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Putin's Pee Joke: It Would Be Funny if it Weren't so Sad

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Say what you will about the guy, but Vladimir Putin is a master of the populist farce. On Friday, in the middle of the worst heatwave Russia's ever had, he paid a visit to one of the country's shabbier beaches in one of its shabbiest towns, Chelyabinsk, a porcupine of smokestacks near the border with Kazakhstan.

Upon noticing that there were no public toilets around, the prime minister remembered a joke. "Greggie, go take a swim," a mother yells. "Mama, why? I don't know how to swim, and I don't yet need to pee." He told this joke later that day at a conference with city's mayor, and then he changed his tone and added, "It would be funny if it weren't so sad."

"Even if this is a wild beach, city officials could at least concern themselves with the basics," he said. "It's a hot summer, and we just need to help people get some normal rest. I mean come on, these are serious things, and if the municipal authorities just pay a little attention to what is their direct professional responsibility, people will notice and will be grateful. Besides, it would cost practically nothing."

That same night, workers with dump trucks brought tons of fresh sand, raked it like a japanese garden and put up beach umbrellas and lounge chairs. "The locals didn't recognize their place of leisure when they arrived the next morning," the NTV news network reported on Saturday.

It was, in its way, a classic piece of Putinism, the lighter side of it, sure, but in many ways also its foundation. His manner of winning the public's support tends to follow an easy formula. Find an issue that annoys a lot of people, find somebody to blame for it, and lace into him, publicly and with some classic village wit. Show on state television how the problem gets fixed.

But when I read about this last iteration of the trick, I remembered something I'd heard a few months ago from Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the opposition and a former governor under President Boris Yeltsin.

"Putin has turned himself into Santa Claus," Nemtsov told me. "He gives a Christmas tree here, a birthday dress there... and people come to believe that he is the one who decides everything... The roof started to leak. Or the neighbor peed on my doorstep. [Again with the pee!] Or a drunk guy started a fight and the cops won't do anything... He is being held directly responsible for the everyday problems of people across the country... But now the people have serious problems. He can't fix all of them, so very quickly he becomes the bad guy. He got what he wanted."

I should note that this exaggerates the issue in a couple of ways. First of all, I think most people are quite happy to blame their local officials and leave Putin out of it, especially when he joins in the fun of dressing them down. Secondly, it is one of Russia's oldest traditions to write directly to the Tsar when something goes wrong. Putin did not create this mentality. It is just a symptom of an authoritarian state that rests upon a giant, immovable bureaucracy. You know you can't get the local official to help you, so you write directly to the despot.

The problem for me, and Nemtsov also seemed to have it in mind, is the way Putin's style of populism reinforces this system.

This became clear at the end of Friday's conference in Chelyabinsk, when Putin expressed the hope that mayors and governors in other regions will also start paying attention to the needs of their constituents. But it seems obvious they won't, for the simple reason that there are no constituencies in Russia. Governors are appointed, and mayoral elections are slowing being cancelled as well. So the only thing that local officials ever answer to is the hierarchy above them, not the masses beneath them. And the only thing that they will learn from Putin's trip to the beach is that the toilets in your Potemkin village better be gleaming next time the Tsar comes to town. That's the way it's always been in Russia, and Putin has done nothing to change that. In fact, he's made it worse by going around and bonking mayors and oligarchs on the head.

If he were truly concerned about ensuring "basic comforts" for his people, he would try to develop a system that makes officials accountable to those people, and not merely to him and his ministers. As Nemtsov says, he can't possibly fix every problem. He can't even scratch the surface, and in Russia's giant political pyramid, no region, no town, not even a lousy beach can ever fix itself.