Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good onesby Ben Lewis / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!” He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world, Karl,” he says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”
“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor, “Why such a long queue?”
“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water…”
It was in Romania, while making a film about Ceausescu, that I first stumbled across the historical legacy of the communist joke. There I learned that a clerk from the Bucharest transport system, Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, had spent the last ten years of Ceausescu’s regime collecting political jokes. He noted down which joke he heard and when, and analysed his total of over 900 jokes statistically. He measured the time gap between a political event and a joke about that event, and then drew up a graph measuring the varying velocity of Romanian communist jokes. He was also able to assert—somewhat tenuously—that there was a link between jokes and the fall of Ceausescu, since jokes about the leader doubled in the last three years of the regime. The story of Stefanescu, the statistician of jokes, was, ironically, much funnier than the jokes themselves. It seemed to capture the prosaic reality of the little man struggling against the communist universe.
I was charmed. Soon my volume of Stefanescu’s Ten Years of Romanian Black Humour was joined by 30 or so other collections of communist jokes—such as Reinhard Wagner’s Jokes of East Germany Volume 1-2 (1994/96), and Hammer and Tickle (1980) by Petr Beckmann. The earliest volume I found, Humour Behind the Iron Curtain, was published in 1962 by the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, under the pseudonym Mischka Kukin. I wondered if Wiesenthal found communist jokes a diversion from the business of tracking down Nazis, or if they represented to him another struggle against injustice. I also came across a wonderfully overwritten PhD thesis by the Stanford anthropologist Seth Benedict Graham: A Cultural Analysis of the Russo-Soviet Anekdot (anekdot is the Russian word for a political joke). Graham’s earnest academic language suggests the standard theory of the joke as a tool of subversion: “An important reason for the anekdot’s pre-eminence was its capacity to outflank, mimic, debunk, deconstruct, and otherwise critically engage with other genres and texts of all stripes and at all presumed points on the spectrum from resistance to complicity.”
Graham gestures towards the Orwellian notion of the joke as “a tiny revolution.” Jokes were an essential part of the communist experience because the monopoly of state power meant that any act of non-conformity, down to a simple turn of phrase, could be construed as a form of dissent. By the same token, a joke about any facet of life became a joke about communism. There have been political and anti-authority jokes in every era, but nowhere else did political jokes cohere into an anonymous body of folk literature as they did under communism. With the creation of the Soviet bloc after the war, communism exposed itself to Czech and Jewish traditions of humour—mutating viruses to which the system never developed the right antibodies. Some jokes that were traceable back to the Austro-Hungarian empire found their apotheosis under communism—like this one about the Hungarian communist leader Matyas Rakosi: Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other “What do you think of Rakosi?” “I can’t tell you here,” he replies. “Follow me.” They disappear down a side street. “Now tell me what you think of Rakosi,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block. “OK here then.” “No, not here. It’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. “OK, now you can tell me what you think of our president.” “Well,” says the other, looking around nervously,”actually I quite like him.”
There’s another factor that reinforces the mode of covert protest in communist jokes—the way former citizens of the communist countries felt about them. I suggested to each interviewee that most of these jokes weren’t actually very funny, or at least had dated badly. How could they laugh at so many mediocre and repetitive jokes? They were outraged by the question. “Every week there was another great new joke. The strange thing is that you always asked: where do they come from? You never knew. The author was a collective—the people,” said Ernst Röhl, one of East Germany’s leading satirists. “I remember, as a student, when we had to gather the harvest and we told jokes incessantly,” I was told by Stefan Wolle, the author of Back in the GDR. “Then we sat in the pub until midnight telling jokes. Everyone had his special collection.” “Some of these jokes are minor masterpieces,” said Doina Doru, a Romanian proofreader who spent ten years checking that Ceausescu’s name was spelt correctly in the daily newspaper. “What is colder in a Romanian winter than cold water?” she continued by way of illustration, “Hot water!”
So far as I know, no one was executed for telling a joke. But people routinely went to prison. The archives of the Hungarian secret police are full of the dossiers of people arrested for telling them. Day in, day out, officers of the state were taking the time and trouble to track down joke-tellers, or going out of their way to add the evidence of joke-telling to other charges, and then handing out short sentences.
Perhaps the most emblematic story of the joke-as-resistance is a report of the prosecution of a joke-teller in Czechoslovakia in 1967, which I found in the archives of Radio Free Europe, the anti-communist cold war broadcaster. An arriving refugee brought the news that a worker in a liquor factory had been arrested for telling the following joke: Why is the price of lard not going up in Hungary? So that the workers can have lard on bread for their Sunday lunch.
