Of the many monopolies once and future Russian president Vladimir Putin has held over the years — on violence, on the media, on the gas industry — one of the most powerful has been a monopoly on the expression of derision. Over the past decade, the state's stranglehold grip over television has kept public dissent to a minimum, as has the targeted assassinations of particularly mouthy journalists (such as Noveta Gazeta
's Anna Politkovskaya). But the Kremlin has carefully policed much smaller expressions of criticism, too. In 2002, the long-running satire program Kukly
was shut down after featuring one too many appearances by a Putin puppet doll. Meanwhile, state media has been fed a steady diet of press releases and photographs documenting Putin's myriad talents: his accomplishments in Judo, his facility with motorcycles, his fearlessness in the face of various animal attacks. Putin may have a good deal of KGB sangfroid, but he mightily fears the costs of appearing ridiculous. For such a confident guy, he is just not that great at taking a joke.
It's significant, then, that the protests of the last few months have been accompanied by a newfound glee in ridiculing the regime. The Internet has provided new audiences and opportunities for that mockery. Perhaps because they are wary of state television, Russians spend more time on the web than most of their Western European counterparts. Political blogging is on the rise, and the Internet serves as a forum for Russians to organize and express their frustrations from behind a protective veil of anonymity. But in addition to its obvious virtues as a tool of democracy, the Internet also has the power to transmit small moments of irony to a global audience. In February, in the Siberian city of Barnaul, protesters erected a display of dolls — including South Park figurines and Lego men — holding tiny signs demanding clean elections; officials huffily deemed this an "unsanctioned public event." International attention on such episodes grants the protesters a new and threatening capacity: to make the regime look foolish before the world.
Though hypersensitive about being an object of ridicule himself, Putin has not been shy about heaping contempt upon the protest movement. Last month, Putin compared anti-Kremlin demonstrators to monkeys from The Jungle Book. After an influx of angry comments on Putin's website was mysteriously deleted, a spokesman characterized commenters' calls for resignation as "a kind of computer game that children are playing at." And throughout it all, the Kremlin has framed the protests, rather implausibly, as the devious work of America.
But none of this has stopped the wave of mockery heading Putin's way, and this seems to represent a fundamental shift in Russian political culture. For years, the administration has been sneering at its people. The people are beginning to sneer back, loudly. Last month, a satirical news story from the future reporting Putin's arrest went viral; after Putin compared protestors to Jungle Book characters, they showed up at the next protest dressed as apes. (Perhaps registering the shift in the national tolerance level of one-way state-sponsored mockery, opposition candidate and Mikhail Prokhorov last month appeared on Projector Paris Hilton, a comedy program, and rapped about his company's new mobile phone.) Much work lies ahead for the democratic movement in Russia. But over the last few months, Russians have increasingly made Putin — Judo champion, ex-spy, autocrat — look silly in front of the world. For such an image-obsessed man, this poses a real threat.