Russian political jokes
Type of jokePolitical joke
Target of jokeRussian politicians, Soviet politicians
Language(s)Russian, English

Russian political jokes are a part of Russian humour and can be grouped into the major time periods: Imperial Russia, Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. In the Soviet period political jokes were a form of social protest, mocking and criticising leaders, the system and its ideology, myths and rites.[1] Quite a few political themes can be found among other standard categories of Russian joke, most notably Rabinovich jokes and Radio Yerevan.[citation needed]

Russian Empire[edit]

In Imperial Russia, most political jokes were of the polite variety that circulated in educated society. Few of the political jokes of the time are recorded, but some were printed in a 1904 German anthology.[2]

There were also numerous politically themed Chastushki (Russian traditional songs) in Imperial Russia.

In Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, the fictional author of the "Foreword", Charles Kinbote, cites the following Russian joke:

He comments on the uncanny linguistic parallelism between the English-language "crown-crow-cow" and the Russian "korona–vorona–korova".[3]

Soviet Union[edit]

In the Soviet Union, telling political jokes could be regarded as a type of extreme sport: according to Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), "anti-Soviet propaganda" was a potentially capital offense.

Ben Lewis claims that the political conditions in the Soviet Union were responsible for the unique humour produced there;[5][4] according to him, "Communism was a humour-producing machine. Its economic theories and system of repression created inherently amusing situations. There were jokes under fascism and the Nazis too, but those systems did not create an absurd, laugh-a-minute reality like communism."

Early Soviet times[edit]

Jokes from these times have a certain historical value, depicting the character of the epoch almost as well as long novels might.

Communism[edit]

According to Marxist–Leninist theory, communism in the strict sense is the final stage of evolution of a society after it has passed through the socialism stage. The Soviet Union thus cast itself as a socialist country trying to build communism, which was supposed to be a classless society.

Satirical verses and parodies made fun of official Soviet propaganda slogans.

Punchline variant #1: Rabinovich notes: "I would prefer it the other way round."
Variant #2: "What a coincidence: Brezhnev has died, but his body lives on". (An allusion to Brezhnev's mental feebleness coupled with the medically assisted staving off of his death. Additional comedic effect in the second variant is produced by the fact that the words 'cause' (delo) and 'body' (telo) rhyme in Russian.)
The winter's passed,
The summer's here.
For this we thank
Our party dear!

Russian:

Прошла зима,
настало лето.
Спасибо партии
за это!

(Proshla zima, nastalo leto / Spasibo partii za eto!)

Some jokes allude to notions long forgotten. These relics are still funny, but may look strange.

A: As you know, under communism, the state will be abolished, together with its means of suppression. People will know how to self-arrest themselves.
The original version was about the Cheka. To fully appreciate this joke, a person must know that during the Cheka times, in addition to the standard taxation to which the peasants were subjected, the latter were often forced to perform samooblozhenie ("self-taxation") – after delivering a normal amount of agricultural products, prosperous peasants, especially those declared to be kulaks were expected to "voluntarily" deliver the same amount again; sometimes even "double samooblozhenie" was applied.
Q: How do you deal with mice in the Kremlin?
A: Put up a sign saying "collective farm". Then half the mice will starve, and the rest will run away.[7]

This joke is an allusion to the consequences of the collectivization policy pursued by Joseph Stalin between 1928 and 1933.

Q: What does it mean when there is food in the town but no food in the country?
A: A Left, Trotskyite deviation.
Q: What does it mean when there is food in the country but no food in the town?
A: A Right, Bukharinite deviation.
Q: What does it mean when there is no food in the country and no food in the town?
A: The correct application of the general line.
Q: And what does it mean when there is food both in the country and in the town?
A: The horrors of Capitalism.

