In the eyes of the Russian bureaucracy, having no legs is not enough to qualify for permanent disability. A legless citizen, apart from dealing with cities that are about as wheelchair accessible as an Amazonian rainforest, must stand in line every two years to file a document proving that he has no legs. Otherwise, the state apparently assumes that the limbs have grown back, stopping providing benefits. This absurd piece of red tape comes up repeatedly on the Kremlin's newest website, Russia Without Fools, which was launched over the weekend as a kind of register of bureaucratic inanity, or as President Dmitri Medvedev called it, a "stupidity contest."
Apart from offering a rare bit of official self-criticism, the aim of the site is to provide a social steam valve at a time when it is badly needed. In December, Russia saw the biggest protests against the government since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the state has since been rushing to co-opt or placate the opposition. The latest attempt is Russia Without Fools, which gives people a chance to have their gripes heard online instead of taking them to the streets. In the first day of its existence, Jan. 22, the site got more than 135,000 visitors, about as many as attended the December demonstrations in Moscow, and two days later, more than 1,000 of them had posted stories of the government's ineptitude. "We had to plug in the backup servers to deal with the avalanche of stupidity," says Raf Shakirov, the director of the project. "I was like, Wow. We're going to have to hire more people."
Most of the content describes bizarre encounters with officialdom a letter sent to the prosecutor's office, for instance, comes back with a note saying that no such organization exists but the site also has a competition for elocutionary gems. The Russian Health Minister, Tatyana Golikova, took second place in the vote for saying: "We need to catch more diseases and learn to cure them in a way that does not cause death." But she was beaten to the crown by an equally morbid comment from the chief of the Central Elections Commission, Vladimir Churov. "I look at life optimistically," he is quoted as saying. "When someone asks how life is going, one should answer, 'I'm looking for a grave site.'"
Conspicuously, the site lacks any quotes or complaints about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's paramount leader, even though he has had his share of gaffes. On Jan. 18, he attacked the editor of a liberal radio station across a dinner table for criticizing him too harshly: "You don't see me getting upset," he said, getting upset, "when you shower me in diarrhea from morning till night." But the creators of the site deny taking it easy on Putin or any other official. "There are no taboos," says Robert Shlegel, a lawmaker for Putin's United Russia party who co-founded the project.
The inspiration, Shlegel says, came from similar websites fielded by the opposition, in particular the work of Alexei Navalny, the blogger who has helped lead the protest movement. Last year, Navalny launched a hugely popular site called RosYama, which lets people file photos and complaints about potholes in their neighborhoods. The site's pageant of roads that look like they've been freshly cluster-bombed also has a dark kind of humor to it, but Russia Without Fools makes comedy an end in itself. "It's meant to poke fun," Shlegel says, "because many officials say things that are insane. And that's normal. The government is interested in finding new ways to resolve problems, even if they take a funny form."
That seems to be the plan for President Medvedev after the March presidential elections, when he will step down and switch places with Prime Minister Putin to create what he calls a Big Government. (This phrase does not cause the kind of indigestion in Russia that it does among the U.S. electorate.) Although still quite vaguely conceived, the Big Government will have more ministries and points of contact with voters, and it will allow Medvedev to continue railing against corruption and red tape with guidance from the complaints on Russia Without Fools, says Shakirov, the site's director. "This is not just a toy, not another site to make jokes," he tells TIME. "It is a mechanism, like surgery, to get at the sick parts of government."
But during his four years as President, Medvedev's war on graft and official inanity has gotten nowhere fast. Police said last summer that the size of the average bribe grew almost eightfold in the course of a year, and as Medvedev admitted halfway through his presidency, his war on corruption had been "limited to energetically signing little papers." So regardless of how big his government gets, it's hard to believe that he will be able to make it smarter after he moves to the less powerful post of Prime Minister this spring. "Medvedev has had the entire state at his disposal to fight stupidity, and nothing works," says Navalny, the opposition blogger, "because they are only fighting themselves."