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You Have To Laugh

The late Brian Earls, in a sparkling essay in the drb some years ago on Russian jokes, recalled an occasion in the early 1990s when, on a climbing trip in the republic of Kabardina Balkaria, he spent a largely sleepless night in a mountain hut as his companions, all Russians, decided to stay awake so they could get an early start in climbing nearby Mt Elberus. To pass the time they started telling stories, or anekdoty. The tales were greeted with laughter, sometimes loud and uninhibited, at other times quieter and more knowing.

I lay on my bunk straining to understand, and to be admitted to some small share of the pleasure which the rest of the company evidently derived from the recitals. At first the rapid flow of speech and varying voices and styles proved impenetrable. When at last something began to cohere, to my surprise I seemed to be listening to a narrative in which a number of characters from Tolstoy’s War and Peace featured. While the presence of Natasha Rostova, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Bezukhov seemed improbable in this particular setting, the stylised and simplified tsarist Moscow which provided the setting for the anekdot left little doubt regarding the identity of the protagonists. Somewhat puzzlingly, alongside these familiar figures, another individual, Poruchik Rzhevsky, whom I could not recall from Tolstoy’s novel, was also a prominent actor in the laughter-provoking antics.
As the jokes flowed back and forth, with one speaker complementing another and occasional pauses in the succession of jests signalling some shift in joke type or focus, other characters joined Natasha and Poruchik on stage. In addition to Lenin, his unfaithful wife Krupskaya and her lover Felix Edmundovich (Dzerzhinsky), there was Vovochka the hooligan schoolboy, Chapaev the Red Army commander, Rabinovich the melancholy and unillusioned Jew, and Stirlitz, an adroit Soviet spy in Hitler’s Germany. These were joined by characters from the fiction of Turgenev and the poetry of Nicolai Nekrasov, Timur and his Band from the works of Arkady Gaidar, a popular children’s writer of the 1930s, Ilya Muromicz, Baba Yaga, and Ivanushka Durachok from the world of folktales, and a host of characters from Russian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, including such exotics as Winnie the Pooh, Holmes and Watson and even Mowgli, the hero of Kipling’s Jungle Book. Together with these named characters the jokes contained an interminable succession of students, policemen, army recruits, hunters and talking animals, together with an amiable ethnic carnival of Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, Estonians, Armenians, Jews and Chukchas (a Siberian people). Perhaps the most frequently encountered protagonists were an anonymous, but often surprisingly individualised, man and woman, who in jest after jest acted out a dialectic of good and bad manners, refined and coarse language, sobriety and drunkenness, and the confusions and hypocrisies of sexual desire. When towards dawn the narrators fell silent, it was clear that I had heard not an assortment of jokes, but rather glimpsed an entire world of stories, with its own cast of characters, cycles and conventions, themes and sub-genres.

When Russian jokes were discussed in the West, Earls continued, the emphasis tended to fall on their political content. But this was only part of the picture. In Stalinist times joke-tellers were among those swept into the Gulag: one could indeed die for laughing. Yet in the Brezhnev years, when repression had wound down or at least taken a less manic and murderous form, jokes about “the system” seemed to be everywhere. Nevertheless, certain conventions were to be observed. Those who came of age in the 1970s recalled learning in childhood, as one of those pieces of social information that help you negotiate the world, that jokes were to be told in small groups made up of people you knew and trusted and that political jokes were never to be recited in the presence of strangers. Such caution was not always observed of course, particularly when vodka was present, as it often was.

“The anekdoty of the final decades of the USSR,” Earls wrote, “were not so much anti-Soviet as standing in an oblique relationship to Soviet accounts of reality. By creating an alternative verbal universe, whose currency was laughter, they constituted a muted commentary on the hortatory and optimistic language of the state. The anekdoty did not contradict, or in most cases even explicitly engage with, public doctrine, but rather, by tactics of indirection, called the latter into question by the realism of their own vision.”

But if they called aspects of the regime into question they also seemed to display a stoic acceptance that that was how things were, perhaps even acting as a safety valve, allowing dissatisfaction to find a release and then dissipate through humour. This may be why there was a theory that many anekdoty were in fact composed by a special department of the KGB. It would certainly seem psychologically plausible that secret service agents – intelligent, skilled performers and inclined perhaps to risk-taking – would themselves enjoy telling such jokes. There would be the added frisson of attempting to distinguish between what was so daring and irreverent that one just had to laugh and what was so reckless and anti-socialist that it just had to be put on one’s personnel file. Some readers may remember an episode in the Florian von Donnersmarck film The Lives of Others which hinges on precisely this tension.

In the London Review of Books of December 15th Bernard Becker gives an account of his arrest in Weimar in 1965 after the Stasi had tracked him down as the man who had defaced a stamp featuring the head of party boss Walter Ulbricht affixed to a letter sent to a friend. Becker, who was eighteen at the time, was convicted of Staatsverleumdung, that is slander of the state, an offence against paragraph 220 of the Criminal Code. Though his eight-month jail sentence was suspended, he was expelled from his college architecture course and never returned.

Werner’s story prompted a letter from Jim Smyth, who also spent time in Berlin in the 1960s. He was lodging at the time in the West but at weekends would cross over to the East and stay on the sofa of a family he had befriended. At nights he would sometimes go to a dive bar in Prenzlauer Berg (now a fashionable and largely gentrified area), where initially he was treated with suspicion. Was he a Stasi spy? Perhaps, so many people were; but the Belfast accent didn’t seem to fit with this possibility. Eventually he was accepted by some of the bar’s patrons and one night one of them asked him to go outside with him. To fight? For sex? No, so that he could tell him a joke.

This granny writes a letter to her daughter in Dresden and goes to the post office for a stamp. Gets the stamp but it won’t stick to the letter. [Walter Ulbricht’s face was on all the stamps.] Back she goes to the desk. ‘This stamp won’t stick,’ she says. ‘Don’t be stupid of course it does,’ says the post office official. ‘You must be spitting on the wrong side.’

Bonus joke from Brian Earls: A guide is showing a group around a Soviet art gallery. She pauses before a painting of a bed, in which two pairs of feet are visible, announcing: “This is called Lenin in London.” One of the visitors points to a pair of feet and asks: “Whose are they?” “That’s Nadezhda Konstantinovna [Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya].” “And who’s that?” the visitor inquires, pointing to the second pair. “That’s Felix Edmundovich [Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka secret police].” “And where is Lenin?” asks the visitor. “Lenin is in London,” replies the guide.

Jim Smyth’s most recent essay for the drb, on the Cambridge spies and the genre of “treason studies”, is here: