Vladimir Putin thinks his critics might need a little virility boost. Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg.
Vladimir Putin thinks his critics might need a little virility boost. Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to make jokes. What that says about his sense of humor is a matter of interpretation.

Putin's remark at a sporting event on Friday suggesting that Russia's critics might need some pharmaceutical virility enhancement raises the question, yet again, of what his attempts at humor tell us about the president and the people he addresses.

At times, the Russian leader seems to hit the mark, at least for his target audience. At a 2010 event for his United Russia party, functionaries laughed when he quipped, "What do we need to do to curb corruption? We need some hangings!"

Often, though, his attempts at humor fall so far below the waist that even his political allies keep a straight face.

Consider, for example, Putin's response in 2002 to a foreign journalist inquiring about Russia's use of anti-personnel mines to fight Islamist terrorists in Chechnya. The president noted that the Chechen radicals didn’t care whom they hurt or how, then added: "If you are willing to become a radical Islamist and be circumcised, I invite you to visit Moscow. I will recommend that they perform the operation so that nothing can sprout there again."

Interesting note: The translator, and the Kremlin's official site, which is supposed to record the president's every publicly spoken word, left out the circumcision bit. Kremlin transcripts also omitted Putin's 2006 remark to Ehud Olmert, then Israel's prime minister, concerning rape and sexual harassment charges brought against Israeli President Moshe Katsav. "Say hi to your president," Putin said. "He's turned out to be quite a powerful man. Ten women he has raped! I never expected that of him. He's surprised us all! We all envy him!"

Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov later said that the presidential joke did not mean that Putin condoned rape. "The Russian language is very complicated, and sometimes everything depends on the word order," Peskov said. "Even the correct translation does not necessarily carry the meaning of the joke."

Now that Putin is in his third term as president, having briefly ceded power to his close ally Dmitri Medvedev (who, according to another unprovoked Putin joke, shares his "strictly traditional sexual orientation"), his handlers appear less embarrassed by his quips -- as if they recognize that the Russian leader has become more of a regent than an elected official.

The presidential website carries the full transcript of Putin's meeting with the winners of this year's World University Games, held in the Russian city of Kazan. The president decided to address criticism of Russia's decision to field a team of professional athletes, including 18 Olympic champions, against other countries' student squads. Russia dominated the competition, winning 155 gold medals. Its closest rival, China, won 26.

"When such resounding victories as yours take place, people start moaning that something is wrong," Putin said to the Russian athletes. His advice to the critics: "As a last resort, they should try Viagra, maybe that will help, their lives will get better and they will see a prettier, brighter side of things, they will see the future." The state-owned TV channel Russia 24, which broadcasted the remark, was careful not to show the audience's response. No one could be heard laughing, and some meager applause died down after a few seconds.

If Putin was a democratically elected politician dependent on votes and ratings, his spin doctors would have found a way to get it across to him that sex jokes are not his forte. As it happens, there's not a lot to laugh about for Russians who don't get Putin's sense of humor. The joke is on them.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)