26 April 2018

Russian humor as testimony

Facts about Pluto:
 1. Pluto's surface area is equal to Russia's.           
   2. Pluto has about the same level of infrastructure.

"The correct way to wait for the bus, to avoid violating
the law against unsanctioned demonstrations."
In my recent post grieving the end of our residency in Russia, I mentioned my love of Russian humor. Much of that humor consists of national self-deprecation, and that's why I'm a bit reluctant to share too much of it among my friends and contacts outside Russia. There's enough dumping on Russia in the West right now, and I don't want to add to it without good cause.

"Good cause" often does exist, mostly resulting from actions by Russian politicians following well-worn paths of authoritarianism, corruption, and toadyism. Russia is not alone; similar patterns afflict many other countries with local variations, myths, and blind spots. The USA is currently challenged by its own particular outbreak of this plague.

Russia's endemic political ailments are very competently diagnosed -- and ridiculed -- by Russians themselves. Foreign help is not needed, and furthermore can be resented. I've quoted Pushkin on this point before: "Of course I detest my homeland from head to toe -- but it really gets on my nerves when a foreigner shares this feeling with me."

So: my intentions are honorable. I neither want to add to the undifferentiated criticism of Russia as a country (as distinguished from the well-earned criticism of some of its leaders); nor do I want to irritate Pushkin and his descendants, the Russian people who may somehow find this post. Sharing Russian humor is my testimony to the intelligence, honesty, discernment, and resilience of the Russian people as I've come to know them over my whole adult life.

Three other points of "testimony":
  • To convey something of the flavor of Russian self-reflection is not a matter of comparing Russian highs and lows with America's or anyone else's. To me it's a reassuring evidence of human solidarity that Russians cope with absurdity and adversity with humor, just as we do. Self-deprecating humor, the specific type of humor that can be both howlingly funny and risky to share with unintended audiences, is also found all over the world. (Once, in rural Honduras, I remember a farmer pointing to a flock of large black birds flying overhead. "Look," he said. "It's the Honduran Air Force.")
  • Nancy Ries, in her book Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika, studies the Russian use of self-deprecating humor in detail, as part of the litanies and laments that often characterize Russian commentary on their lives and their nation (their "Anti-Disneyland" as one of her interviewees said). As an American who lived in Russia, and loved living there, it was not my job to fix the problems that that went into those laments, despite the American tendency to jump immediately to problem-solving mode, but it was my job to listen. As a human being, as a Christian evangelist, as a Quaker communicator, listening was the highest priority. When we listen, we hear the witness of God in each person, and temptations to intervene recede to their proper place.
  • However, there is a spark of truth in that desire to intervene. Nancy Ries encourages us to consider when the rhetoric of hopelessness, no matter how wittily deployed, actually perpetuates powerlessness. The ideal ministry team includes the pastoral listeners, but also the prophetic capacity to propose next steps.

In the parts of Russian national life most visible to me here in the USA, namely the Russian Internet, there is a new crescendo of biting humor arising from the misadventures of the Russian agency in charge of supervising media and telecommunications, Roskomnadzor. Its nameplate looks like this:
... which is important, because that little diamond logotype refers to Roskomnadzor in the flood of memes that commemorate its so-far-disastrous attempts to shut down Telegram, the online messaging service. Telegram is, in turn, represented in the graphics by own logotype, the little paper airplane on a blue disk, or by founder Pavel Durov's face.

Pavel Durov, 2015: "I suggest banning words. It's reported
that terrorists communicate with the help of words."
Roskomnadzor charges that Telegram, with its capacity for anonymous encrypted communication, is used by terrorists, and demands that the company provide access keys for the government. Telegram's head, Pavel Durov, was the founder of Russia's answer to Facebook, Vkontakte, whose current ownership is in Kremlin-friendly hands. Durov is committed to security for Telegram's users, as he was to Vkontakte in the years before his ouster. (Whether Telegram actually provides 100% security is a disputed technical question; the political issue is Durov's commitment to refuse any demand for access.)

"I couldn't resist."
In the face of Durov's refusals, Roskomnadzor applied to a court for approval to block the service in Russia. When approval was granted after an eighteen-minute hearing, the agency began blocking more and more servers and IP addresses associated with Telegram's pathways through cyberspace, and in the process blocked or impeded hundreds of businesses and services, including Google, Amazon, and Yandex, none of which are linked in any way with Telegram other than the coincidence of using some of those same pathways. It's almost as if you decided to block my phone number by blocking everyone who used the same exchanges or area codes I might have used once, simply because I could change my number to outwit surveillance.

Roskomnadzor now has to deal with the floods of complaints of blockage and lost business, but also with being made a laughing-stock: Of all the victims of Roskomnadzor's tactics, Telegram is (so far) among the least affected.

"OK, so where's Telegram?" (Source: found on memepedia.ru.)
(Source: found on memepedia.ru.)

Dialogue in graphic at right:

"We built a gigantic wall. There's no way you can get around it."

"But that's a door right over there." (VPN)

"Nevertheless, you're not going to ..."

"Ooh, looks like I got through."

"Make that wall three times higher. HURRY!"

(The name of the graphic file is the very Russian saying, "There's always a doorway.")

(Source: found on pikabu.ru.)

On fence: "INTERNET" (Source: found on oborot.ru)

"Give me Telegram, and I'll let you live." (Source: found on oborot.ru)
Finally, "The Battle of the Century: Telegram vs Roskomnadzor"... this homemade modification of a fragment from a classic Soviet-era cartoon. The chair is labeled "Constitution of the Russian Federation"; probably nothing else needs translation.

More information on the Meduza Web site: The damage done. Telegram supporters will protest in Moscow on Monday. There's an update in Russian here.

ADDED: An interview with Tanya Lokot.

Were these evangelicals trying to save their movement from Trumpism? (And Mark Labberton's address to the Wheaton consultation.)

Exchanging the worship of God for cheap emotional thrills. (Is this article completely fair?)

Higher power: When Americans say they believe in God, what do they mean?

Julia Duin on the Religion News Service "meltdown," part one.

Melanie Spring Mock: Why it's ok to cry at writing retreats....

Deborah Coleman, 1956-2018

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