This is another joke about how disastrous the consequences of collectivisation were on Russia's food supply, how Trotsky wanted to treat peasants harshly to uplift workers, Bukharin vice versa, and how capitalist countries were still faring well in spite of this.[8]

Gulag[edit]

Gulag Archipelago[edit]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book Gulag Archipelago has a chapter entitled "Zeks as a Nation", which is a mock ethnographic essay intended to "prove" that the inhabitants of the Gulag Archipelago constitute a separate nation according to "the only scientific definition of nation given by comrade Stalin". As part of this research, Solzhenitsyn analyzes the humor of zeks (gulag inmates). Some examples:[11]

Censorship[edit]

Armenian Radio[edit]

The Armenian Radio or "Radio Yerevan" jokes have the format, "ask us whatever you want, we will answer you whatever we want". They supply snappy or ambiguous answers to questions on politics, commodities, the economy or other subjects that were taboo during the Communist era. Questions and answers from this fictitious radio station are known even outside Russia.

A: A capitalist fairy tale begins, "Once upon a time, there was...." A Marxist fairy tale begins, "Some day, there will be...."
A: Yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, "Down with Ronald Reagan," and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in Red Square in Moscow and yell, "Down with Ronald Reagan," and you will not be punished.
A: Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.[12]

Pravda and Izvestia[edit]

From the 1960s until the early 1980s, the Soviet Union had only three newspapers: the Pravda ("Truth"), the Izvestia ("News"), and the Krasnaya Zvezda ("Red Star").[13] All three were controlled and censored by the government,[13] leading Soviet citizens to joke: 'There's no news in "Truth", and there's no truth in "News".'[14] (Russian: В « Правде » нет известий , а в « Известиях » нет правды[14], romanizedV « Pravde » net izvestij , a v « Izvestijah » net pravdy). Variant translations include: 'In the Truth there is no news, and in the News there is no truth'.[13]

Political figures[edit]

Lenin[edit]

A group of khodoki (petitioners) come to make a request of Lenin; such meetings were often depicted in propaganda stories about Lenin, and in jokes making fun of such stories.

Jokes about Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, typically made fun of characteristics popularized by propaganda: his supposed kindness, his love of children (Lenin never had children of his own), his sharing nature, his kind eyes, etc. Accordingly, in jokes Lenin is often depicted as sneaky and hypocritical. A popular joke set-up is Lenin interacting with the head of the secret police, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, in the Smolny Institute, the seat of the revolutionary communist government in Petrograd, or with khodoki, peasants who came to see Lenin.

Stalin[edit]

Joseph Stalin

Jokes about Stalin usually refer to his paranoia and contempt for human life. Stalin's words are typically pronounced with a heavy Georgian accent.

Khrushchev[edit]

"Khrushchev demands: overthrow Adenauer; now more than ever CDU"

Jokes about Nikita Khrushchev often relate to his attempts to reform the economy, especially to introduce maize (corn). He was even called kukuruznik ('maizeman'). Other jokes target the crop failures resulting from his mismanagement of agriculture, his innovations in urban architecture, his confrontation with the US while importing US consumer goods, his promises to build communism in 20 years, or simply his baldness and crude manners. Unlike other Soviet leaders, in jokes Khrushchev is always harmless.

Brezhnev[edit]

Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev was depicted as dim-witted, senile, always reading his speeches from paper, and prone to delusions of grandeur.

Quite a few jokes capitalized on the cliché used in Soviet speeches of the time: "Dear Leonid Ilyich."

Geriatric leadership[edit]

During Brezhnev's time, the leadership of Communist Party became increasingly geriatric. By the time of his death in 1982, the median age of the Politburo was 70. Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, died in 1984. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985. Rabinovich said he did not have to buy tickets to the funerals, as he had a subscription to these events. As Andropov's bad health became common knowledge (he was eventually attached to a dialysis machine), several jokes made the rounds:

Gorbachev[edit]

Mikhail Gorbachev was occasionally mocked for his poor grammar, but perestroika-era jokes usually made fun of his slogans and ineffective actions, his birth mark ("Satan's mark"), Raisa Gorbacheva's poking her nose everywhere, and Soviet-American relations.

