Two years ago, on New Year's Eve of 2010, the Kremlin loosened the gag on its central television network just enough for Putin to appear on-screen as a tambourine-jangling cartoon. The butt of the joke was mostly Putin's sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev. But still, no such idolatry had been allowed on state TV in nearly a decade, and it was enough for The New York Times to declare that "the boundaries of televised humor do seem to be expanding, if slowly." Russian television, in other words, was moving away from its North Korean peers.
A year later, again during the New Year's Eve bonanza on state-run Channel One, the animated Putin was allowed to appear again alongside Medvedev, who sang that, "the tradition has stuck." But it didn't stick for long. The cartoon of Putin and Medvedev was pulled this year from the New Year's program, and was replaced by a bawdy and borderline racist cartoon of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton doing a version of "My Humps," in which they rap about taking over Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Bahrain. "This year there could be a lot more military operations," Obama raps.
Now if all of this seems petty, it's probably because it is. In a functioning state, the leader is confident enough in his mandate to go in for a little self-parody, especially when the demand for it is so high, when the Internet is brimming with viral take-downs of Russia's "first face." But the recent wave of protests against Putin, and the booing he received after that cage-fight in November, have obviously sapped Putin's self-esteem. The country is laughing at him, and he can't bear to laugh along.
So he decides, or his men decide, to yank the one harmless sketch that brought him down to earth for a few minutes of the year. This is a sign of panic and paranoia, and it's no accident this happened less than a week after the Kremlin got a new propaganda man. On Dec. 27, Vyacheslav Volodin, an oafish apparatchik from Putin's United Russia party, replaced the conniving but brilliant Vladislav Surkov, who had been Putin's Goebbels since 2000. This is Volodin's first decision of note, and it signals a shift back toward the dogma codified in an old Russian joke, the one about an American and a Russian arguing over freedom of speech. The American says," Listen, I can stand outside the White House and yell 'Obama is an idiot' and nothing will happen to me. The Russian says, "Big deal, I can just as easily stand on Red Square and yell 'Obama is an idiot.'"