Pity poor Dmitry Dayneko. The Belarusian teen recently completed the ice-bucket challenge, as millions like him have before, and posted the video of himself being drenched in cold water on social media. So far, so hilarious/tedious (depending on your view of the challenge), but, ultimately, quite harmless.
Except apparently it wasn’t. Dmitry and the friends who poured cold water over his head say they were summoned by local authorities and given a stern warning to behave themselves, apparently on the orders of the KGB in Minsk. The reason? Not the icy water itself, but Dmitry’s temerity in nominating Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, to do the challenge next.
Lukashenko, one feels, is not a man who does lighthearted fun. One cannot imagine him posting a selfie of himself holding a cocktail with an umbrella in it, hashtagged #YOLO. One cannot even begin to think what he’d wear on fancy dress day at Bestival. He’s probably weirdly competitive at bowling. He does not do Wii.
This does not make him an exceptional dictator. In the history of autocrats, I can’t think of a single one who was mainly in it for the laughs, unless it was fun of the crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women variety.
In journalist Ben Judah’s recent, acclaimed essay on the court of Vladimir Putin, he describes a lonesome, rigid emotionless figure, whose only apparent joy is ice hockey, which Judah says, Putin finds “graceful and manly and fun”. This is quite normal for a man of his age and geographical situation (Lukashenko has the same love for ice hockey). But there is a difference between “fun” and “funny”; playing sport is fun. It may even be more fun if your opponents are scared of you. What it is not, though, is funny.
Because dictatorships don’t — can’t — do funny. People can make great jokes about authoritarian regimes, certainly. Ben Lewis’s Hammer And Tickle details the jokes that got people through Soviet communism between 1917 and 1989, most of which revel in the jarring, depressing juxtaposition between Soviet promises of milk and honey and everyday reality (“What is the definition of capitalism?” “The exploitation of man by man” “And what is the definition of communism?” “The exact opposite”.)
But those within the regime, within The Party, never, ever find themselves funny, which is why the generals end up with such large hats.
A couple of years ago, a viral video spread of Belarusian soldiers putting on a display on the country’s Independence Day. It was synchronised, controlled, disciplined, and one the campest things I have ever seen — the Red Army choreographed by Busby Berkeley. But this would not for one moment have occurred to anyone in charge.
Funny doesn’t work for dictatorships because funny usually involves humanity, and vulnerability. This is the appeal of the viral ice bucket challenge video: not admiring the superhuman feat of standing still while freezing water cascades over you, but laughing at the apprehension beforehand, and the hopping and shouting and screaming in the moments afterwards.
In the hands of the likes of Putin or Lukashenko and their apparatchiks, the challenge would have to become a real feat of strength and endurance: somehow Vladimir Putin would invent colder iced water than everyone else did, and then have more of it poured on him than anyone thought possible. And it would be boring because he would not flinch. And then he would not nominate anyone else, because, well, where do you go after Vladimir Putin or Alexander Lukashenko? What man could equal such a task?
Andy Warhol once pointed out that in America, an odd consumer egalitarianism existed: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola,” the artist said, “and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
The same is true of viral phenomena like the ice bucket challenge, or the Harlem Shake before it (that meme aggravated the Azerbaijaini authorities so much that people were arrested for allegedly taking part in it). There’s no way of making throwing water over someone’s head much more than it is. The Harlem Shake effectively died when people started trying to make slicker or (shudder) sexier versions.
In spite of near-ubiquitous celebrity participation, an ice bucket challenge is an ice bucket challenge is an ice bucket challenge.
In spite of its claim to oversee a “social state” that works “for the sake of the people”, the Soviet nostalgist regime of Lukashenko cannot bear such egalitarianism.