Last night’s debate stirred up memories from my “past life.” In two of the most spirited exchanges, Hillary Clinton depicted Donald Trump as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential “puppet,” and Trump suggested the “corrupt media” and millions of people who don’t belong on the voter rolls could steal the election.
Dark political humor shone a light on some of those flaws in Russia’s early post-Soviet elections.
Although political reporting on Trump has been largely negative lately, slanted news coverage of some Russian elections has been on another level. Media bias inspired two jokes that stand out in my mind.
Seeking to resolve an ongoing power struggle with opponents in parliament, President Boris Yeltsin’s administration scheduled a referendum in April 1993 with four questions: do you have confidence in the president, do you support the president’s social and economic policies, are early presidential elections necessary, and are early parliamentary elections necessary. Government-controlled media endlessly promoted the “easy-to-remember” slogan “Da-Da-Nyet-Da” (Yes Yes No Yes).
The drumbeat was so overwhelming, some Russians said, that upon hearing the standard Easter greeting “Christ has risen,” a person would automatically respond “Yes yes no yes” instead of with the traditional, “Indeed, he has risen!”
This variation on a classic “Chukchi” joke, in which a simple person unwittingly provides salient social commentary, was making the rounds before Putin’s first presidential election. (The Chukchi are an ethnic group indigenous to the far northeastern corner of Russia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska.) Putin was little known when Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in August 1999, but he quickly gained popularity thanks to a renewed military campaign in Chechnya. Yeltsin resigned six months before the end of his term, making Putin acting president and the heavy favorite to win an early election in March 2000.
A Chukchi is stranded in a remote location in the middle of winter. A small plane manages to deliver an aid package to him, containing a large box of canned food along with some newspapers, a radio receiver, and a television set. A week later the Chukchi sends a distress message: “I’m hungry, please help me!” The aid organization radios back, “But we just sent you a large shipment of food!” The Chukchi replies, “I looked at your newspapers, and it was all about Putin. I turned on the radio: Putin again. The television was the same–Putin, Putin everywhere. I was afraid to open those cans.”
I heard this joke shortly before the first round of the 1996 presidential election, when the largely unpopular Yeltsin was pulling out all the stops to win another term:
On June 17 (the day after the first round), Central Electoral Commission Chairman Nikolai Ryabov goes to see President Yeltsin. “Boris Nikolaevich,” he says, “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” Yeltsin answers, “Let’s start with the bad news.” Ryabov tells him Communist candidate Gennadii Zyuganov gained 60% of the vote. “That’s terrible,” Yeltsin exclaims. “What could possibly be the good news?” “You got 75%,” Ryabov replies.
SUBVERTING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE
Trump’s disgraceful answer to a question about accepting the election outcome brought to mind a joke I heard before the runoff presidential election in 1996. At that time, Yeltsin and most of the Russian media sector were determined to keep the Communist Zyuganov from gaining power:
President Yeltsin tells voters at a campaign rally, “Elect me and you’ll get a brand new president.” “What if we don’t elect you, Boris Nikolaevich?” asks a voice from the crowd. “Then you’ll get the same old president,” Yeltsin replies.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
Although Trump clearly sees a political advantage in repeatedly claiming the election is being “rigged”, his line of argument may be demoralizing his supporters. Why participate in a sham election if evil forces have stacked the deck against your candidate?
While Trump complained during last night’s debate, I recalled the modern-day Aesopian fable a Moscow newspaper published shortly before Putin’s apparently inevitable victory in March 2000:
A crow sits in a tree, holding a piece of cheese in its mouth. A fox approaches the tree and asks, “Hey, crow, are you going to vote for Putin?” The crow doesn’t answer. The fox says, “I’m asking you whether you’re going to vote for Putin.” The crow remains silent and fidgets uncomfortably. The fox says, “I’m asking you for the last time: are you going to vote for Putin or not?” The crow says, “Yes!” The piece of cheese falls to the ground. The crow wonders, “And would it have made any difference if I had said no?”