The joke had been overheard by the party secretary of the factory, who immediately reported the worker. The joke-teller was arrested on charges of “Incitement and defamation against the People’s Democracy.” After six hearings, the employee was fired. The sentence was relatively lenient because the co-workers all stood by the employee, saying that the party secretary did not hear the introductory words of the joke-teller: I heard a very stupid joke yesterday…
The joke wasn’t very funny—the implication is that since there is no meat in the shops, Sunday roasts have been replaced by lard sandwiches. But the real story produces its own punchline. Communism was a humour-producing machine. Its economic theories and system of repression created inherently funny situations. There were jokes under fascism and the Nazis too, but those systems did not create an absurd, laugh-a-minute reality like communism.
Communist jokes were a way to criticise and outmanoeuvre the system, but they were also something more than this. They comprised a secret language between citizens—membership of a club to which the government was not invited (or so they thought).
The first jokes about the Russian revolution surfaced immediately after October 1917. In one, an old woman visits Moscow zoo and sees a camel for the first time. “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!” she exclaims. As the system became harsher, a distinctive communist sense of humour emerged—pithy, dark and surreal—but so did the legal machinery for repressing it. Historian Roy Medvedev looked through the files of Stalin’s political prisoners and concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, such as this: Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. “I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage,” says the first. “I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying,” says the second. “I am here because I got to work on time every day,” says the third, “and they charged me with owning a western watch.”
Yet there is an obvious problem with the idea that communist jokes represented an act of revolt: it wasn’t just opponents of the regime who told them. Stalin himself cracked them, including this one about a visit from a Georgian delegation: They come, they talk to Stalin, and then they go, heading off down the Kremlin’s corridors. Stalin starts looking for his pipe. He can’t find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded head of his secret police. “Go after the delegation, and find out which one took my pipe,” he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria—”Look, I’ve found my pipe.” “It’s too late,” Beria says, “half the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died during questioning.”
Stalin’s laughter underlines the cynicism of the Soviet enterprise. But after his death the joke trials petered out. One of Khrushchev’s first acts was to release all those imprisoned for minor political crimes, which included telling jokes. In his famous secret speech to the 20th party congress, Khrushchev cracked one too. He said that Stalin would have liked to have deported all the Ukrainians, but didn’t know where to put them. The stenographers recording the speech noted the reaction of the party—”laughter.”
In this new era, political leaders took the view that the jokes were a harmless way for people to let off steam. They believed that jokes would help people to cope with the hardships of the difficult stage of socialism, before the communist utopia arrived. They also imagined that the jokes could be used as an early warning system; problems indicated by humour could be tackled before they caused a revolution. Ilie Merce, a senior member of the Romanian Securitate, said that he used to file reports on the jokes—who was telling what—in order to convey the popular mood to the ministry of the interior.
Everyone told jokes, even the apparatchiks. Guenter Schabowski, the East German newspaper editor and later politburo member, told me: “At Neues Deutschland we told each other jokes in the canteen. We weren’t blind to the failings of the system, but we convinced ourselves that this was only because it was the early days and the class enemy was perpetrating sabotage. One day, we thought, all problems will be solved and there won’t be any more jokes because there won’t be anything to joke about.”
There were still occasional outbreaks of arrests for jokes in the 1960s and 1970s—usually linked to moments when the state felt vulnerable—when the Berlin wall was built or when there was another price hike. At these times, newspapers would publish “Outraged of Vladivostok” letters railing against the flood of jokes, like this one from Izvestia in 1964.
Dear Sir, Ten days ago I went to our savings bank. In front of the clerk’s window there were five people waiting for their turn. And while standing there I heard too much. There were two of them in front of me, well fed, healthy, and really well dressed… and in a public place and with an insolent casualness they were trying to outdo each other, swapping their “best” political jokes… How can I restrain myself in front of these “jokers,” who tell me mockingly a “new anecdote”? Nothing is sacred to them. They spit on everything!… We have to fight them; it is necessary to discredit, shame and dishonour them in front of honest people.
With deep respect, Nikolay Kuritsin, external student, Kadykchan village.