― Why are the meatballs cube-shaped?
Perestroika! (restructuring)
― Why are they undercooked?
Uskoreniye! (acceleration)
― Why have they got a bite out of them?
Gospriyomka! (state approval)
― Why are you telling me all this so brazenly?
Glasnost! (openness)

Washington region committee[edit]

- Ronnie, what happened?
- My dear, I've had a nightmare. It's the twenty-sixth CPSU congress and Brezhnev says: 'Dear comrades, we have listened to reports about situation in Bryansk and Oryol regions. Now, let's listen to the First Secretary of the Washington CPSU committee, comrade Reagan.' And you know what? I have not prepared![22]

"The Soviet Union is the homeland of elephants"[edit]

In its declaration of national glories, the Soviet government claimed at various times, such as through Pravda publications, to have invented the airplane, steam engine, radio, and lightbulb, and promoted the pseudoscientific agricultural claims of Lysenko as part of Stalinist pseudohistory.[23][24] This was joked about in the phrase "Homeland of Elephants [ru]" from the early 1940s, sardonically claiming that the Soviet Union was also the birthplace of elephants.[24][25] An anecdote from Andrei Sakharov includes "(1) classics of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism on elephants; (2) Russia, the elephants' homeland, (3) the Soviet elephant, the world's best elephant (4) the Belorussian elephant, the Russian elephant's little brother."[25]

The joke has persisted in the form of "Russia is the homeland of elephants" (Russian: Россия – родина слонов.)[23]

KGB[edit]

Symbol of the KGB

Telling jokes about the KGB was considered to be like pulling the tail of a tiger.

Quite a few jokes and other humour capitalized on the fact that Soviet citizens were under KGB surveillance even when abroad:

Daily Soviet life[edit]

Some jokes ridiculed the level of indoctrination in the Soviet Union's education system:

Quite a few jokes poke fun at the permanent shortages in various shops.

A subgenre of the above-mentioned type of joke targets long sign-up queues for certain commodities, with wait times that could be counted in years rather than weeks or months.

The above joke was famously mentioned by US President Ronald Reagan multiple times.[28]

Russian Federation[edit]

From at least 2015, it is common in Russia to joke about the "battle between the television and the refrigerator (битва холодильника с телевизором)."[30][31] This refers to the balance between state media and actual living conditions in Russia: whether state propaganda on TV is able to overcome the presence of empty fridges.[32]

Boris Yeltsin[edit]

Boris Yeltsin

Jokes about Boris Yeltsin commonly revolved around the economic shocks caused by privatisation, the rapid democratisation of the Russian political scene, and corruption and authoritarianism by Yeltsin's government.

Vladimir Putin[edit]

