Rodric Braithwaite

Behind the irony curtain

Russian jokes are wry and anti-authoritarian. They are an aid to survival in bad times

The comedy of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, the two glum Russian ‘tourists’ who denied on television that they were involved in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, seems set to run and run. The Moscow press tells us that Russia’s ‘Golden Brand’ has offered them a brand name for a company specialising in tourism, women’s clothing, and chemicals for the scent industry.

The two tried to persuade the world that they had come to Britain simply to admire Salisbury cathedral, its 123 metre-high steeple and its ancient clock. Alas, they lamented, luck was against them. First they were driven back by snow. (Really? Russians can cope with snow. Russian trains, unlike British ones, continue to run even when the snow is an inch deep.) Then their busy timetable forced them to return to Moscow prematurely.

Was this implausible story a bungled attempt by the Russian authorities to demonstrate that their hands were clean? Even the stolid Russian television interviewer was visibly unimpressed. Was it an expression of contempt: look, despite your brilliant policemen, we can do what we like in your country? Was it a misconceived joke, to which ‘Golden Brand’ is trying to add fuel? None of it made sense. The Russian embassy, usually so good at putting out witty, if tasteless, tweets, could only claim petulantly that it must have been the British wot did it.

In the end it looked like pure incompetence, the best explanation for most things that governments get wrong. Yet despite the appearances this time, the Russians do have a highly developed sense of humour. Some of them claim it is very like our own.

Let’s start at the top. Stalin’s humour was sardonic but rarely sidesplitting. He once quipped: ‘You have a man, you have a problem.

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