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By John Helmer, Moscow 

Russian laughter has weaponised – and that’s no joke.

Nor is it new. This month is the 185th anniversary of the first stage performance of The Government Inspector (Ревизор, Revizor), the work launching the fame of its author Nikolai Gogol. The laughter which the play, then the book drew from May 1, 1836, was followed by this autobiographical acknowledgement from Gogol six years later, when his equally famous book, Dead Souls  (Мёртвые души, Myortvyi dushi),  appeared.

“Lofty ecstatic laughter,” Gogol said, “is quite worthy of taking its place beside the loftiest lyrical gust and…it has nothing in common with the faces a mountebank makes. The judgement of [the author’s] time does not admit this and will twist everything into reproof and abuse directed against the unrecognised writer; deprived of assistance, response and sympathy, he will remain, like some homeless traveller alone on the road. Grim will be his career and bitterly will he realise his utter loneliness.”

Against US warmakers like President Dementia (старый маразматик  “Old Marismatic”  ) and the Blin-Noodle Gang, Chancellor Merkel,  Prime Minister Johnson, and their president-in-waiting-for-Russia, Alexei Navalny, Russian joke-making is a weapon against which the allies have nothing comparable, no counter-measure. Exceptional Gogol believed Russians to be, compared to Germans, French, British,  or Americans. Exceptionalist the latter believe themselves to be, compared to Russians. Still, the one uniquely exceptional weapon Russians wage in war is their laughter at their enemies. The others caricature or cartoon the Russians, but they hate too earnestly, so they can’t laugh at them.

The pranksters Alexei Stolyarov (lead image, right) and Vladimir Kuznetsov (left) – Lexus and Vovan are their respective stage names — explain that making jokes at the expense of those in power inside Russia had been worth doing until war was declared against Russia. Now, they say,  their jokes aim at laughing at those who are much worse.   Gogol didn’t get so far.

“Rus, whither are you speeding so?” Gogol’s (right) ending to Dead Souls arranges for the exceptionalist writer to question his exceptionalist compatriots, acknowledging this is only a  rhetorical question.  “Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquoy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes Wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.”

Russia’s right of way is not one of the rules of the road in “the rules-based international order” the foreign ministers of the G7 allies repeated in their war-making communiqué on May 5, so we march to war on all fronts. There are 12,380 words in the G7 communiqué – freedom is mentioned 33 times; Russia the enemy 19 times; “rules-based order” 11 times; war and laughter, zero.

This year is also the 78th anniversary of publication of the book by a more recent Russian exceptionalist Vladimir Nabokov in tribute to Gogol; and in rebuke to everyone but himself as Gogol’s successor.    Nabokov hated the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union; he was dead before he could decide who and what to hate between Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. But  unlike his cousin, Nikolai Nabokov, he didn’t sell his loyalty to the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. Nikolai became a US Government agent at the Congress for Cultural Freedom until its exposure as a Cold War operation against Russia in 1967.

Vladimir Nabokov’s (right) tribute to Gogol makes himself the sole translator and interpreter of Gogol to appreciate there have been only two such masters of the Russian language, and thus of the national spirit – Gogol and Nabokov himself. Don’t laugh at either of us, Nabokov warned – the Russian joke is on you, not on us. Also: “if you expect to find out something about Russia, if you are eager to know why the blistered Germans bungled their blitz, if you are interested in ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’ and ‘messages’, keep away from Gogol. The awful trouble of learning Russian in order to read him will not be repaid in your kind of hard cash. Keep away, keep away. He has nothing to tell you.”

Gogol’s method has returned in the Stolyarov-Kuznetsov, Lexus and Vovan pranks.  In pretending on the telephone or by video link  to be somebody of importance or rank whom their targets think they recognise —  the Revizor, the fake Inspector – the pranksters get their targets to say things they believe about Russia and the current war which sound as portentously  sure as the G7 communiqué of last week.  Repeating them in the context of the Russian prank, however, displays the gullibility of those who say these things, making them sound vulgar, ridiculous, and laughable to the audience which counts. To Lexus and Vovan, this isn’t the audience of the other side in this war; it’s the Russian audience. They prove the Russian side’s superiority in this war, also by Gogol’s method – by recording how easy it is to hoodwink the enemy, and get their targets to behave and speak for Russians to sit back, marvel, and laugh at them.