Many draw parallels between Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin: his opponents do it accusingly, while neo-Stalinists proudly. Many jokes about past Soviet leaders are retold about Putin:[41]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Davies, Christie (2007). "Humour and Protest: Jokes under Communism". International Review of Social History. 52: 291–305. doi:10.1017/S0020859007003252. JSTOR 26405495. S2CID 146755591.
  2. ^ Наум Синдаловский (2005). Романовы. Судьба династии глазами фольклора (in Russian). Петербургский Час пик.
  3. ^ Alexandra Berlina (2014). Brodsky Translating Brodsky: Poetry in Self-Translation. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 120. ISBN 9781623561734.
  4. ^ a b Ben Lewis (2008) "Hammer and Tickle", ISBN 0-297-85354-6 (a review online)
  5. ^ "Hammer & tickle", Prospect Magazine, May 2006, essay by Ben Lewis on jokes in Communist countries,
  6. ^ Миша Мельниченко, "Советский анекдот. Указатель сюжетов", item no. 25.
  7. ^ A review of the Ben Lewis book, economist.com
  8. ^ Koestler, Arthur (September 15, 2015). The Invisible Writing (Kindle ed.). PFD Books. pp. 844–882. ISBN 978-1409018735.
  9. ^ a b c Gullotta, Andrea (2014). Gulag Humour: Some Observations on Its History, Evolution, and Contemporary Resonance (PDF). pp. 89–110.
  10. ^ "Становление личности сквозь террор и войну", by Grigory Pomerants, Вестник Европы, 2010, no. 28-29
  11. ^ Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, Ch. 19, "Zeks as a Nation"
  12. ^ a b c d e f g One Hundred Russian Jokes
  13. ^ a b c Kuypers, Jim A. (2013). Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 10. ISBN 9781442225947. Retrieved 4 June 2023.
  14. ^ a b Novak, Nancy (1998). Ultimate Russian: Basic-intermediate. Living Language. p. 388. ISBN 9780517882849. Retrieved 4 June 2023.
  15. ^ "Graham, Seth (2004) A Cultural Analysis of the Russo-Soviet Anekdot. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh" (PDF).
  16. ^ Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2003). Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Orion Books. ISBN 978-1780228358.
  17. ^ Lipman, Masha (7 September 2012). "Angry Putin, With Birds". The New Yorker. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  18. ^ von Geldern, James. "Soviet Anecdotes". Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Michigan State University. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  19. ^ Timothy, Heritage (6 February 2014). "Olympics-At Sochi Games, Putin evokes spirit of 1980". Reuters. London. Archived from the original on 15 June 2018. Retrieved 24 December 2023.
  20. ^ Musiyezdov, Oleksiy (2 February 2022). "National and Geopolitical Identities and Attitudes to Decommunisation in Dnipro and Kharkiv". E-International Relations. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  21. ^ Валерий Смирнов, "Умер-шмумер, лишь бы был здоров!: как говорят в Одессе" , 2008, ISBN 9668788613, p. 147
  22. ^ "Анекдоты Рональд Рейган" (in Russian). Archived from the original on 2017-01-28.
  23. ^ a b Berdy, Michele A. (2016-02-05). "Russia's Long Romance with Patriotism". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 2021-11-20.
  24. ^ a b Figes, Orlando (2002-10-21). Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. Henry Holt and Company. p. 508. ISBN 978-0-8050-5783-6.
  25. ^ a b Brooks, Jeffrey (2021-04-13). Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War. Princeton University Press. pp. 214–215. ISBN 978-1-4008-4392-3.
  26. ^ Adams, Bruce (2005). Tiny Revolutions in Russia: Twentieth Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes. New York and London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 69. ISBN 0-415-35173-1.
  27. ^ Pelevin, Victor (1994). "Sleep". A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories. Translated by Bromfield, Andrew. New York: New Directions Publishing. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-8112-1543-5. So one day, when he fell asleep at a lecture, Nikita tried telling a joke of his own in reply. He deliberately chose the shortest and most simple one, about an international violinists' competition in Paris. He almost got through it, but stumbled right at the very end and started talking about Dnepropetrovsk geysers instead of Dzerzhinsky's mauser.
  28. ^ Ronald Reagan tells a joke about buying a car in the Soviet Union, retrieved 2023-05-08
  29. ^ Parenti, Michael (1997). Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. City Lights Publishers. p. 116.
  30. ^ Kolesnikov, Andrei (2015-10-25). "Russia's War: Fridge vs. TV". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 2022-05-29.
  31. ^ Телевизор против холодильника, Ekho Moskvy, February 17, 2016 Archived July 9, 2021, at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ The TV vs the fridge: A Russian joke shows why Putin's propaganda isn't working on his own people, Business Insider
  33. ^ a b c d e f Zlobin, Nikolai. "Humor as Political Protest" (PDF). Demokratizatsiya. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  34. ^ Draitser, Emil A. "Folk Humor of Post-Soviet Russia: a Survey". University of Kansas. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  35. ^ Bershidsky, Leonid (21 September 2018). "The Real Point of Russian (and Soviet) Jokes (Op-ed)". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 31 December 2023.
  36. ^ Daniela S. Hristova , "Negotiating Reality with Anekdoty: Soviet vs. Post-Soviet Humor Lore", Russian Language Journal, vol. 58, issue 1, 2008
  37. ^ Gentleman, Amelia (2 June 2001). "Heard the one about Putin?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  38. ^ "На «России 1» рассказали анекдот про Путина, который угощает всех за счет заведения. Правда, Путина заменили на главу Минфина" [Joke about Putin, in which he treats everyone on the owner's expense, told on Russia-1. The truth is, Putin was replaced by the Minister of Finance]. Meduza (in Russian). 16 April 2020. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  39. ^ a b c Mandraud, Isabelle (5 April 2022). "Dark Soviet satire manages to circumvent censorship". Le Monde. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  40. ^ Khrushcheva, Nina (12 November 2015). "The Return of a Political Anecdote: Ten Jokes About Vladimir Putin's Russia". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  41. ^ "Communist jokes - Funny bones", The Economist

Sources[edit]

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