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The Sea of Anecdotes

Brian Earls

Books referred to in this article: Sovetskii Siouz v Zerkale Politichkogo Anekdota / The Soviet Union Through the Prism of Political Anecdote, by Dora Shturman and Sergei Tictin, 543 pp, ISBN 5859600010x; Hammer and Tickle: the History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes, by Ben Lewis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 354 pp, ISBN: 978-0279853541

There can come a moment in the experience of travel when a shift in understanding occurs – that instant when, as it were, the curtains begin to part – as a previously elusive society seems to reveal something essential about itself. I experienced one such moment on a summer evening in the early 1990s. Together with a Moscow friend, I had gone on a walking holiday and found myself spending the night in a mountain hut in the southern Russian republic of Kabardino Balkaria. Apart from myself, the remainder of the company, a group of about six climbers, were Russians. I had at that time been living in Moscow for about a year, and was slowly and with an effort that was scarcely matched by the meagre results, making my way into the beguiling but unyielding Russian language. I and my companion were mere hill walkers, but the others in the hut were serious climbers, who the following day planned to climb the nearby Mount Elberus. As this involved setting out before sunrise, and thus before the summer heat had begun to melt the snow, the climbers were not inclined to sleep. Instead they passed the time exchanging what they called anekdoty. It was evident that these must be jokes, as in the darkened hut the speakers were regularly greeted with laughter. While occasionally this was loud and heartfelt, more often it was knowing and subdued and seemed to imply some complicity between narrator and audience. The laughter was, it seemed clear, an essential component of the occasion, encouraging performers to embark on new jests and prompting the previously silent into speech.

While this merriment was afoot, 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, who 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.

The origin of Russian jokes seems uncertain. While some trace them back to the rich folklore of laughter of the tsarist era, others argue that they are linked to the specificities of the Soviet experience, to the ending of the freedoms that existed as late as the period of the New Economic Policy, and to the gap between the inflated language of the new state and the banalities of daily existence. When viewed through Western eyes, as in Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle: the History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes, the emphasis has tended to fall on their political content. While such a reading has its obvious truth, and it is well attested that anekdotchiki (joke-tellers) were among those swept into the Gulag, it risks distortion by privileging a single category. Once the Stalinist fury had exhausted itself, the state seems to have taken little interest in those who told jokes – or at least resigned itself to the inevitability of such mockery – and accounts of the Brezhnev years speak of jokes as an amiable and ever present feature of the urban scene.

Certain conventions were nonetheless observed. Those who came of age in the 1970s recall 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. In the USSR vodka was an accompaniment of all kinds of sociability, with the result that prudence could be eroded, as with every drink narrators grew more daring until caution was largely thrown to the winds. It was not, however, totally discarded; in such circumstances a narrator might engage in a precautionary manoeuvre, ostentatiously interrupting the flow of anekdoty to address a (presumed) listening device concealed in the corner of the room. The unseen listener might be the recipient of a brisk “Slava KPSS” (Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) or be assured: “We have everything we want. We are very happy.”

As the listening device was imaginary, for it would have been impossible to have monitored every apartment in Moscow, an undertaking which could only have only have told the authorities what they already knew, the aversion-of-evil formula was itself a jest. It was, as it were, an acknowledgment that the jokes were at once part of the scheme of things and incompatible with official rhetoric. The anekdoty of the final decades of the USSR 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.

The anekdoty had their self-reflective aspects. One told of a competition in which the prize for the best joke would be ten years in prison, the second prize a tour of places associated with Lenin (Siberia), and the third a meeting with Lenin (execution). Although at such moments they might have appeared subversive, viewed through Soviet eyes they had their reassuring aspect. Not only did they not openly question the architecture of power, but the minutiae of Soviet life, which constituted the background to their narratives, were assumed to be normative. This ambiguity was reflected in a conceit of the time, which held that the anekdoty were produced by a special department of the KGB. (A friend whom I asked if he had ever invented a joke immediately replied: “I’m not a KGBshnik.”) The muted admiration extended to the KGB did not embrace those lower down in the power chain. A man with a few drinks taken tried to tell a joke to a member of the militia. The latter bridled. “Do you not know I’m a militia man,” he said. “Don’t worry,” replied the other, “I’ll tell it to you twice.” Although those in authority may have smiled at the unending jokes of their citizens, their sober view is likely to have been that, unlike earlier cultural forms which could be appropriated, these were unamenable and could not be accommodated within a stylised and formulaic official discourse. It must have been for this reason that the jokes were an entirely oral form.

There were of course occasional individuals, such as Sergei Tichtin, who began collecting as early as 1956, who wrote down jokes which came their way. It was, however, only possible for Tichtin to publish the material he had collected following his emigration to Israel in 1977. For those who remained behind, the outcome of their curiosity and desire to document were manuscripts or typescripts known only to the individual collector or to a small circle of friends. These collections could be seen as resembling the manuscript songbooks compiled during the same period. The latter recorded courtyard songs, a narrative genre of deep romantic impulses, which were immensely popular in the 1950s and 60s among young people living in the apartment blocks of the big cities. The songs, which chronicled love affairs and conflicts between hooligans and the militia, but also exotica such as the adventures of cowboys or of sailors in Marseille bars, were disliked by the young people’s organisation Komsomol, which resented the private nature of their imaginings and their indifference to the political. In the Soviet period, when the state possessed a monopoly on printing and distribution, anekdoty, like courtyard songs, were a tolerated but subterranean form, which were not admitted to print. The exclusion of anekdoty extended even to places, such as the comic journal Krokodil, where they might not have seemed out of place. Although the latter carried translations of Western jokes, it found no room in its columns for the domestic item.

