It’s no joke: how Russian comedians try to stay relevant in wartime

(Reuters) – Have you heard the one about Vladimir Putin’s ratings?

Cracking jokes about Russia’s president is a sensitive business these days in Moscow’s comedy clubs, where performers say they walk a fine line in a country at war.

“On the whole, you can joke about any topic – the important thing is how, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings or create conflicts in the room,” says stand-up comic Ivan Garkushko.

“Because there are very polar opinions, and it’s not worth touching on painful subjects … You need to self-edit: not wait for editing and censorship from someone higher up, but feel where this line is for yourself and understand what’s allowed and what’s not.”

Fellow comedian Boris Zeliger says a politically risky joke “usually doesn’t even get a laugh, but causes a reaction like ‘Wow, you daredevil!'”.

For that reason, he leans more towards humour about men and women, and relationships. “The comedians who write jokes on the topic of the day from a political point of view – they usually emigrate.”

That’s exactly what the founders of Comigration did – a small collective of comedians who have left Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and now ply their trade in Georgia.

The contrast in their material is striking. According to one of them, Ilya Ovechkin, any reference to Putin in a joke boosts laughs by 70%.

In Russia, laws introduced since the invasion have made it a crime to “discredit” the armed forces or spread what the government considers “false information” about them.

Ovechkin says he is glad to have escaped from a creative environment where “the walls are pressing in”.

“For example, you’ll be performing and there’ll be some guy in the audience who’s just returned [from the war] and lost his marbles. And he interferes with the performance, shouts out – you often get that from those people.

“And you get into some kind of discussion with him, you try to make a joke from the stage and have a laugh so he calms down – and this can trigger him and cause problems for you. You can get punched in the face without telling a single political joke.”

Ariana Lolaeva, a co-founder of Comigration who was herself fined last year for “discrediting” the army in a social media post, says that since leaving Russia she has “unleashed” herself to perform with more freedom.

And that Putin joke?

“I just saw the stats that 60% of all women in Russia have had at least one erotic dream about Putin,” she told the audience in a recent show.

“Think about it – 60%. Even there, he rigged the poll!”

(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)