Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"So funny I was afraid to laugh": the dire fate and final vindication of satire under Communism

"No other kinds of jokes impersonated their targets with the same precision of Communist jokes, or used the logic of the State to discredit its ideology. This was a unique collective satirical project."—from Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism
Right: Poster from the documentary that inspired the book.
"The kid's got ideas! Just like the Academy of Architecture." Cartoonist Harald Kretschmar mocked East German housing projects in 1967
From the Revolution onward, gallows humor was the order of the day. As in "Who built the White Sea canal [Stalin's horrific slave-labour project]?" "The left bank was built by those who told the jokes, and the right bank by those who listened." Or this one: "How do you deal with mice in the Kremlin?" "Put up a sign saying 'collective farm'. Then half the mice will starve and the others will run away."
Even after Khrushchev's "thaw" of the 1950s, citizens were still imprisoned in droves for ridiculing the Soviet Union's policies and leaders. As Lewis recounts:
One file from 1957 concerns a citizen of Voronoj, who got drunk, went to the main street of the town and started shouting obscenities and 'speculating about the sex life' of Khrushchev and other members of the Politboro. He was immediately arrested and taken to the police station, where, still drunk, he told all present what he thought of the Soviet regime. He was sentenced to two years for anti-Soviet propaganda and drunkenness. Released in early 1959, he was quiet for a year, but then he got drunk again, repeated the same behavior, and was sentenced to four years. He was released in 1964 but did the same thing again, and received another seven years.  
Interestingly, for the remaining period of Khrushchev's rule, only several hundred people a year were imprisoned for criticism of the regime (which was paltry compared to previous levels of incarceration). Some incorrigibles just never could suppress the urge to mock: several prisoners during this time received additional sentences for attaching insulting remarks about Khrushchev to the legs of pigeons they had caught.  
Later, Reagan got into the act and needled Gorbachev with this lampoon: "A man who goes to buy a car in Moscow, pays for it, and is told by the salesman that he can collect it on a particular date in 10 years' time. The buyer thinks for a moment and then asks: 'Morning or afternoon?' The salesman, astonished by the question, asks: 'What difference does it make?' And the buyer answers: 'Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.'"
A reviewer for Britain's Telegraph noted that the best jokes cited in Hammer & Tickle mined "the inherent absurdity of the official Soviet doctrine, rhetoric and propaganda - not just because it was absurd, but because it was official (in a way that no capitalist doctrine could be)":
—'What is the difference between communism and capitalism?' 'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; communism is the exact opposite.'
—'Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss. It will soon be overtaken by communism.'
—'Is it true that Marxism-Leninism is scientific?' 'No, surely not. If it were, they would have tested it on animals first.'
Here, perhaps, we find at long last the jokes that only communism could produce. And while they may not have brought it down, they can still tell us something important about why it fell."
Further reading 
K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist;
Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War;
The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. 


  1. Did someone mention Boris and Natasha?
    We must be certain Soviet-style Communism is dead, or we couldn't be kicking it. But Putin makes me think of Freddie Kruger--or Rasputin. Can't be too sure.
    I haven't laughed this much at political humor in a while. Thanks.

  2. Haha, this really was great. I needed a gloomy day "pick me up." Quite true, Gioconda, I get the connection. Anyone ever notice that Putin looks like Dobby from Harry Potter?!

  3. K Blows Top is a really interesting book. My two favorite sentences include a quote from Khrushchev — "To characterize our attitude toward each other’s system, I think the most apt saying is the Russian proverb ‘Each duck praises its own swamp.’” — and, during K's visit to America, “One sign [held up by a protestor] displayed a poem: ‘Roses are red / Violets are blue / Stalin dropped dead / How about you?’”

  4. I don't know if this is in the book, but I know the communism joke:

    "They say communism only works on paper, but have we tried it on stone?"

    It's not as funny as the one's listed above - but I thought I would share!

  5. Headline: Putin to give Robert Kraft "expensive ring, made with nice metal, with a stone" to replace the Superbowl ring uh, given to him by Kraft.
    Russian humor lives!