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I'm a student learning the Russian language, and I visit a popular Russian jokes website from time to time. There's a monthly rating list of new jokes on that website, and last month the top joke on that list was this:

Заходит как-то Путин в бар и говорит:

-- Всем пива за счет заведения!

My translation of the joke into English is in the title of my question, and I'm pretty sure I got it right from the language standpoint. More literally, the joke goes:

"One day Putin enters a bar and says, 'Beer to everyone at the expense of the house!'"

Putin's phrase in this joke is based on the common Russian expression used to buy a round of beer for the whole bar, "Beer to everyone at my expense." There seems to be nothing I could get wrong linguistically, so there must be some political context that makes the joke funny.

Given the popularity of the joke, I got very much curious about it and hope that SE users interested in politics can shed some light.

  • To clarify, Putin is NOT offering to pay himself or even have the government pay. I clarify this because some might see the country's President and the government he runs as the "house" that will provide the drinks. That is not so in this joke. – Roger Dodger May 2 at 5:19
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This relates to the Russian government's controversial decision to declare that the majority of workers should not go to work in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while also mandating that these workers should still be paid by their employers.

As this Reuters article puts it:

“They say ‘pay the salaries’, but no one explains where you’re supposed to get the money from,” [the co-owner of several bars in Moscow] said. “It will kill the (restaurant and bar) sector. Many of them won’t survive.”

Small and medium-sized businesses have voiced anger and warned of mass bankruptcies in petitions to the government, including one with more than 250,000 signatures, illustrating the headwinds Putin faces as he tries to counter the virus.

Critics point to how other countries have offered to pay workers; Britain, for example, pays up to 80% of wages. They also note Russia’s huge gold and forex reserves, around $550 billion.

So the relation to the joke is that Putin is declaring that the bar should give free beer to everyone at its own expense, rather than at Putin's expense, in the same way that the Russian government is declaring that wages should be paid to workers at the employer's expense, rather than at the Russian government's expense. This contrasts to government programs such as in Britain, where furloughed workers can have 80% of their wages paid by the government.

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    @rs.29 note that your link was published 3 weeks after the report noted the use of the joke. – CDJB May 3 at 14:59
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    @rs.29 the answer explains the context of the joke. If you think that this explanation is wrong, I suggest you post your own interpretation. – CDJB May 3 at 15:30
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    @rs.29 that's exactly how I interpret this joke as a local (and I did saw it before the post here). – RiaD May 3 at 16:35
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    there are some measures declared but 1) I see reasons not be sure, that it will be possible to actually get declared help (other measures that are declared not really implemented) 2) they have to pay salaries now and (maybe) they will get reimbursed – RiaD May 3 at 16:37
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    @rs.29 - Yes, instead of propagandistic news stories, let's go to the source for actual government propaganda. That will work well. Do you also watch Donald Trump's press conferences to find out the truth about US policy? – Obie 2.0 May 4 at 20:04
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This is how I see it: The joke works just as well in English as it does in Russian. It is making fun of Putin (and maybe at the same time complimenting him), but how?

Suppose a rich man walks into a bar. If he is the right sort of person, maybe he says “Drinks on me!” and buys for everyone.

Suppose another case, the owner of the bar gets some good news. Again, if he is the right sort of person, maybe he says “Drinks on the house!” and then he is buying for everyone because he is the owner of the house.

Suppose a third case, someone who isn't the owner walks in and says “Drinks on the house!”, then he is not buying for everyone. Rather, he is demanding that someone else (the owner) will buy for everyone.

Well, who could get away with this? A powerful person. And who would do it? A person willing to spend other people's money. So, the joke is--Putin would do this.

I think that's it.

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    Yes. Despite the current highest-voted answer, this joke would have worked even before COVID-19, even without any specific current event. The Putin character is arrogating to himself the authority to dispense drinks at someone else's expense. In the joke, the bartender doesn't contradict Putin; "why not" is left to the listener's imagination. (It is widely known that those who oppose Putin often fall out of windows, accidentally consume polonium, etc. Putin's govt is also known for messing with the private sector.) IMHO you could substitute "Stalin" and get a fine 1930s joke. – Quuxplusone May 2 at 15:43
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    The phrase "Next round's on the house!" is comedic in itself for the same reason as the classic "Let's you and him fight." The syntactic "reversal of expectations" is just as important to the success of the joke as is the cynical subtext ("Putin is powerful and arrogant yet also paternal"; "Wimpy wants to see a fight but doesn't want to participate in it"). – Quuxplusone May 2 at 15:47
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    However, the whole point of puttin' Putin into the joke, and the only reason this joke appeared last month, is the Russian government's and personally Putin's response to the crisis, from the financial standpoint, as described in the highest-voted answer. As a Russian myself, I can attest that that's precisely what makes this joke funny to us -- knowing the context. – zipirovich May 2 at 17:05
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    I am Russian, so I know exactly what this joke means, there is no other meaning but the third one in this comment: "someone who isn't the owner walks in and says “Drinks on the house!”, then he is not buying for everyone. Rather, he is demanding that someone else (the owner) will buy for everyone" – undead10 May 3 at 18:30
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    @undead10 Yes, of course, the meaning of the joke is in the third one, whether in Russian or in English. The first two are only meant as examples of how the phrase might be used seriously, which is then being twisted into a joke in the third phrase. As for whether this joke applies specifically to the Corona response, as many have said, I'm sure it does, but it also would have worked before Corona too. – RCM May 3 at 19:34
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As I see it, the point of the joke is not who pays for the drinks, but what is being paid for...

  • Under "normal" circumstances, someone going into a packed bar and saying, "The drinks are on me", or (a landlord saying), "The drinks are on the house" is an offer of generosity.

  • Under COVID-19 lockdown, with bars closed, this is very much an "empty gesture", since there will be no one (other than the speaker) to buy drinks for.

The joke works because the offer sounds generous but has no substance.

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    That doesn't work. If the round is being paid for by someone else why would he care the size of it? And why would it "sound generous" if the person footing the bill isn't the person offering it? – Martin Smith May 2 at 9:25
  • The point is that "the drinks are on me" sounds generous, and under normal circumstances would be, but in an empty bar means nothing. – TripeHound May 2 at 9:28
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    But he isn't saying "the drinks are on me" - he is saying "the drinks are on them". Under your analysis he might as well say "the drinks are on me" to get the credit for the empty gesture but that isn't the joke being asked about – Martin Smith May 2 at 9:30
  • It's by no means the best joke I've heard, and I think that it would work better if he were saying the drinks were on him, but the "empty gesture" aspect (whoever would have paid if there were people to buy drinks for) works sufficiently (for me) to be mildly amusing. – TripeHound May 2 at 9:43

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