In the early 1990s, following the ending of the Soviet Union, in what may well be the last example Europe will witness of an extensive oral genre making such a transition, jokes exploded into printed form. During those years anekdoty were everywhere. Collections, extending from flimsy, cheaply printed items of about thirty pages to substantial hardbacks of several hundred pages, were to be encountered on the stalls in Moscow metro stations and the city’s underpasses. Such was the demand, and, as it seemed, the unending supply of new material that, if one chanced to pass by a week later, what one would have seen before would have been replaced by new collections. (During that period, having decided to buy anything new that I happened to see while travelling by metro, I assembled a collection of over eight hundred items.) Like earlier oral genres, such as fairytales and legends, that had been flattened into print, the result of this process was a loss of context, as the personality of the narrator and the response of the audience alike disappeared and performance became text. It was also observed that mat – vulgar or obscene language – which was a feature of some categories of anekdot, had been largely edited out. In spite of such losses, the collections proved immensely popular, and it was a common sight in the metro to see people reading anekdoty they had just bought.

For those who liked telling jokes, there were obvious advantages to this situation. While previously narrators had been dependent for new material on their circle of friends, workmates and chance acquaintances, so that to encounter a really good new joke was in its own small way something of an event, now the supply seemed unending. Following a well known pattern, these printed items were promptly recycled orally, with the qualities that print had stripped away once again reinserted. In the mid-1990s, if you asked where someone had first heard a joke, while you might be told that it was at school, or in the army, or from a friend, it was also not uncommon to learn that they had read it some days previously. Although these retold printed jokes were to all appearances indistinguishable from the host of other anekdoty which provided their setting, the inflation of the market to which they testified was disruptive. The supply of old jokes proved, predictably enough, to be finite, and it was soon observed that the joke books were repeating each other’s material, with the same jests turning up again and again. By the end of the decade Moscow friends were reporting fewer jokes being told, while a walk across the city revealed that, although new joke books were to be found, compared to the previous flood their number had fallen conspicuously.

The tradition of laughter, which underwent this unexpected mutation in the 1990s, had its roots in an earlier Russia. Visitors to Moscow in the early 1980s were struck by the quietness of the city at night, with its empty streets and squares and the absence of the familiar bars and restaurants of Western cities. Westerners who prolonged their stay – notably exchange students in Moscow’s many third level institutions – quickly discovered that this appearance was deceptive and that behind the city’s dead facade was a social life of considerable variety and liveliness. The world they encountered was immensely sociable but, lacking convivial public spaces, conducted much of its private life in the kitchens of the apartment blocks of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. It was in these intimate settings that anekdoty found their most characteristic forum. They were not, however, confined to it. Moscow university students liked to boast that there were more good jokes to be heard in the fil fak of MGU (the Philological Faculty of Moscow State University) than anywhere else in Russia. In truth they were everywhere: they were told among schoolchildren, relieved the boredom of army service and could be heard during breaks at work and chance encounters such as railway journeys. The common feature was that people had time on their hands, were in good humour and disposed to give and receive pleasure.

The social world of the Brezhnev period was still intact when I lived in Moscow in the early and mid-1990s. It is true that the Soviet Union had gone, there was a famous McDonalds on Pushkin Square and numerous bars, casinos and night clubs scattered throughout the city. However, because of misjudgments at the time the command economy was brought to an end, and the disastrous consequences of these errors for the wellbeing of huge swathes of Russian society meant that these were not places where ordinary Muscovites tended to go. While they might, out of curiosity, have made their way once or twice to McDonalds, the other venues were regarded as haunts of the much derided novye russkie/New Russians, and socialising continued to take place in traditional settings. It was there that, shortly after my return from Kabardino Balkaria, I began recording anekdoty in as purposeful and consistent a way as I could manage. This proved surprisingly easy. Jesters, like other narrators, are performers who are looking for an audience and a tape recorder was an audience of a kind. Moreover, friends and acquaintances proved surprisingly indulgent of a foreigner learning Russian and were willing not only to tell their jokes, but to repeat them until I came close to something like understanding. Very soon the tapes began to accumulate like empty beer bottles. It is upon these recordings, made over a number of years, that the generalisations offered in this essay are based. The anekdoty which I recorded thus relate to a specific time and place, and give evidence of a particular moment – seen through the eyes of about twenty different people – in Russia’s long comic tradition. The account given of that time and place depends of course on my ability to pick up the nuances of what I heard: it goes without saying that a huge tentativeness is called for in trying to interpret a culture that is not one’s own.

Although some Russians complain of their inability to remember jokes, I was lucky that there were few of these among my friends. The latter could, to all appearances, narrate endlessly, as one anekdot provoked the recollection of another. There was Ararat A, who had gone to over two hundred films in the first months after his arrival in Moscow from Armenia in the late 1980s and whose knowledge of Soviet cinema was both encyclopedic and subtle. There was Valery I, an instructor from Moscow State University, who was obsessed with the fate of the Russian intelligentsia and could talk with learned passion on the history of fenia, a criminal argot which infiltrated the mainstream language when thieves and intelligentsia met in Stalin’s camps. There was Mikhail L from Tambov, who turned the day’s events into small epics and whose speech was crowded with proverbs, scraps of verse, miniature improvisations and formulae for all kinds of situations. Although his education had been hazardous, Misha could recite parodies of Pushkin and, having had certain difficulties in the past, prided himself on his command of fenia. There was Tatanya M, whose account of an elderly performer of chastushki (sung verse quatrains) she had known in her youth led to a haunting description of the imposition of collectivisation in her father’s native village in Ukraine and the famine which followed. Although they overlapped, the anekdoty of such individuals reflected a particular set of interests and cast of mind and were explicated in terms of the speaker’s life experience. Those experiences were, in one way or another, inseparable from the recently vanished USSR.

