Resurgent Jokes Reflect Putin Russia's Inevitable Untergang

Co-authored with Samuel Rachlin Samuel Rachlin, an accomplished, independent Danish journalist, was born in the Soviet Union to a Danish mother and a Lithuanian father during his parents' deportation to Siberia. He became the first Moscow, later the Washington correspondent for national Danish TV. After a stint as spokesman and advisor to the World Bank, Rachlin joined TV2 Denmark as the network's Moscow correspondent (1998-2006) to cover the end of the Yeltsin years and the first years of the Putin rule. Sam has worked as a foreign affairs and financial columnist for some of Denmark's leading dailies, published columns internationally incl. in The International Herald Tribune. Author of numerous books, he recently published "I, Putin: The Russian Spring and the Russian World," a national bestseller in Denmark, awaiting international launch. An M.A. graduate of Copenhagen University in Russian Studies and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Rachlin is also a Nieman Fellow of Harvard University.

Russia is clearly in "untergang" mode. Friends in Moscow tell us they are living through one of the worst periods of the Putin rule. They are sitting on their suitcases -- Russian for getting ready to leave, to follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of primarily highly educated and skilled Russians, scholars, economists and artists who have already left to destinations as far flung as London and Vancouver. The special mix of authoritarianism and lawlessness with endemic corruption is becoming unbearable as they, on a daily basis, face growing repression, censorship and physical threats. The topic of the public discourse among critics of the system back in 2011-12 was Russia without Putin. Now it's Russia after Putin.

As a response, Kremlin rulers are becoming still more militant as a nation almost on a war footing, constantly on the outlook for new conflicts -- from Crimea through Syria to Turkey-has become a political drug for a system that uses conflict to legitimize its power and justify the sacrifices citizens have to accept to the deafening sound of a relentless propaganda machine.

Lately, spontaneous demonstrations by workers and retirees, due to crippling inflation, benefits being taken away, are being reported from Moscow to provincial cities and villages. Angry businessmen are openly blaming the problems not on sanctions by the US or the EU, but on Russia's own rulers, reflecting a massive undercurrent of frustration and anger,public outbursts, rarely seen in Putin's Russia. A clear sign of the Putin regimes problems is the revival of political jokes. Like the defiant and daring jokes during communist years about the aging leadership, the hassle of daily life, the stupid propaganda and political system, this is a strong sign of dissatisfaction. They poke fun of the ever weaker ruble, the "disappearance" of imported food, the corruption, the economy's third world-like dependence on oil and gas exports.

Putin is not spared and is skewered with jokes about his wealth, his macho image and the personality cult reflected in series of adulatory documentaries, a Putin calendar and a book of his speeches that was distributed as a New Year's gift to government employees. But while jokes in Soviet times were told with lowered voices in kitchens, today they are all over the Russian Internet. One of them shows a stamp with a portrait of Putin and this caption: "No one is able to affix this stamp to the envelope because 14 percent are spitting on the other side, and 86 percent are licking the wrong side."

Faux interviews are conducted with classics like Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Mikhail Lermontov was "interviewed" last summer and asked about his views on Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and whether he would take part in that war. He responded that he would "not hesitate to leave the hustle and bustle of city life and return to the front-lines of war to recapture the thrill of his youth and once again chase fame and glory."

One of the more ominous phenomena is the role given and played by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Governor of Chechnya, a Putin creation and ally. Some of those being charged with the murder of Boris Nemtsov,are closely tied to Kadyrov. He recently published a letter in Izvestiya, a pro-Kremlin newspapers, in which he accused the unofficial opposition and the liberal media with treason and collaboration with "anti-Russian forces" in the U.S. and the EU. He also offers to cure the problems of the opposition: [lethal] injections. "And if one shot is prescribed, we will give them two," he wrote. "The position of [Putin's] power must be consolidated, as it reflects the interests of the country and her population. With no mercy for the enemy we will save Russia." Involuntarily, his phrase reflects what the poet Alexander Pushkin wrote in 1836. Ever since, this fearful admonition has been quoted by Russians when they, like now, eye the clouds of demise on the horizon: "May God not let us see a Russian rebellion, meaningless and merciless.

Those who urge a new detente of a sort with Putin's Russia forget the two pronged approach the West took during the seventies and the eighties. With U.S. Leadership, it negotiated disarmament, economic cooperation but were vigilant on the human rights abuses and the disruptive efforts against the west. The peaceful coexistence of the past is no recipe for the present situation, to deal with a dying and ever more dangerous dictatorship. It is a misunderstanding and smacks of ignorance about history. The West's policies towards Russia, the fate of the sanctions imposed upon Putin after the invasion of Ukraine, should not be driven by narrow business interests of a few major companies within the EU. Mind you, mostly the same companies whose interests made them blind to the terrible fate of millions some seventy years ago.

As Russia is facing the real possibility of collapse, the West's response cannot be that of weakness and "understanding." Putin will respond to any sign of it by ratcheting up efforts to disrupt our societies and more suppression at home, dangerous adventures abroad. Like surely he had and continues to have a hand in the European refugee crisis, certainly to his liking. He has made inroads to some of the weakest democracies, like Hungary and will keep teasing the most solid ones, like Finland, Sweden and Norway and he rejoices at the victories of the illiberal thought in Poland.

The Untergang ( as in downfall) trend in Putin's Russia is scary. But prolonging the inevitable by pretending that it is not happening, prompting business as usual attitude in the west, will only make things worse.