In the 1960s, the Soviet bloc was deluged by a flood of new jokes. There were around 20 subcategories. The most popular theme was the economy: One housewife to another: “I hear there’ll be snow tomorrow”—”Well, I’m not queuing for that.” There were jokes about Soviet propaganda: The capitalists are standing at the edge of the abyss. Soon communism will overtake capitalism. There were gags about Marxist-Leninist theory: Why is the individual placed in the centre of socialism? So it’s easy to kick him from all sides. There were jokes about communist art: What is the difference between painters of the naturalist, impressionist and the socialist realist schools? The naturalists paint as they see, the impressionists as they feel, the socialist realists as they are told. There were jokes about communist-style democracy: When was the first Russian election? The time that God put Eve in front of Adam and said, “Go ahead, choose your wife.” And, of course, there were Jewish communist jokes: “Hey Hymee, how’s your brother Joseph?” “He’s living in Prague and building socialism.” “And didn’t you have a sister, Judith—how’s she doing?” “She’s well too—living in Budapest and creating a communist future.” “And your older brother Bernie?” “Oh he moved to Israel.” “And is he building socialism there too?” “What, are you crazy? Do you think he’d do that in his own country?”
The point of this last gag seems to be not just to have a laugh at communism, but to shift the blame for it away from the central committees to the Jews. In other words, jokes could aid the system as well as undermine it. This, it seems, is what Graham’s thesis on the meaning of the anekdot was grasping for when it described a “spectrum from resistance to complicity.” A joke could be told about Stalin, or by Stalin; it could mock both the makers of the system and its victims. A joke could be an act of rebellion or a safety valve, an expression of revulsion against the system or of familiarity, even warmth towards it.
This is not to deny that the communist joke was often at its best in its dissident form. When Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, the population fought back with wit. Every night graffiti appeared in Wenceslas Square with lines like “Soviet State Circus back in town! New attractions!” and “Soviet School for Special Needs Children—End-of-Term Outing.” People cracked jokes: Why is Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? Because it doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs. And: Are the Russians our brothers or our friends? Our brothers—we can choose our friends. “We showed our intellectual superiority,” one former dissident told me proudly.
Jokes under communism were shaped by the cultures that produced them, as they are anywhere else. For the Czechs, a sense of humour encapsulated a type of national resilience. East German jokes, meanwhile, tended to be touchingly self-deprecating. And yet there was a pan-communist umbrella of comedy that stood above national distinctions, just as the international socialist project itself did. What ultimately defined the genre was less the purpose it served than its style. The communist joke was by nature deadpan and absurdist—because it was born of an absurd system which created a yawning gap between everyday experience and propaganda. Yet sometimes, through jokes, both communists and their opponents could carry on a debate about the failings of communism.
The logic of this discourse led to the strangest coded conflict, as the pages of the East German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel reveal. Eulenspiegel was founded in 1954 as the state’s official organ of humour. There were no censorship laws, as the East Germans were so proud of telling the west. Instead the editors had to guess what kind of jokes were permissible. Every week the magazine carried three or four pages of anti-imperialist humour, in which capitalists in top hats counted their money, GIs enslaved Africans and doves sat atop hammers and sickles. Eulenspiegel could also print anodyne comic critiques of daily life in East Germany, as long as they didn’t incriminate the politburo. Ernst Röhl was able to write things like this: Man doesn’t live from bread and ham alone. He needs something green. And green things have been in short supply for a long time. Cabbage has been more the subject of discussion than digestion. And the Adam’s apple is the closest one gets to fruit at the dinner table. But this year Mother Nature has been particularly green. Cucumbers are no longer the shoemaker’s bribe. Onions no longer raise laughs in cabaret sketches…
People like Röhl saw themselves, rather self-indulgently, as fifth columnists, eating away at the regime from the inside. But there were limits to permissible satire. Once the cover featured “young pioneers” with long hair—a decadent western fashion. The politburo was livid, but the magazine had already been sent out, so the police reclaimed all the copies they could from newsagents and post offices. Eulenspiegel once tried to make common cause with Pardon, its West German left-wing counterpart. After all, Pardon also attacked Adenauer and American imperialism. But the editors of Eulenspiegel were stung when Pardon rebuffed their advances, on the grounds that the communist satirists should criticise their own leader, Walter Ulbricht, the same way the capitalist ones went for theirs. The editors of Euelenspiegel printed a rebuttal entitled “How do we write about Walter Ulbricht?” in 1963: “We know from various reliable sources that President Ulbricht has a terrific sense of humour… [but] the transparency and virtue of our state makes it not only difficult but simply impossible to write a satire about its representatives. Where there is nothing to uncover, the satirist will find no material. So how do we satirists write about Walter Ulbricht?… We send our greetings and best wishes to the first secretary of the central committee. We wish comrade Ulbricht health, stamina and a long life.”
