Dictators are rarely funny. Even ones who cultivate bare-chested, bear-hugging personas and have a penchant for extra-long tables. In more than 20 years of watching Russian President Vladimir Putin, I can’t recall him laughing spontaneously, or cracking a joke — certainly not a memorable one. Perhaps because there’s nothing amusing about repression, violence or war waged on a peaceful neighbor.
And yet, it’s no accident that a misfit with a crop top, an oval head and a foul mouth, the irreverent Masyanya, has become an irritant for the Kremlin. In the first post-invasion online episode of the cartoon in March, she travels to Moscow to encourage Putin to fall on his sword. In another, she attempts to explain the invasion and post-Soviet history to her children and ends up with tied-up, fake-blood-spattered, dismembered toys. In the latest, viewed more than 4 million times, China invades Russia to “cleanse the country of fascism,” reclaiming territory, claiming Russian culture doesn’t exist and the language is “just garbled Ukrainian” — a parallel lost on no one.
At a time when reality ceases to make sense, whispered jokes, satire and ridicule fill the gaps. In the best tradition of dark Soviet anekdoty, gallows humor is a coping mechanism, one that allows millions of Russians to deal with the cognitive dissonance of everyday life. But humor also has the power to highlight the tragic absurdity of Putin’s regime and of his war of conquest in Ukraine, making it far harder to ignore, even in a country where propaganda is overwhelming. It has the power to enable quiet resistance and, just maybe, to keep defiance alive. No wonder regulators stepped in after Masyanya’s March episode, demanding its removal.
Laughter and caricature are effective political weapons — consider the number of comedians who have risen to prominence in politics. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy famously starred in a television comedy as a history teacher who unexpectedly ends up winning a presidential election, before going on to do so in real life. Icelandic standup Jon Gnarr ran for mayor in Reykjavik after the financial crisis, partly tongue-in-cheek, and won. Italian comedian Beppe Grillo led a populist movement and in Britain, where joke parties have long been a fixture, Boris Johnson has made a career out of a buffoonish image. Just because something is funny, as Gnarr put it after his victory, doesn’t mean it isn’t serious.
Even Moscow has tried humor in its official memes, with decidedly mixed success.
Can comedy change minds in an autocracy? That’s less clear, especially when it’s produced outside the country, and largely preaches to the converted.
There’s certainly a rich Soviet tradition of laughing at the system, which both Russia and Ukraine draw from. While there was officially sanctioned jibing — with magazines like “Krokodil”, which targeted capitalism and approved foes — there were countless kitchen-table jokes in dark times (sometimes made at steep cost), and even more in the chaos of perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev’s infamous anti-alcohol campaign. One favorite, listed in declassified CIA papers, had a worker standing in a liquor line, then despairing and heading off to shoot Gorbachev. The man then returns a little while later. “Did you get him?,” the others ask. “No,” he replies. “The line there is even longer than this one.”
But those gags were rarely challenging to the political construct, and instead helped it endure. They acted as a pressure valve, like ancient Rome’s saturnalia or medieval carnivals, not fuel for rebellion. That’s the spirit in many of the old Soviet jokes repurposed for the current day, though it’s harder to poke fun at a hollow system that believes in nothing. In one old-school Twitter favorite, a man stands at the Polish border: “Nationality?” “Russian.” “Occupation?” “Oh no, just visiting.”
If it were to come, the greater challenge would emerge from satire and caricature, when used to draw out the absurdity of the current calamity — and to force viewers or readers to confront the brutality of the regime. Which is where Masyanya’s illustrator, Oleg Kuvaev, comes in.
For English-speaking audiences, Masyanya is often compared to the characters in “South Park” and similar adult cartoons. She’s perhaps more similar in spirit to Argentine cartoonist Maitena’s disheveled figures in “Mujeres Alteradas” — certainly before the war when subjects were exclusively apolitical — or to Mafalda, a comic-strip schoolgirl whose outward innocence helped her creator Quino tackle issues silenced by the dictatorship. “I don’t think my cartoons are the sort that make people laugh their heads off,” he once said. “I tend to use a scalpel rather than tickle the ribs.”
So, too, with Masyanya, now tinged with pain. Her partner bitterly points out in the first post-invasion snippet that apolitical people like her — the cartoon, two decades old, has never really waded into politics before — are part of the reason for Russia’s problems, enabling Putin. They both struggle to explain the situation to the children. “It’s an all-out war, like the 1940s,” he says to her at one point. “Except apparently now we’re the fascists.”
Israel-based Kuvaev explains the episode on China invading Russia was born of frustration, and of his inability to comprehend people’s acceptance. The point was not to criticize Beijing, but to bring out the incongruity and the tragedy, though he ultimately decided against killing his cartoon family. “What distinguishes humans from animals is empathy, compassion and understanding… but sometimes empathy is blunted,” Masyanya says in an epilogue. “So now you are watching this.”
There’s certainly a perceived threat there. Jokes empower the powerless. Long before Masyanya was a challenge, the Kremlin silenced the independent channel that among other things aired “Kukly,” Russia’s version of satirical puppet show “Spitting Image,” with its brutal depiction of Putin as an evil infant gnome. Without that autocrat’s thin skin, he might be far more dangerous, points out Mirco Göpfert, a professor of social and cultural anthropology at Goethe University, Frankfurt, who has written on humor in non-democratic systems. Happily, one cannot imagine Putin as the sort of man to make a joke, for example, out of being kept waiting, alone and fidgeting, for Turkey’s president.
Masyanya will no doubt be watched mostly by liberals and those already opposing the war. It’s hard to think of a regime toppled by comedy — even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t do it. But there’s always weakness in those too inflexible to laugh.