Tuesday 5 October 2010

It’s such a joke

Ben Lewis’ Hammer and Tickle tells the history of communism through the very thing that deadpan dictators fear the most – humour. There is nothing subtle about the joke, no great intellectual sophistication: it’s simply the most effective measure of popular resistance in the face of propaganda and lies. The joke will never of itself bring down tyranny but by making it look ridiculous it contributes in a small way towards that end.

I was amused to discover last year that the intelligence service of the old Federal Republic of West Germany used to have a section devoted to gathering jokes from across the Wall, a way of monitoring the popular mood in the East. Not only did it have a section dedicated to this end but it was also one of the most popular duties, with section chiefs looking forward to the weekly compilation. The East German jokes were good but not nearly as good as those coming from Big Brother further east, from Soviet Russia, where people had a longer time to practice sallies of satire against the system.

It’s wonderful dry humour with an undercurrent of seriousness. Take this for example;

A judge walks out of his chambers laughing his head off. A colleague approaches him and asks why he is laughing. "I just heard the funniest joke in the world!" "Well, go ahead, tell me!" says the other judge. "I can't - I just gave a guy ten years for it!"

Yes, no joke, as you will know if you’ve read Milan Kundera’s The Joke, a book that was banned after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Communism is really unique here for, unlike other forms of dictatorship, its absurdities and contradictions positively invite ridicule. One of the oldest, originating in the early days of the Soviet experiment, is a simple observation “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”, which would seem to me to serve as the best epitaph for the whole absurd Marxist project.

The joke as the pulse of the popular mood invariably moved with the times. The twilight years of the Soviet Union were particularly rich in observations about stagnation and the gerontocracy that ruled the land. Leonid Brezhnev was a popular target, with observations both about delusions of grandeur and his stupidity. In one he berates a speech writer: “I asked for a fifteen minute speech and you gave me one lasting forty-five minutes”. “Comrade Brezhnev, I gave you three copies.”

The most popular jokes were always about shortages or non-existent commodities:

What's 300 feet long, grey and eats cabbage?
The queue outside a Russian butcher's shop.

Dad, can I have the car keys?"
Ok, but don't lose them. We will get the car in just seven years!

A man walks into a shop and asks, "Don't you have any fish?", and the shop assistant replies, "You got it wrong - ours is a butcher: we don't have any meat. They don't have any fish in the fish shop that is across the road!"

And then there are those that reflect on aspects of life under communism, including my personal favourites;

When were the first Communist elections held?
When God put Eve in front of Adam and said "Choose yourself a wife"

"What's happened to Ivan, I haven't seen him recently?"
"You mean the Ivan who always told political jokes, you know, the one who lived opposite the prison?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"He now lives opposite his house."

I just love this sort of thing; it tells just how irrepressible the human spirit is even under the direst of conditions. And I’m delighted to say that the political joke is not quite dead, even in Putin’s new Russia, a system that hasn’t quite escaped the legacy of the old Russia;

Stalin's ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, "Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue." "Why blue?" Putin asks. "Ha!" says Stalin. "I knew you wouldn't ask me about the first part."


  1. Humour is indeed important. Whilst Hitler was weighted down in his sea of seriousness, Churchill was having a jolly good drink to the British Empire. I'd say more but the hour is late.

  2. The poor are desperate to be rich,
    And yet all end up in a ditch,
    The rich are mystified by the poor,
    But neither one shall life endure--

  3. My humour is no laughing matter.

  4. I have to admit that I've been tempted in the past to learn Russian just to be able to understand Russian jokes, but by now I have only mastered the Cyrillic alphabet :)

    Also, you said in an earlier reply that you were going to write about pre-war Stalinism (didn't you?). Maybe I missed it?

  5. Toyin, thanks. I'll have a look at your link.

  6. Duot, my apologies. I misunderstood; I thought we were taking about my forthcoming Mao blog. I have plenty here on pre-war Stalinism, including one on foreign policy. Type Stalin into the Lijit search. You should come up with plenty, but if there is something specific you would like me to write about do please ask.

  7. Just today I was walking outside the Campanile and a bunch of gay-hating Southern Baptist hypocrites were telling us how we were all going to Hell. The guy with the loudspeaker asks me, "where are you going when you die?" And I respond, "where all the interesting people are." He then yells back "why would you want to go to Hell?" And realizing just what he has done, he immediately becomes quiet, looks nervously at the crowd, and spends the next 30 minutes attempting to talk his way out of the mess I put him in with a single careless phrase! :-D

  8. No apologies needed :) I just stated that I thought that what the Soviet communists did in the pre-war period was quite impressive and wanted you to prove me wrong.

  9. OK, Duot, I take it you mean exclusively in the field of domestic economic policy? If not, let me know. I'll put my mind to this, so keep watching. :-)

  10. Margaret Thatcher dies and strolls up the pearly staircase to the pearly gates, where she is confronted by St. Peter, brandishing a clipboard. "Name," says St. Peter.
    "Margaret Thatcher," she replies.

    St. Peter checks through all the lists on his clipboard but cannot find the name of the former British leader. "I am sorry," he says, "you cannot come in. Your place is downstairs, in Hell. Mrs. Thatcher turns and walks down the stairs.

    A short time later the phone rings. St. Peter answers, and a voice says, "Hello Peter, it is the Devil speaking. You will have to take that bloody woman after all - she is only been here for ten minutes and she has closed half the furnaces to reduce capacity."