Citizens of the southern republics of the USSR were given to telling one of the immense hospitality of their home areas, while in standard accounts Russians were famous for their depth of soul. Russians abroad, I was assured, feel an intense yearning for their homeland. Such indeed, my informant added with his tongue firmly in his cheek, is the strength of their feelings, that Russians experience nostalgia for Russia even when they are in the country. Moscow in the mid-1990s was pervaded by nostalgia for the Soviet Union, a wistful and at times complex looking back by those who had lived most of their lives within its framework and could scarcely believe that it was gone. During those years it seemed that a conversation on almost any topic, from football to family life, was likely to conclude, irrespective of the starting point, with an observation by one’s Russian interlocutor on how different things were in Soviet times. Although there was no regret for the ending of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, a topic on which most people seemed indifferent, the sense one drew from such conversations was that among Russians there had been no mandate for the ending of the socialist system.

“Did you live better or worse under the USSR?” I asked a woman colleague. “It is hard to say whether it was better or worse,” she replied, “but we certainly lived differently.” More typical was a Russian from Central Asia who demanded: “How would you feel, to wake up one morning and discover that three men in a house in the woods had decided that your country no longer exists?” Such sentiments were, it seemed, not principally a matter of imperial regret, or even hankering for a system in which Russians were the top dogs. The regret was of a more intimate kind, for a set of arrangements that had provided a minimum of comfort and had made life meaningful for many. Viewed from the desolate perspective of post-privatisation Russia, whose health and education systems were in disarray, and where wages and pensions were paid only intermittently, the world which had existed before it was turned upside down by Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Gaidar could only seem a reassuring place. When in the early 1990s the Gaidar government issued vouchers – a new noun for Russians – to allow ordinary citizens a share in the privatization process, voucher promptly became a synonym for penis, while the government slogan vlojite svoi voucher (invest your voucher) was understood as referring to a quite different activity.

As the jokes of the 1990s had as their setting the major loci of Soviet life, from communal apartments and work brigades to saunas and parks of culture and recreation, their recital was of its nature a miniature memorialising of that world. They were, moreover, so dense with local vocabulary, references, and assumptions, that very frequently the telling of the joke had to be followed by a set of explanations which, in their own small way, amounted to a sociology of Soviet life. One figure who seemed to require little by way of explanation was the founder of the USSR. The Lenin of the anekdoty was, however, not quite the Vladimir Ilyich of the history books and could be seen as a set of disrespectful elaborations which had their origin in the Lenin of state propaganda. During the Brezhnev years, to judge by public iconography, the earlier presentation of Lenin as an implacable Bolshevik, whose telegrams had ordered death and who had been celebrated by Stalin as his teacher, guide and friend, while not disavowed, had been pushed to one side in favour of a gentler image. Late Soviet Lenin was a comfortable grandfather figure, a thoughtful and quietly smiling man of modest personal habits, who was distinguished by his love of children. This image was simultaneously accepted by the joke tellers and - as it was known that he been both cruel and ruthless - regarded as an absurdity. One telling verbal riff evoked Lenin sharpening a knife “and beside him was a little boy, and he looked at the boy, and his eyes were so kind, so kind”. (A slightly flatter variant of the knife-sharpening routine concluded, “and that was how much he loved little children”.)

One consequence of Stalin’s effacing of all traces of his rivals following their execution was their disappearance from popular memory, as knowledge faded of their role in the revolution and civil war, photos in which they featured were systematically altered and their writings removed from library shelves. The result of this remarkably successful act of historical manipulation was that Lenin figured in the anekdoty as a curiously isolated figure whose representation was lacking in temporal depth. As popularly remembered, he had been divested of his chief associates, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Radek, and reduced to the company of his wife Krupskaya and Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka. Unlike the remainder of the Old Bolsheviks, both had continued to feature in state imagery, in Dzerzhinsky’s case most probably because he died in 1926 and was thus spared the Stalinist wrath which swept away so many of his comrades. In their own way the trio constituted a little family, though not, as we shall see, a Holy Family.

The Lenin of these jokes was a distinctly non-heroic figure. In one he stands on the balcony of the Winter Palace to announce that the revolution has been postponed because Felix Edmundovich has borrowed the armoured car to go on a fishing trip or, in a variant, has sold it to raise money for a binge. On the morning after the revolution Lenin wakes up with a terrible hangover. “Felix Edmundovich,” he enquires, “what did we get up to yesterday?” “Don’t you remember, Vladimir Ilych,” Dzerzhinsky replies, “you ordered the Aurora to open fire.” “Ooooh! And what else?” “You seized the Central Telegraph Office.” “Ooooh! And anything else?” “You stormed the Winter Palace.” “Ooooh! How shameful! How shameful!”

The jokes adopted a sceptical attitude towards Lenin’s imputed frugality. In one a delegation of peasants come to him and complain that they are so hungry they will be reduced to eating hay and will soon be neighing like horses. “That’s strange,” Lenin says, “yesterday I ate honey and I am not buzzing like a bee.” In another he sits in his office in Petrograd drinking tea, while outside the streets are in ruins and the people starving. He is holding a piece of sugar in his hand when Felix Edmundovich enters and asks, “Why don’t you put the sugar in the tea? Lenin replies, “Because it hasn’t dissolved yet.” (To underline the obvious, Lenin has already put so much sugar in his tea that the piece he is holding will no longer dissolve; that is, he remains comfortable in spite of the misery outside.) Some of Lenin’s other virtues received an equally sceptical reading. One of the Bolsheviks’ innovations was the introduction a “voluntary” extra day of unpaid labour, known as a subbotnik (from the Russian word for Saturday). Lenin’s participation in the first of these was commemorated in a painting by Vladimir Krikhatsky, Lenin at the First Subbotnik. This shows a smiling Vladimir Ilyich, in the company of a number of sturdy workers, helping to carry a log inside the Kremlin grounds. The painting, which was much reproduced, attracted a host of jokes, whose common feature was a claim that the log was made of plastic or that Lenin had shirked work by some other means.