This article could have been satirical, but wasn’t. Rather, it occupies the strange socialist space where the serious and the humorous are identical. Eulenspiegel was the only place where serious criticism of the state could be published. Readers wrote in with complaints about their leaking prefab apartments and so on, and there was a column called Erledigt (Dealt With) which celebrated the grievances that the Eulenspiegel had managed to redress, and often came with printed apologies from factory managers and landlords. Nothing illustrates better the inverted reality of communism: real problems could only be presented in a context of laughter, presumably so that one could always claim one was only joking. In this realm, where humour turns out to be a complex social dance, the idea of the joke as simply subversive breaks down.
But on this side of the iron curtain, communist jokes were only interpreted as evidence of anti-communism; their wider significance was lost. In 1950-51, a group of Harvard anthropologists undertook one of the most influential research projects of the postwar era. The US government wanted to find out how Soviet citizens might react if the US invaded Russia. So the academics interviewed thousands of displaced Russian citizens living in camps in Germany. When asked to describe what Soviet society was like, the refugees told jokes: “Did you hear the one about the sheep who tried to leave the USSR? They were stopped at the border by a guard….” “Why do you wish to leave Russia?” the guard asked. “It’s the secret police,” replied the sheep. “Stalin has ordered them to arrest all the elephants.” “But you aren’t elephants.” “Try telling that to the secret police.”
In the 1950s, the New York Times Magazine would devote the odd page to jokes from the Harvard project. From the 1960s onwards, volumes of communist jokes were published in paperback form in Europe and North America. Willy Brandt was a renowned communist joke-teller, but there was one western politician who took the jokes more seriously than anyone else: Ronald Reagan. He ordered the state department to collect the jokes and send them to him in weekly memos. As a result, Paul Goble, head of the Balkan desk in the 1980s, assembled a collection of 15,000 communist jokes. Reagan often used Goble’s gags in his speeches and negotiations. When Gorbachev came to Washington, Reagan told him a communist joke, later boasting at a press conference that he had laughed. The joke, which made fun of the communist theory that a transitional era of socialism was preceding the communist utopia, went like this: Two men are walking down a street in Moscow. One asks the other, “Is this full communism? Have we really passed through socialism and reached full communism?” The other answers “Hell, no. It’s gonna get a lot worse first.”
Communism ground on into the 1970s. Brezhnev and his geriatric cronies gave rise to some new jokes (Brezhnev reads a speech at the Winter Olympics “O-O-O-O-O.” “No,” his aide whispers to him, “that’s the Olympic logo.”) And the technology gap gave rise to others: The latest achievements of the East German electronics company Robotron were celebrated—they built the world’s largest microchip. Meanwhile the state was seemingly less worried by the jokes. In Poland, the most liberal regime of them all, they even permitted communist jokes on television.
Jokes did not bring down communism. That was achieved by the nonsense of its economic policies, and by the decisions of the leaders of the superpowers, east and west—in the case of Reagan, by pricing the Soviets out of the arms race; in the case of Gorbachev by glasnost and perestroika. This much is well known—what isn’t is the significance both leaders attached to communist jokes. Gorbachev knew the jokes, and like his predecessors, he told them. You can’t imagine Stalin or Khrushchev telling a joke about his own unpopularity, but Gorbachev did. In 1996 he appeared on the Clive Anderson show in Britain and told this one, whose lineage can be traced back through the 20th century: A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”
Gorbachev and his aides talked openly about the jokes. In 1989 he told a crowd of workers, “political jokes were our salvation,” a reference to the way the jokes let out frustrations and debunked propaganda. As the first reforms faltered, one of his ministers warned him that if the new laws didn’t work “the people would return to the bottle and the political joke.” One could even argue that Gorbachev’s policies liberalising the economy, press and politics were addressing the implicit complaints of decades of jokes.
Exactly how communist jokes functioned politically, socially or psychologically is a question as complex as the meaning of works of art. What is self-evident, however, is that since the fall of the wall the jokes have dried up. Life just isn’t as funny any more. The vast enterprise of communism gave a universal quality to the meaning of the jokes that hasn’t been replicated since its collapse. They subverted and they supported; they undermined and they prolonged. As Gorbachev’s respect for the jokes and Reagan’s obsession with them show, they were intrinsic to the whole communist experience. Jokes were to communism what myths were to ancient Greece: anonymous, oral stories which both represented and shaped people’s views and actions.
Jokes may not have carried the weight of the great forces which ended communism, but they were more than mere figures of speech. Jokes kept alive in the minds of the citizens of the Soviet bloc the idea of an alternative reality, and they made light of four decades of occupation of eastern and central Europe. They may even explain why the end of communism was so sudden and so bloodless. No point anyone getting hurt over a little joke, right?