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New president already the butt of jokes

world Updated: Mar 09, 2008 23:24 IST

A joke circulating among Russians these days has Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev waking up in the Kremlin in 2023 with a vicious hangover.

Putin says to Medvedev, "Which of us is president and which of us is prime minister today?" "I don't remember," Medvedev replies. "I could be prime minister today.""Then go fetch some beer," Putin says.

It tidily sums up the ambiguities of Russia's new power-sharing agreement whereby the baby-faced Medvedev will serve as president with the stern Putin serving below him as prime minister _ tapping into widespread speculation that it's really Putin who will be the boss.

This new odd couple at the pinnacle of power has become ideal fodder for the cherished and once dangerous Russian tradition of poking fun

at leaders through satirical jokes called anekdoty. The latest crop play on the contrast between Putin and Medvedev, riff off of the novelty of a two-headed state, or spin puns out of Medvedev's last name, which stems from the Russian word for bear.

Anekdoty have long been a litmus test of public opinion _ and individual liberties _ in a country where in the past people faced exile, prison or worse for expressing their opinions directly. "Anekdoty sometimes live for a day and sometimes survive for centuries," said linguist Sandjar Yanyshev.

"They remain the main genre of oral tradition in Russian folk culture." George Orwell once called the joke "a tiny revolution," and nowhere was that taken more literally than in the Soviet Union.

Despite the danger, Soviet citizens told stories lampooning Josef Stalin's heavy Georgian accent. His successor Nikita Khrushchev was ridiculed for his redneck joviality and introduction of corn on collective farms, in regions where it was too cold to grow the crop.