In the statues of Lenin which dominated the centres of many Russian towns, he is portrayed as almost invariably gesturing with – the only variety such images seemed to afford – his cap either on his head or clutched in his hand. He is always pointing the way to others, never himself being directed. Although painting allowed for greater variety, here too uniformities can be observed. In representations of the major set piece events of the revolution Lenin is, understandably enough, agitated, while in his quieter moments, viewed through unsympathetic eyes, he can appear unbearably smug. During the Khrushchev years recordings of a number of speeches made by the leader in 1919 were publicly released. These revealed that his manner of speaking was, to Russian ears, faintly comic, because of its pitch and a difficulty he had in pronouncing the letter “r”.

Many of the anekdoty could be seen as a commentary on this public image. One tells how Lenin, who has gone to the sauna, discovers he is without a basin. Spotting a man with two basins, he asks if he may borrow one and is refused. Having brooded upon the matter he returns and – at this point the narrator shifts into a shrill and hectoring voice – insists that he be given the basin. He is refused again, on this occasion accompanied by a profanity (iob tvoiu mat). After some minutes he comes back a third time, and in even more schoolmasterish terms, demands the basin. This time he is struck by the mujik and, still dirty, is obliged to leave the sauna. At this point the narrator announces that twenty years have passed. This is followed by a shift to the voice of a radio announcer, who declares in reverential tones: “This evening we have the honour to introduce our listeners to a man who met Lenin three times ...”

In the many anekdoty which focus upon Lenin’s private life, he is presented as an ineffectual individual, whose principle concern is to hide his trousers before they can be taken off to the Museum of the Revolution, and whose role as husband has been assumed by Dzerzhinsky. At their basis is a half-explicit recognition that this childless figure, whose commitment to the pursuit of power was so intense, was not like other men and unlikely to have been very interested in sex. One joke tells of Lenin and Krupskaya in bed together. She whispers to him: “Vladimir Ilyich, let’s do it again.” He replies: “No Nadya, people can hear us.” She asks again, the narrator’s voice growing urgent with entreaty. Lenin replies: “No Nadinka, it wouldn’t be nice. People can hear us.” When Krupskaya repeats the request, pleading in even more urgent tones, he finally agrees. The anekdot concludes with the pair singing together a verse of the Varshavianka, a revolutionary song. A second anekdot tells of a guide 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.” “And who’s that?” the visitor inquires, pointing to the second pair. “That’s Felix Edmundovich.” “And where is Lenin?” asks the visitor. “Lenin is in London,” replies the guide.

These jokes amount to a deideologising of the Bolshevik leader. The character who features is a Lenin whose teeth have been drawn; although he retains his little oddities, having been cut down to size he is not very different from anybody else. This transformation suggests something of the ease with which Soviet citizens regarded the accoutrements of the late Soviet state, as they made themselves at home in that uncomfortable place, and adapted its characteristic forms to their own personality and tastes. There may have been some element of mutuality in this process, as in the more relaxed Brezhnev years the communist authorities, while immovable regarding their own monopoly of power, made fewer demands on their citizens and proved willing to adapt the public language of the state to the psychology of those to whom it was directed. This informal process of mutual adjustment, a half-articulated accommodation between ruler and ruled, marked Soviet popular culture – particularly cinema and television – from the 1960s, or perhaps a little earlier, to the end of the USSR. Popular culture left its mark on the anekdoty: indeed extensive areas of the joke tradition could be seen as a commentary on, dialogue with, and parody of state-sponsored cultural forms. The jokes are saturated with references to popular films, children’s cartoons, television programmes, nineteenth century literary classics, familiar songs, figures from pre-revolutionary opera and a number of the best known paintings in the Moscow and Leningrad art galleries, as well as to some of the best loved Russian fairytales.

The fondness of anekdoty narrators for other mimetic forms was particularly clearly marked in the case of cinema. Post-Stalinist film could be seen as a trade-off between the state and its citizens, who constituted the audience and without whom there would be no point in making the films. The state, which funded the studios and controlled the mechanics of production and distribution, was able to insist that its concerns were reflected in the films it sponsored, or at least that its point of view on the world should not be openly contradicted. The memory of Stalinist cinema, a little more than a decade previously, suggested that an excess of propaganda resulted in films which, while technically accomplished, were marked by a certain operatic deadness, by the dominance of statement and a lack of internal tension and dramatic development. In a prudent compromise, the state restrained its impulse to propagandise – certainly in comparison with what had gone before – while in return the audience got greater generic variety, gentle humour, sentiments with which they could identify, and recognisable types and situations in which they could see their own lives mirrored.