To reveal which side Navalny is on, and also how gullible he and his staff are, the pranksters have successfully pretended to be reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation.   If not the Russians, who will laugh at the BBC these days, and judge its combination of enemy propaganda and Navalny operations to be true and laughable at the same time?

“Patriotic prank: whose ears are sticking out of the telephone of Vovan and Lexus?” -- a revealing interview with Versiya , published in Moscow on April 26.  This report has not been translated by any Anglo-American press outlet, nor republished for academic specialists on Russia by Johnson’s  Russia List. Lexus and Vovan (right) recalled that in their February 2016 prank on the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), they pretended to be the president and prime minister of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko and Arseny Yatseniuk.  Erdogan agreed to their request to coordinate joint actions against Russia, including a naval blockade of Crimea, “with pleasure”. They then asked Erdogan to give special Turkish price discounts for Ukrainian government officials to travel to the country. Erdogan agreed to this too, adding he saw “no obstacles to this”. This interview, the pranksters told Versiya last month, was their way of revealing how actively the Turks plotted against Russia. Listen to the transcript of the Erdogan call here. Eight months later, on December 19, 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was murdered by a Turkish policeman in league with agents of the Turkish secret services. For new details of Erdogan’s cover-up, click to read.  

In their latest joke, Stolyarov and Kuznetsov fooled the Canadian House of Commons committee on foreign affairs into thinking they were Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov. He had been scheduled to brief the committee in secret session on Navalny’s allegations about the Novichok poisoning, his arrest and imprisonment, and Navalny’s operational plans for the months ahead. Volkov did appear on May 6. Among the things Volkov said then:  “ ‘They (Amnesty) told me just yesterday that they will issue a press release on May 12 after they have examined how the Russian disinformation campaign managed to influence them,” he told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.  “They will not only reinstate his [prisoner of conscience] status but they will also issue a post-mortem,” he said

But a fortnight earlier, on April 22,  the Russian pranksters beat Volkov to the punchline.   

Screen shot of Lexus (Stolyarov) spoofing Volkov, released by Lexus. Source: https://vk.com/wall-37359595_23906 

Florian Roetzer reports in Buchkomplizen that before the Canadian prank, several efforts at faking Volkov by Lexus and Vovan were successfully carried out in the Baltic states, the UK, and the Netherlands. Roetzer recommends caution to German readers in deciding whether to laugh at Navalny’s Volkov,  or at Lexus and Vovan’s Volkov, or at both of them.  

It is well-known that Gogol himself realised he could never match or top the first part of his Dead Souls;  he starved himself to death after burning as much of the manuscripts of part two and part three as he could. Although Lexus and Vovan refused last week to answer our request for a transcript of the prank they had played on the Canadian MPs, they continue giving interviews and they don’t intend to starve themselves to death.

“Question: You deny that you work for the FSB. But surely someone is helping you in the secret services? Otherwise, how do you manage to reach high-ranking people?

Answer: No, absolutely. Rather, we are helping the FSB.

Question: The choice of victims is also suspicious. You call people who have, let’s say, problematic relations with Russia. Why don’t you call the Rottenbergs, Igor Sechin, Ramzan Kadyrov?

Answer: This is rather our personal position on many issues. We did not plan to harm the people who lead the [Russian] state. If our point of view was different, we would call other people. They would have gone into opposition. But we do what we like.

Question: Pranking is a difficult job. How is it turned into income?

Answer: We sell our exclusive materials in the media. Now we are working on creating our own program, which will soon be available on — it will appear on TV – on one of the three channels. .

Question: Do you get any orders?

Answer:  No. We only deal with those people who have an interest.  The ideas are born from ourselves, no one stands over our soul and tells us what to do, how to reach this person and what scenario to work on.

Question: You have already gained fame. Is it harder to get through? Maybe the staff of the state apparatuses have increased their vigilance?

Answer: No, we don’t call the same people a second time. And those who are not familiar with us, don’t suspect.

Question: Did the victims ever know they were being played?

Answer: Sometimes, but rarely. Man himself is a trusting species.”

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