[Paleopsych] Moscow Times: No Laughing Matter
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Wed Jul 27 20:39:19 UTC 2005
No Laughing Matter
Tiny Revolutions in Russia: Twentieth-Century Soviet and Russian
History in Anecdotes
By Bruce Adams
RoutledgeCurzon, 173 Pages. $97
The Soviet police state was probably one of the least funny regimes in
history, but the jokesters collected in Bruce Adams' book didn't see
things that way.
By Carl Schreck
Published: July 22, 2005
Educated as an engineer, Klava was working as a manicurist to pay the
bills while she waited for permission to leave Brezhnev's Soviet
Union. She was tending to her customers' fingernails one day when a
longtime client sauntered in and tried to move to the head of the
line. Klava explained that she would have to wait like everyone else,
and while she waited, Klava and her customers swapped political
wisecracks subverting popular Party slogans:
"When we say Lenin, we mean Party," they said. "When we say Party, we
mean Lenin. And this is how we deal with everything. We say one thing,
we mean something else."
After Klava had finished with her other customers, the unscheduled
client told a joke of her own: "There was a competition for the best
joke about Lenin. And the first prize is 10 years to where Lenin used
to go," meaning jail or exile. The client, it turned out, was a KGB
agent. "If I did not value you as my manicurist, I would send you for
10 years to where Lenin used to go," she said.
Klava was eventually allowed to emigrate, and the story appeared in an
article by anthropologist Elliott Oring last year. Still, the irony of
a KGB employee threatening the seditionist with a seditious joke
beautifully embodies not only the prevalence of political jokes in
Soviet society and the dangers associated with such humor, but the
cruel, arbitrary nature of the Soviet regime.
Jokes, or anekdoty, were indeed risky business in the Soviet Union,
Bruce Adams maintains in the introduction to "Tiny Revolutions in
Russia," his light if thoroughly entertaining recap of Soviet history
told through a mix of amusing, tragicomic, baffling and plain unfunny
jokes that will strike a familiar chord with any foreigner who has
shared a couple bottles of vodka with a table full of Russians.
George Orwell was the first to dub jokes "tiny revolutions," but it's
an especially fitting title for Adams' book, which reminds us that
humor can have very serious consequences when the joke is on a
totalitarian regime. The eight years Nobel laureate Alexander
Solzhenitsyn spent in prisons and labor camps came as punishment for
jokes he had made about Josef Stalin in his private correspondence,
Adams writes. "The anecdotes were necessarily underground humor shared
only with close friends."
The meat of "Tiny Revolutions" is divided into six chapters devoted to
leaders from different eras. Vladimir Lenin, Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev
and Leonid Brezhnev each get their own chapter, while Yury Andropov
and Konstantin Chernenko, the infirm symbols of the crumbling Soviet
gerontocracy, are forced to share, as are Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris
Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Embedded in Adams' historical accounts of
each period, the jokes address the absurdities of Soviet life and take
down the vanguard of the world revolution a notch or two.
Soviet and Russian jokes have often been subversive, mocking elites
from Lenin and Stalin to the New Russians of the 1990s.
The Lenin years, Adams explains, marked the first appearance of
Rabinovich, a staple Jewish character who can never quite find his
place in Soviet society, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was
supposed to have disappeared on the road to communism:
"When no African delegates showed up at a Comintern Congress, Moscow
wired Odessa [a very cosmopolitan port city with a large Jewish
population]: 'Send us a Negro immediately.'
"Odessa wired right back: 'Rabinovich has been dyed. He's drying.'"
Political jokes naturally continued in the Stalin era, lampooning
everything from shortages (especially of food), the First Five-Year
Plan and grandiose construction projects like the White Sea-Baltic
Canal, which saw hundreds of thousands of convicts dig 227 kilometers
of canal "with primitive tools in horrible conditions." Jokesters
appear to have been included in the work force:
"'Who built the White Sea-Baltic Canal?'
"'On the right bank -- those who told anecdotes, on the left bank --
those who heard them.'"
The funniest jokes in "Tiny Revolutions" are from the Khrushchev and
Brezhnev periods, not only because both leaders were ripe for mockery,
but also thanks to the political thaw that followed Stalin's death.
Adams dubs the era "the golden age of the anecdote."
The famously bald Khrushchev's meddling with agriculture policy is
best summed up by one joke from the "Armenian Radio" genre, in which a
quick-witted radio operator from Yerevan sticks it to the bosses in
"'What is Khrushchev's hair-style called?'
"[Armenian Radio]: 'The harvest of 1963.'"
Similarly, the Brezhnev-era jokes tend to ridicule the increasing
senility of His Eyebrowness:
"Brezhnev begins his official speech opening the 1980 Olympics: 'O! O!
"His aide interrupts him with a whisper: 'The speech starts below,
Leonid Ilich. That is the Olympic symbol.'"
But the Brezhnev chapter also includes a few gems about the rampant
paranoia of foreign spies and insidious Western propaganda:
"Because the BBC always seemed to know Soviet secrets so quickly, it
was decided to hold the next meeting of the Politburo behind closed
doors. No one was permitted in or out. Suddenly Kosygin grasped his
belly and asked permission to leave. Permission was denied. A few
minutes later there was a knock at the door. A janitress stood there
with a pail: 'The BBC just reported that Aleksei Nikolayevich shit
In a sharp departure from the earlier chapters, the funniest jokes
from the Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin section are not political at
all, but instead aimed at gaudy and ruthless New Russians. Take, for
instance, the New Russian equivalent of "Why did the chicken cross the
"Two new Russians meet on a Paris street. 'Look at this,' brags the
first, 'I just bought this Pierre Cardin tie for $300.'
"'Big deal,' retorts the other, 'I got the same tie yesterday for
The jokes in Tiny Revolutions are hit-or-miss throughout, but the
final chapter is somewhat anticlimactic. According to Adams, this is
because the political anecdote has essentially become obsolete due to
increased employment, a booming stock market and the declining rate of
poverty. It's not a particularly convincing causal link, nor an easy
idea to explain in just three paragraphs, which is all he devotes to
this provocative subject.
"Tiny Revolutions" offers too cursory an account of 20th-century
Russia to be considered an authoritative work of history, and with
less than 800 jokes, it's not exactly a comprehensive anthology. To
use basketball parlance, one might compare it to a "tweener" -- a
player too small to play under the basket yet lacking some of the
requisite skills to be effective from the perimeter.
But the happy medium that Adams strikes is exactly why his book works
so well. Despite a standard-issue academic binding that threatens to
induce sleep faster than a handful of Imovanes, "Tiny Revolutions"
deserves a better fate than to be relegated to dust-collecting duties
in Eastern European Studies sections of university libraries.
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