With the exception of a small number of masterworks, the cinema produced during the final decades of the USSR was not widely known outside its borders. Although parts of the corpus were mediocre and predictable, much that was produced was cinematically literate, thoughtful and entertaining, while a number of directors were capable of work of dazzling beauty and inventiveness. As in other parts of the world, mass audiences tended to be more responsive to the less demanding end of the cinematic register, although some of the best loved works were films of real quality. Cinema was certainly immensely popular in a society which, in comparison with the West of the same period, had less social variety and fewer entertainment outlets. This popularity continued into the1990s, when Soviet cinema was remembered with considerable, and frequently expressed, regret. Following the end of the USSR, domestic film production had all but ceased and the great Moscow film studios were lying idle. During the same period Russian audiences were exposed in significant quantities for the first time to American cinema. In general they did not care for this, finding it lacking in human interest, and being repelled by what they saw as its violence and sexual explicitness. This perspective gave a retrospective nostalgia to what had gone before.

The spirit in which the joke-tellers approached their subject may be suggested by the stories of War and Peace’s Natasha Rostova and Poruchik Rzhevsky (Poruchik is a tsarist military rank, a junior commissioned officer). Rzhevsky, who does not feature in Tolstoy’s novel, was a character from the film Gusarskaya Ballada (Hussar Ballad), released in 1962. When relocated within the anekdoty, he is presented as a creature of gross and fairly simple appetites, who might be taken as representing a male potential for crudeness, which is both acknowledged and deplored. His role, amid the far more respectable characters of War and Peace, is to deflate their exalted sentiments by insisting on the primacy of his own needs and bodily functions. Of these the most the most frequently articulated is the desire to get Natasha into bed. He can certainly be counted on to lower the tone of any occasion. At a ball in the Rostov family mansion, Poruchik, who is dancing with Natasha, asks to be excused. When he returns Natasha notices that his uniform is wet and asks whether it is raining outside. “No,” he replies, “but there is a high wind.”

Unlike Gusarskaya Ballada, a comparatively obscure musical comedy, most of the films which generated jokes were works which had proved immensely popular with Soviet audiences. The richest source of jokes was a cluster of films from the late 1960s and 1970s, of which the most prominent were Leonid Gaidai’s Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm) and Kavkaskaya Plennitsa (Kidnapping Caucasian Style), Stanislav Govorukhin’s Mesto Vstrechi Ismenit Nelsia (The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed), Vladimir Motyl’s Beloye Solntse Pustyni (White Sun of the Desert), and Tatyana Lioznova’s Semnadtsat Mgnovenii Vesny (Seventeen Moments of Spring). The Vasilievy Brothers’ film Chapaev, which deals with adventures of a Red Army commander during the civil war, might appear something of an exception, as it was made in 1934. However it seems to have taken off as a source of jokes when reprised on television decades later. Another somewhat exotic, but in fact thoroughly domesticated, presence in this company was Igor Maslennikov’s series of television films of the early 1980s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Film-linked anekdoty often track their originals fairly closely, adverting to specific scenes and even turns of phrase. Jests based on Beloye Solntse Pustyni take pleasure in the exoticism of the setting – the Turkmenistan desert – and the unfamiliar conventions of a feudal society before the consolidation of Soviet power. Sherlock Holmes jokes play endless, bizarre variations on the great detective’s displays of reasoning power and his crushing replies to the queries of the hapless Watson. Chapaev and his comrade Petka blunder their way through the civil war, plotting strategy in their battles with tarakany (cockroaches) and, when swimming across a river to escape from the Whites, hindered by a grand piano which they have taken with them. One of the most fertile sources of jokes was the serial Semnadtsat Mgnovenii Vesny, whose hero, Stirlitz, a Soviet intelligence officer, has infiltrated himself into a senior position within the Gestapo. Stirlitz jokes focus on an absurd battle of wits between the hero and Gestapo chief Müller, with ample, and frequently ridiculous, use being made of the voiceover device which in the film was used to express Stirlitz’s unspoken thoughts.

Part of the pleasure of the Stirlitz jokes was the deliberate use of anachronism, as characteristically Soviet responses are attributed to senior members of the Nazi hierarchy. In one anekdot Stirlitz has been sent on a subbotnik –“voluntary” labour session – to gather potatoes. In the field he comments: “What poor quality these German potatoes are! How small they are compared to our Russian potatoes!” Realising that he has been overheard, he decides the only way out is to draft a full confession. This begins: “I Maxim Maximovich Isayev, Soviet intelligence officer, born in Ryzan oblast in 1910 ...” When the confession is handed to Müller he exclaims: “These fellows will do anything to avoid having to go on a subbotnik!” In another anekdot, Stirlitz and Müller are together in the sauna. Müller notices three red stars on Stirlitz’s underpants and asks: “Where did you get those?” Stirlitz replies: “My mother gave them to me on Soviet Army Day.” This is followed by the voiceover “Maybe I shouldn’t have revealed such personal details.” In another joke Stirlitz goes to the head of a queue in wartime Berlin. When people complain he turns to them and says: “Heroes of the USSR are exempt from queuing.” In a late item from the cycle, Stirlitz is going into his apartment in Berlin when he spots a plaque on the door which reads “Residence of Soviet Spies”. “Glasnost!” thinks Stirlitz.

As well as jokes based on feature films, anekdoty also clustered around children’s cartoons. Although these had their pedagogic agenda, at their best Soviet cartoons were wonderfully imaginative and admitted children to a world of beauty and strangeness. They were, to judge by the frequency with which they were evoked, deeply loved and remembered with pleasure by those who had the good fortune to see them as children. In what might seem an unlikely paradox, these emotions were often accompanied by the desire to raise a laugh, by turning cartoon characters and situations on their heads. The most frequent transformation involved endowing the gentle and unaggressive inhabitants of the cartoon world with qualities of cruelty and egoism. Thus, in jokes based on Yuri Norshtein’s magical Yozhik v Tumane (The Hedgehog in the Fog), the animals who are lost in the fog, instead of plaintively seeking one another out, are portrayed as deliberately, and with considerable malice, leading one another astray. An unexpected cartoon figure was Winnie the Pooh, whose adventures, together with those of his friend Piglet (Piatachok in the Russian version), were viewed with delight by Soviet children. Their relationship in the jokes was less amiable. In one Winnie asks for Piatachok’s help in opening a co-operative. Piatachok responds enthusiastically asking, “Are we going to sell honey?” “No,” answers Winnie, “pork.”

Together with violence, adult sexuality was a disruptive intruder into the cartoon world. In a joke based on Troe iz Prostokvashino (Three from Prostokvashino), the cow gives birth to a calf with striped skin, suggesting that the father is Kot Matroskin, a cat whose identifying marker is a striped sailor’s blouse. In another joke, based on the immensely popular Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena series, Crocodile Gena, who is unquestionably male, remarks to Cheburashka, a furry creature of indeterminate sex: “I don’t know whether to give you a present on March 8th (International Women’s Day) or February 23rd (Soviet Armed Forces Day).”

It seems likely that such jokes were current among children who were a little older than when they had first seen the cartoons and had discovered the pleasure of shocking their elders. Their point of view recalls the black comedy of the chastushki (verse quatrains) popular among Russian children from the 1960s. These typically tell of little boys and girls who gain access to machine guns and nuclear bombs, with devastating results for their schools and neighbourhoods. Other themes also surfaced. One tells of two lovers lying in a cornfield. A combine harvester creeps up on them slowly, slowly. The verse concludes with the question “Who was found in the bread roll without a bra?” They could also reflect on Soviet history as in “Who is that in the snowy field, which has turned all rosy-coloured with blood? Why it is a father and his son playing with Pavel Morozov.” Pavel Morozov was a thirteen-year-old Pioneer scout, who in the early 1930s denounced his own father as a kulak, opposed to collectivization. In the standard Soviet account – the facts may have been somewhat different – following the father’s arrest Pavel was murdered by his outraged relatives. He was subsequently held up to young people as an exemplary figure and was made the hero of a state-sponsored cult. His life and death provided the subject for a film, Bezhin Meadow, by Sergei Eisenstein. This was never released, suggesting some recognition by the authorities that the episode, if made explicit by way of narrative, was self-parodying and unlikely to be successful as propaganda. Pavel’s statue and that of Felix Dzerzhinsky were the only public monuments to be taken down in Moscow following Yeltsin’s victory over the putschists in 1991. I never heard Pavel Morozov mentioned other than by way of jest.

Films were not only a source of dramatic incidents but also functioned as a public text, with well-turned lines of dialogue incorporated into the Russian language’s ample stock of winged phrases (krilatoye virajenie). These expressions, many of literary origin, had become winged in the sense that they had entered daily speech as semi-proverbial utterances. Where cinema was concerned, well known pieces of repartee from near contemporary works such as Brilliantovaya Ruka or Beloye Solntse Pustyni, and also from older films such as Podkidysh (The Foundling – a film associated with the much-loved comedienne Faina Ranevskaya), would be inserted with an elegant and self-conscious flourish into a conversation at points where they seemed particularly apposite, or where the situation in the film was felt to match that in daily life. A particular pleasure was taken in phrases that were outlandish or faintly bizarre, as one was told, not for the first time, “our people don’t go by taxi to the bread shop”, or “only aristocrats and degenerates drink champagne in the morning”, or “I’m fed up with caviar – I want a piece of white bread.” Long before the films, the extracting of winged phrases from written texts was an established habit, with Russia’s nineteenth century literary classics providing a rich source of quotations. Gogol’s Government Inspector was a particular favourite as, in a turn of phrase that might not have seemed out of place among the anekdot narrators, an angry person might be told: “Alexander of Macedonia was certainly a hero, but why smash up the chairs?”

The example of the winged phrases raises the question of continuities between anekdoty and older cultural practices. Such continuity might seem most clearly in evidence in a sub-genre within the anekdoty which parodied the epic songs and fairytales of old Russia. One of the most popular of these was a variant of a story known as The Frog Princess (type number 402 in the Aarne and Thompson classification of international tales). This tells how an old tsar advises his three sons that it is time for them to marry. He instructs each to fire an arrow into the air and to marry the woman they find where the arrow falls. The eldest fires into the air and finds a great aristocrat’s daughter at the end of his arrow’s flight. The second son finds a wealthy merchant’s daughter. But the youngest son, Ivan Tsarevicz, fires into the air and encounters a frog at the place where his arrow lands. In obedience to his father’s command Ivan marries the frog who, after many adventures, is finally transformed into a beautiful princess. The story’s opening, with its encounter between a young man and a frog, proved irresistible to the Russian male imagination, with endless variations, involving improbable sexual antics, being woven around the motif.

The tale known as The Pudding was highly popular among those who told jokes. This story belongs to the category of folktale known as a chain-tale (Aarne and Thompson type number 2025). It tells how a farmer’s wife makes a pudding, which escapes from the kitchens and rolls off down the road. On its journey it encounters various animals, with each of which it has an elaborate verbal exchange, following which it escapes. The story concludes when the pudding meets a fox, who tricks it into coming closer, and so eats it. When retold as an anekdot, on each occasion the pudding meets one of the animals it addresses them not with the formulaic repetitions of the folktale but in the brutal and intimidatory language of the Russian criminal underworld. The joke concludes with an explanation. The protagonist of the tale is a zek, a released prisoner, and is not a pudding but a shaved hedgehog. A variant tells of a group of children who encounter a round object travelling along the road. “Are you a pudding?” they ask. “No,” it replies, “I’m a Chernobyl hedgehog.”

Intuition suggests that there must be some relationship between the anekdoty which flourished in twentieth century Russia and the rich folklore of the pre-revolutionary era. In this perspective it might seem that parody fairytales represented a mutation within the oral tradition, as the former peasants, who became the proletariat of Stalin’s five year plans, adapted the folktales they took with them into the cities to their new circumstances. The Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin argued that one effect of the ascendancy of the novel was to undermine the high epic genres – of which the folktale is an instance – by creating a flood of parodies and calling into question the artificiality of epic conventions. It seems possible to recognise something of this process in fairytale-based anekdoty. The dominant tactic of such jokes is one of translation downwards, as the fairytale’s magic is transformed into a more realistic set of terms. A characteristic instance involves a story of a princess who has a magic mirror, which can give truthful answers to the most difficult questions. When retold as an anekdot, when the princess is addressed by the mirror she responds “Shut up! I’m brushing my hair!” Because of the importance it attached to communicating its political message, the Bolshevik project involved accelerated mass literacy campaigns. In anekdoty such as that of the princess and the mirror, it seems possible to recognise the newly literate proletariat looking back with a smile on the tales it heard from its parents and grandparents.

This hypothesis regarding a Bolshevik transformation of consciousness, though tempting, will alas not stand up. If the parody fairytales represented a genuine mutation within the oral tradition, one might expect a comparatively wide range of tales to have been subject to this process. In fact, although those who told the jokes were able to weave the most unexpected elaborations, the number of stories so treated was remarkably small. Some, moreover, were based on literary texts, such as the immensely popular story of the poor fisherman who is granted three wishes which derived from Pushkin’s “The Golden Fish”, while others, such as stories taken from the Arabian Nights, or tales of the Central Asian trickster Nasreddin, came from outside the Slavic cultural area. In fact, the fairytale-based anekdoty, like those which made use of films, seem to have had their origin in Soviet cultural practices, and in particular in the huge, if less than disinterested, prestige which the Soviet state attached to folklore. Those who parodied the folktales had encountered them, not as retold by their village grandparents, but when read aloud in Pioneer camps, in children’s programmes on television and in popular (but abridged and censored) editions of the great nineteenth century folktale collectors, such as Alexander Afanasyev.

While films and folktales were a massive presence within the joke tradition, they were far from exhausting its impulse to mockery. Almost anything within Soviet public culture could provide material for those inclined to jest, with the result that references which might initially seem to reach into Russia’s older history prove to be surprisingly contemporary. The jokes, for example, concerning Natasha Rostova and Poruchik Rzhevsky, refer less to War and Peace than to the slight stuffy eminence Tolstoy was afforded in official Soviet culture. The most frequently encountered literary characters in the anekdoty, the mute servant Gerasim, who in Turgenev’s story “Mumu” is forced to drown his pet dog, and Dedushka Mazai, who rescues stranded hares in Nekrasov’s narrative poem, were known because the story and poem were set texts in Soviet schoolbook. It was this knowledge derived from schooldays that provoked narrators to a riot of inventiveness about hares, dogs and rowboats and sent Ded Mazai to the sinking Titanic with absurd suggestions about saving the animals on board.

Even items from Russia’s musical repertoire passed through a Soviet filter before entering the world of anekdoty. Glinka’s patriotic opera A Life for the Tsar provides a striking example of a pre-revolutionary work which, with appropriate adjustments, could be accepted into the socialist canon. Following a number of strategic changes to its libretto, this became a firm favourite in the Soviet period under the new title Ivan Susanin. (Stalin attended the relaunch of the opera in 1939 and even made suggestions regarding the production.) The work tells of a simple man who, during the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century, saves his country by deliberately leading the Polish invaders deep into the forest. The conceit of one who leads other astray proved to be an attractive one and ramified into jokes of all kind. A helpful citizen of Saint Petersburg, who had offered to show us around the back streets of his native city but seemed uncertain which way to go, remarked apologetically: “Don’t think I’m another Ivan Susanin.” A Russian in the group immediately responded with a comic couplet which told how Ivan Susanin, when threatened with having his legs cut off, quickly recovered his sense of direction.

In common with other joke protagonists, Ivan Susanin proved adaptable to post-Soviet Russia’s new circumstances. Around 1994, at a time when wages were in arrears and pensions left unpaid, a friend who was deeply sceptical regarding the restructuring of his country’s economy, told of a nondescript-looking individual who entered one of Moscow’s new banks. “What do you want?” asked the receptionist. “I’m Ivan Susanin, the Russian national hero,” replied the visitor. “Ooh,” said the receptionist, “I’ll take you to the board of directors immediately.” While the story seemed inconsequential, more may have been intended than first appeared. The sense I made of it was that, just as Susanin had led the Polish invaders to disaster, the new banks would lead Russia to a similar catastrophe. In the perspective of the anekdot, Susanin was a kind of consultant, a skills category of which there was no shortage in Moscow in those days.

The ability to tell jokes in the knowledge that what you intend will be picked up by your listeners implied a stable set of references. While that body of references was by no means narrow, it was not open-ended. It consisted of a range of works, of diverse provenance, which were current during the Soviet period and was seen, heard, or read with sufficient regularity to have become familiar. The anekdoty which exploited this material were marked by their playfulness and by their knowing and delighted intertextuality, as characters from Russian epic mingled with those from the films of recent decades. At their heart was a sense of the artificiality of generic boundaries and a perspective that was at once sophisticated yet innocent of any of the heaviness of theory. To which should be added that behind all this jesting, and perhaps making it possible, was a society which took its cultural heritage – literary, cinematic, folkloric and musical – with immense seriousness. (Anything more remote from the dreary Irish habit of exploiting its writers commercially– all those pubs named after Joyce, Gogarty, Samuel Beckett and the Táin Bó Cúailnge – would be hard to imagine.)

