In the twentieth century, we got accustomed to the clownish dictators who can sing or act or else amuse the crowds. In Russian, the term “yurodstvovat’” refers to clowning, practicing the art of amusement, yet it also allows the point of entry when dealing with being bound to balance between reality and non-reality, empirical evidence and non-entity, flesh-and-blood humanity and abstract ideas or principles. Small wonder that “yurodivye” were Russian medieval jesters whose work was to amuse the folks, and who were absolved from political responsibility for making any dangerous allusions to or even poking fun of real power structure.
Dictators may well establish themselves as figures mediating between those two hypostases of reality, real and virtual.As we learn from Ralf Dahrendorf, the modern intellectual as naysayer and dissenter, may have originated from the medieval court jester, as the latter was allowed to say and name things for which counts and dukes would have payed with their lives.As you are not a member of power structure and play no role in it, you are granted permission to voice things that are beyond your reach.
What happens when the tyrant assumes the role of the court jester? He confuses his victims, to say the least. He pretends to be a nice chap with all his insecurities, fragile aspects of personality (as who can amuse and entertain friends if not a good guy, who thus chases away the death itself), and vulnerable things embedded in his way of life – and then he strikes. The sooner you get to believe that the tyrant is good, the easier victim you become. The dictator pokes fun on his victims by pretending to be their entertainer. More than that, you are supposed to laugh at his jokes, as an untimely and irrelevant smile or its absence or Homeric laughter after the joke has been released would kill you or, at best, would let you down in terms of the loss of his benevolence and favour.
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Back when the movement for Lithuanian independence was just beginning in the late 1980s, we encountered Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance. We– or my generation, to be more precise – thought of it as a sensation, even a miracle. This film was an allegoric and symbolic tale of the invasion of the human soul by an almost satanic totalitarian system, taking away its memory and its capacity for empathy.
The storyline follows the local murderer and dictator Varlam Aravidze. He strikes a satanic figure – complete with his devilish charm and his taste for a spectacle. At his behest, an ancient holy place – an allegory for history and memory – is destroyed, while Aravidze recites William Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet to his future victims. Shakespeare’s words “tired with all these, for restful death I cry” make a cruel mockery of the victims’ fate. Later, Varlam gives a wonderful performance of an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore – Di quella pira – “the horrible blaze” invoking the unquenchable fires of inferno. In the opera, the blaze refers to a pyre about to consume the protagonists’ mother – a symbol identified with his country by Aravidze himself in the film.
I had a déjà vu feeling watching in 2012 how Vladimir Putin participated in a charity project by singing Blueberry Hill. Tasteless,miserable and disgusting as it was, his singing reminded us of the difference between Bill Clinton’s playing the saxophone and Varlam Aravidze’s cabaletta Di quella pira. You sing and dance in the eyes of those who are mesmerized by your dash, and who admire or fear you (which is the same thing in Russia’s political reality turned upside down). You are amused to death, as Roger Waters would have it; nay, you amuse your would-be-victims to death.
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Yet Putin’s political entertainment has much do to with a new and sinister phenomenon of the 21st century – namely, the loss of the sense of reality.In our fake-and-panic-ridden world where the analysis is receding allowing more and more fake images, lies, rumours, scaremongering and fearmongering, reality disappears. The dictatorial regimes, such as Putin’s in Russia, manufacture reality by waging wars, invading weak and least protected areas of the world, or setting chaos and disorder elsewhere only to be recalled as a power agency capable of bringing back our supposedly lost peace and stability. In doing so, it provides entertainment and amusement at home, as the electorate is thirsty for a new thriller full of excitement and valour, be it a real war in Ukraine or a proxy war in the Middle East.
What we learned from the war between Russia and Ukraine, or Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine coupled with the occupation and annexation of Crimea, was the ease and speed with which it was possible to zombie nearly the entire Russian nation reduced to a collective TV crap watcher. Vladimir Putin has become a killer-amuser, or a criminal-entertainer, putting fanaticism, loss of reality, consumer society’s craving for novelties and goods, and mass entertainment into one.
And the show must go on; otherwise, the entertainer will be amused to death himself.