MOSCOW Vladimir Putin's face superimposed on a portrait of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev has gone viral on the Internet since the prime minister announced plans to reclaim Russia's presidency.
The doctored image, showing Putin digitally aged and decrepit, captures the mood of many Russians who say the prospect of 12 more years of Putin in the Kremlin could result in political and economic stagnation comparable with Brezhnev's 18-year rule until his death in 1982.
The manner in which Putin announced his plans at a stage-managed congress of his ruling United Russia party on Saturday, following a deal with President Dmitry Medvedev to carve up power between them, has revived fears of democracy receding.
For many Russians it is all too much, and they are reverting to satire and jokes to cope, just as they did in Soviet times.
"Satire always offers the sharpest and most accurate diagnosis of societies' problems. Tell me what a country is laughing about and I'll tell you what kind of country it is," satirist and writer Viktor Shenderovich said.
"Today that is Putin and his United Russia party. In the last few days, the Internet has filled up with caricatures and jokes depicting a Brezhnev-like Putin: The analogy is obvious."
Shenderovich was behind a televised puppet show called Kukly (Puppets) that sent up Russian politicians from 1994 until 2002 -- it was pulled off air soon after the start of Putin's presidency, when the Kremlin reasserted its grip on the media.
Russian viewers are now used to seeing reverent portrayals of Putin on state-controlled television, which opinion polls show is where 80 percent of Russians get their news.
NEW JOKES APPEAR
Over the years, Putin has bolstered his image as a vigorous leader in televised outings such as fishing without his shirt on, piloting a fighter jet and shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser dart.
Such stunts went down well with many voters. Even the jokes about Putin tended to underline his role as a strong leader at the expense of Medvedev, who was often portrayed as a puppet.
But a new type of joke has now emerged, Shenderovich said.
In one, a man walks through Moscow traffic knocking on car windows: "Terrorists have kidnapped Putin and threaten to douse him in oil and burn him alive if they aren't paid $10 million ransom. Will you make a donation?
"One driver answers: 'I'll give you five litres'."
Shenderovich said the caustic jokes and satire suggested people were increasingly fed up with the way things were going in Russia, and with Putin.
"As a historian of anecdotes, it's a completely new theme that people are so tired of Putin that they'd rather give oil to see him burn," he said.
He and other observers say mockery of Russia's rulers has burgeoned in private as a parliamentary election approaches in December, and before the presidential election in March, with people frustrated about having little real say in politics.
One acerbic joke goes: "Did you hear? The new presidential candidate Vladimir Putin promises to correct the mistakes made by Prime Minister Putin's government, which inherited the mess created by former president Putin."
In another, Putin asks Medvedev: "'Dima, guess who is the successor to my successor?' Medvedev waffles, 'Err, well, I don't know, who?'
"'You fool, Dima! It's me,' Putin crows."
But opinion polls show Putin, 58, remains popular and he is all but certain to be elected in March. Most Russians regard the results of the elections as a foregone conclusion -- victory for Putin in March and his United Russia party December.
A recent poll by the independent Levada Centre showed 22 percent of Russians, mostly entrepreneurs and young people, now want to emigrate. The figure is the highest since the Soviet Union collapsed.
"CITIZEN AND POET"
Putin ended months of speculation on Saturday by saying he wanted to return to the post he held for eight years until 2008, when he pushed Medvedev into the Kremlin because the constitution prevented him seeking a third successive term.
He has invited Medvedev, 46, to be his prime minister when he moves back to the Kremlin and could rule until 2024 if he wins another two successive terms.
The orchestrated congress annoyed many Russians for whom it evoked stage-managed Soviet Communist Party meetings.
When just one United Russia party member voted against the party's list of candidates for the parliamentary election, to be headed by Medvedev, Putin jokingly asked who it was.
The party member did not reveal his or her identity and Putin was quoted as saying: "And why should he show himself?"
Most Russians saw this as a wry joke, but others saw a more sinister message.
Concerns over a rollback of democracy are seen in the instant popularity of satirical skits by one of Russia's most popular actors, Mikhail Yefremov, which first aired on a small cable TV channel in February.
Thousands tuned in to the show "Citizen and Poet" to watch Yefremov undermine the Russian authorities in barbed poems adapted from Russian classics by humorist Dmitry Bykov.
"It was like fireworks when these poems appeared. Everyone began to talk about them," said Maria Rovinskaya, a 32-year-old linguistics professor.
"We have reached this critical point when it is no longer possible to take today's politics seriously. Laughter is the only way I can participate in this circus."
But the criticism went too far for some. It went off air after the channel censored a poem mocking signs of a rift in the Medvedev and Putin relationship -- days before Medvedev visited.
In the offending line, Putin complains his "friend Dima" has become presumptuous: "And then one day he stood and swore/I'm not your shadow any more!"
BACK TO THE KITCHEN
At Moscow's Estrada Theatre, where Yefremov performs for a small, mainly middle-class audience, some of the older people present saw echoes of Soviet-era humour.
"There's a feeling of deja vu of the Brezhnev era, but 'Brezhnev-light'," retired script writer Josef Goldman, 65, said, making clear restrictions were similar but not as bad as in Soviet times.
When Putin was president, the Kremlin became less tolerant of political satire, humorists say, and the biting satire that flourished soon after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 has all but disappeared from the airwaves.
Shenderovich's Kukly was one of the first programmes axed after Putin became president. One scene had portrayed Putin as a screeching, foul-mouthed dwarf. The episode was one of the last.
"He didn't get the metaphor," Shenderovich said. "People told me he went into hysterics."
He said that beyond the Internet, where satire has its place, Russia had returned to the Soviet model where critical humour was largely confined to the home, or to the "kitchen".
In Soviet times, people enjoyed many a long night telling jokes around the kitchen table.
"If people can't have their voice heard at the polls, at least they can laugh out loud," said Maxim Kovalsky, editor-in-chief of leading weekly Kommersant Vlast.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Timothy Heritage and Karolina Tagaris)