think this is all sort of hilarious.

U.S. democracy may be facing one of its toughest challenges in hundreds of years, but for Russia, this is a time for heaping servings of schadenfreude. After decades of hectoring from Washington on issues such as unfair elections, a clampdown on the press, and widespread corruption, Moscow is happily watching chaos and scandal embroil the Trump administration. The more lawless Washington appears, the more Russians are howling with laughter. When Trump tweeted last week that Russians must be “laughing up their sleeves” at the United States, he wasn’t wrong, exactly — though the target of Russian laughter might not be quite what the U.S. president thinks.

Some of the joking comes in the form of Saturday Night Live-style political comedy. The Russian comedian Dmitry Grachev, for instance — known for his chillingly accurate impression of President Vladimir Putin — regularly heaps scorn on Trump while in character. In a widely viewed clip mocking the leaders’ first telephone conversation, Putin is handed a mobile phone and told Washington is on the line. “The what house? I didn’t recognize you,” he tells the supposed leader of the free world. Various impersonations of Trump are also beginning to appear on Russian television, which typically depict the U.S. president as a buffoon who gets outfoxed by Moscow. In March, the popular Russian TV show Comedy Club, shown on the youth-focused channel TNT, featured an actor as Trump. The ersatz Trump thinks former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a type of sushi. He then plays charades against Grachev as Putin. Trump is visibly scared of the Russian president, but proposes expanding NATO in Europe. Putin responds by acting out a missile landing across the ocean and Trump hastily retreats. “Are you threatening me?” Trump asks. “No,” Putin replies, maintaining the façade of playing charades. “It’s just a grasshopper jumping in a pile of flour.”

In Moscow, requests for Trump lookalikes at parties and private events have been flooding in, according to several impersonator-for-hire agencies contacted by Foreign Policy. “So many people have asked for Trump that it may be time to add him to the list,” said Maksim Chadkov, director of sales at Artist.ru, which has a database of more than 13,000 actors, lookalikes, and musicians, including doubles of Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and a slew of Russian pop stars. “We’ll show him in a funny light, as a parody. No one wants to take him seriously.”

But it isn’t just comedy programs. A remarkable number of jokes at America’s expense are coming from official Russian sources.

Last week, in a subplot to the Comey firing, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency was allowed in the Oval Office to photograph the meeting among Trump, Lavrov, and Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak — while the U.S. press was excluded. After the meeting, the Russian Embassy in Washington used the social networking service Storify to create a tongue-in-cheek “caption contest” for one of the TASS photos: a large image of Trump shaking hands with Kislyak. Meanwhile, the White House fumed at the Russians’ public release of the photos, which Washington claimed were for official use only.

On Sunday, Russia’s state-run broadcasters’ evening news programs were dripping with sarcasm about the week that was in Washington. “The new action-drama series, tentatively titled ‘Secrets of Trump’s Oval Office,’ becomes more fascinating every day,” political commentator Evgeny Baranov said on the major broadcaster Channel One. “Russia’s footprint only enhances the intrigues of this bold plotline. … The latest episode with the unexpected resignation of Comey promises to be extremely gripping.”

Lavrov’s zinger in Washington came a few weeks after a particularly trolly April Fools’ prank on the part of the Russian Foreign Ministry. On its Facebook page, the ministry posted a fake voicemail recorded by a man who sounded a lot like Lavrov. “To arrange a call from a Russian diplomat to your political opponent, press one,” the recording began. For the services of Russian hackers, or aid with election interference, listeners could select options two or three.

Even Putin has gotten in on the fun, telling CBS News on the side of an ice rink that being asked about the impact of the Comey affair on U.S.-Russian relations was “a funny question.” He then told the reporter to go play hockey, before taking to the ice himself.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games in Moscow. There have been reports that Russians are unnerved by the apparent instability of the new White House occupant, while hopes for a détente in Russian-U.S. relations after years of strain under the Obama administration have all but vanished in recent weeks. The U.S. bombing of a Syrian air base may have been the final straw in a fraying attempt at a reset.

Still, the current spate of jokes draws, in part, on a long tradition of dark Russian political humor. Soviet citizens often armed themselves with playful wit against the regime. Jokes about the gulags, Kremlin leadership, and food shortages became part of daily life. (A recently declassified CIA document dump included Soviet-era jokes that American agents would translate and send home in order to gauge the public opinion and mood in the country. A particularly popular Soviet joke goes: A man walks into a shop and asks, “You don’t have any meat?” “No,” replies the saleslady. “We don’t have any fish. It’s the store across the street that doesn’t have any meat.”)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the jokes petered out for a while after authorities lost their grip on power, said translator and Moscow Times columnist Michele Berdy. But dark humor is back — only this time, even as Russians take snide pokes at their leadership (“Putin shows up at passport control with Poland. ‘Nationality?’ he’s asked. ‘Russian,’ he says. ‘Occupation?’ Putin smiles. ‘Not this time — just a short business trip’”) they’ve turned their humor toward overseas targets. And this time, the Russian elite look as if they’re in on the joke — a celebration of their seeming moment of triumph, Berdy said. It’s “the kind of cocky joking of people who feel on top and don’t care if they offend,” she said. “Or are happy to offend.”

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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