In a classic Soviet-era anecdote, a judge comes out of his courtroom laughing uncontrollably. "What's so funny?" asks a colleague. "I've just heard a hilarious joke!" answers the judge, wiping away tears of laughter. "Well, tell me," insists the colleague. "Are you crazy?" says the judge. "I just sentenced a man to 10 years at hard labor for telling that joke!"
People in Russia may not face the Gulag for cracking wise anymore, and many believe the quality of political jokes has deteriorated since the totalitarian Soviet state – the whip that kept satirists on their toes – expired.
But enough Russians still seem to view the political parade of events as one endless tragicomedy that can only be processed through the medium of humor to keep some semblance of the tradition going.
President Vladimir Putin's carefully-scripted announcement, together with his wife Lyudmila, that they're ending their 30-year marriage, was one of those moments that seemed to bring the amateur satirists swarming out – nowadays boosted by the electronic megaphones of Twitter, Facebook, and the Russian-language VKontakte.
Within hours of the Putin's TV interview, the jokes and sometimes acerbic one-liners were circulating almost everywhere.
For example: A divorcing couple [clearly invoking the Putins] are asked how they plan to divide the property accumulated during the marriage. "Oh, I don't know," answers the husband. "Probably we'll just draw a line down the Ural Mountains."
The Putins had just come from watching a performance of the ballet Esmeralda (based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in the Kremlin Palace theater when they staged their announcement in the form of a "spontaneous" interview with a state TV journalist. A much-repeated joke on Facebook Friday – which could become a self-fulfilling prophesy – is that Russian slang for "getting divorced" will in future be "going to see Esmeralda."
Another frequently recurring theme riffs on the way Putin served his constitutionally-permitted two terms as president, then stepped aside for Dmitry Medvedev for one term, before returning last year for an unprecedented but legal third term.
"Now Medvedev will marry Lyudmila, but will divorce her after four years, and then Putin will remarry her," is the essence of one viral tweet.
And following the same line of thought, there is this: "Lyudmila has rejected a third term. That's because she respects the constitution."
Some of the jibes are bitter, reflecting the mood of beleaguered urban intellectuals whose aspirations for a more democratic and open political system have been dashed by the hard conservative turn the Kremlin has taken since Putin returned for his third term last year.
"Lyudmila is lucky. She's the only Russian who's managed to get free from Putin," says one tweet. Another rephrases the ubiquitous opposition slogan "Russia Without Putin!" into "Lyudmila without Putin!"
Many of the jokes swirling around the Internet are simply untranslatable, or rely too heavily on inside Russian references to explain to outsiders. As one of Russia's greatest comics, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, once remarked: "I've already made peace with the fact that humor doesn't cross borders. Humor is not an army."