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Putin: Sourpuss of the Year?

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Vladimir Putin is TIME magazine’s Person of the Year for 2007. To accompany their cover photo, which is remarkably suggestive of Lord Voldemort, editors Richard Stengel and Adi Ignatius made a special trip to Moscow to provide us with their trademark up-close-and-personal assessment the man.

Among the many verdicts they render, however, there is one that just does not ring true. “Putin,” they write, “is sardonic but humorless. In our hours together, he didn't attempt a joke, and he misread several of our attempts at playfulness.”

Not funny? Not playful? Putin? I think his G8 colleagues would beg to differ! Recall the summit in Scotland, when Schroeder casually remarked of the Brits: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that,” to which Putin deftly added, “but what about hamburgers?”

Or the summit in St. Petersburg when, after acknowledging the accolades of his guests, Putin added, “My next big goal is to find a way that Jacques Chirac won’t complain about the food.” And who can forget Putin’s inimitable repartee to George Bush’s wish that Russia would someday become a democracy like Iraq? “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.”

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Not funny? To the contrary, Putin's jocular interaction with journalists is something that even the New York Times has picked up on.

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So how did Time magazine’s editors get the impression that Putin was humorless? The full transcript of the interview, available on the Kremlin’s web site, reveals how the editors went about attempting to be playful.

At the very outset, after informing the President what an important and serious an interview this will be, one of the editors, presumably Adi Ignatius, tries to connect with Putin on a personal level by informing him that they had been born just two years apart, he in 1948 and Putin in 1946. How then can “our generation” learn to cooperate better?

The only problem is that Putin was not born in 1946. As he gently points out to his very important and serious questioner, since his parents had lost their health as well as two children during the blockade of Leningrad, “I think I was born a bit later—in 1952.”

Not funny? That one had me rolling in the aisles.

Later on during the session, having explained to his questioners in excruciating detail why Russia does not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries--it inevitably causes unforeseen repercussions--they make another stab at playfulness by suggesting that, since Putin feels that external forces are trying to influence the affairs inside Russia, he should do the same to America. TIME magazine would be only too happy to serve as a conduit so go ahead, they say, tell us your choice for the next president of the United States: “Perhaps, in this way, you can yourself influence the American elections.”

But rather than understanding this as an attempt at playfulness, Putin drily responds: “I see that you have understood nothing. The principle that guides us is that we consider it bad to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.”

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What a grouch!

Admittedly, a lot gets lost in the translation of Putin’s earthy humor, but it is clearly wrong to call him humorless. Understanding the humor of others, however, does take a conscious effort—the effort of putting one’s self in another person’s shoes.

When this happens, humor can become a bridge and a learning device that allows us to see ourselves as others see us. As when, in an interview with the German news magazine Spiegel, Putin recalled an old East German joke: “How can you tell which of the telephones on [Communist party leader] Honecker’s desk is the direct line to Moscow? The one with only a receiver and no mouthpiece. . . . The same goes for NATO, except that the telephone line goes not to Moscow in this case but to Washington.”

That’s a joke, of course, but as Putin likes to remind his interviewers, every joke contains a grain of truth. One just has to be willing to see it.


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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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