One result of the limitations of Soviet society was that it compelled its citizens to become intimate with what was on offer. In a setting in which books, like other goods, were frequently in deficit, the Russian classics were read and reread. Those who told the jokes often remarked that they had seen films such as Brilliantovaya Ruka five and more times. The USSR had, no doubt, its own forms of variety and novelty, but these were remote from the constant, commercially-driven stimuli – that endless play of signifiers – which characterises contemporary market societies. Joke narrators responded at first along familiar lines to the opening up of the media which followed the ending of state control. While the Latin American soap operas which proved so popular in the 1990s gave rise to new anekdoty, television advertising, which is incessant yet ephemeral, seemed to give narrators less purchase. One heard a number of advertising-based jokes during those years, but they never gathered momentum; it was almost as if the narrators’ hearts were not in it, or as if there was something problematic about the use of advertising as a source.

Given their material, those who told jokes in the 1990s were looking back on a world which no longer existed. While the jokes registered an acute awareness of the absurdities of Soviet life – for in a sense that was what they were about – they also implied a sense of regret at its passing. That regret, although widespread among Russians, was not shared by a number of non-Russian nationalities in the USSR, or by the peoples of eastern central Europe. A decade before the events of 1989-91, a sense of disaffection had already become evident among sections of a smaller group, the Russian Jews. In the 1970s, in response to this disaffection and to Western pressure, the level of Jewish emigration to Israel and the United States, increased significantly. The samizdat poet Igor Guberman (Garik), who himself emigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, commented:

The Jews are leaving, they are leaving Russia
Away from Moscow they are going far,
The world is strange for Ivan and for Vasya
The Jews have left them neither God nor tsar.

These developments were of consequence for the joke tradition and found their reflection in it. Accounts of Russian laughter have long stressed the contribution of Jewish communities, particularly that of Odessa, and have seen Jewish self-mockery as bringing a particular dimension of irony to the anekdoty. A joke of the 1980s asked: “‘Why are there no longer any good jokes on Armenian radio?’ ‘Because all the Jews who used to invent them have gone to Israel.’” (Questions and answers addressed to the non-existent Radio Armenia were a well known joke routine.)

Among those who wished to leave was Rabinovich, a character who was a stock figure in the world of jokes. Rabinovich, to whom some of the sharper comments on life in the USSR were assigned, does all kinds of things in the anekdoty, from crossing enemy lines to distribute propaganda to singing Beatles songs (badly). In a number of jokes the chief thing he wants to do is leave Russia. In one of these he is told by the authorities that, while he will be issued with the necessary papers, a passport for foreign travel will not be given to his parrot. Rabinovich comes home and tells the parrot what has happened. The parrot advises, “Go, even if you have to stuff me or I travel as pelt!” In another Rabinovich tries to leave the USSR illegally. As he gets close to the frontier, realising that he has been spotted by a border guard, he pulls down his trousers and squats. “What are you doing?” asks the border guard. “Moving my bowels,” answers Rabinovich. “But that’s dog shit,” says the border guard. “And what kind of life do we have?” (A jizn u nas kakaya?), Rabinovich replies.

In yet another anekdot Rabinovich and his wife are sitting in an airplane, ready to leave for Israel, when there is an announcement. “We apologise to passengers for this delay. We are waiting for a delegation from the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.” After five minutes there is another announcement, “We apologise for the further delay. We are waiting for a delegation from the USSR Supreme Soviet.” Another five minutes passes and there is a third announcement. “We apologise again for another delay. We are waiting for a delegation from the Komsomol leadership.” Rabinovich turns to his wife and says: “My dear, perhaps we should stay?” Those who told the jokes never followed Rabinovich abroad and perhaps he was so central to the joke tradition that he could not be allowed to leave. One figure who was followed abroad was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. An anekdot tells how Chapaev and Petka are walking through New York, when Chapaev remarks on a black man in the street. “That’s not a black,” Petka tells him, that’s Solzhenitsyn.” “Oh,” said Chapaev, “look how black he has become!” As his naive remark suggests, Chapaev believes that the campaign of black propaganda directed against Solzhenitsyn, following his expulsion from the Soviet Union, has had a physical effect on his appearance. The joke is a feeble one, but is of interest for declining to endorse the view of the Soviet authorities on the great dissident.

Russian jokes cannot be reduced to any single statement; they afford multiple perspectives on the world and a corresponding variety of approaches to them seems possible. They could be considered from the point of view of the men and women who narrated them. While there were many wonderfully subtle and intuitive female narrators, both sexes would have agreed that men told more jokes than women but would probably have disagreed as to why this was so. Women would have claimed that for them quality was more important than quantity and that, unlike men who told jokes all the time, they only did so when the joke was well chosen and appropriate to the company. In the male view, a woman was likely to tell you that she heard some wonderful jokes the previous week but could no longer remember them. These differing approaches found their clearest reflection in the diverging responses of men and women to the linguistic dimension of anekdoty.

While historians can point to elements in pre-revolutionary Russian society which fed into the great socialist transformation, the high culture of the decades before the revolution appears strikingly out of kilter with the regime imposed by Lenin and Stalin. Of its nature such a judgment is intuitive; nonetheless evidence is not hard to find. The experience of walking around Moscow can amount to an extended contrast between the lightness, fantasy, and at times whimsicality of early twentieth century Russian architecture and the heaviness, lack of humour and grim emphasis upon power of what came after. The contrast is repeated in Russia’s major art galleries, as the dazzling variety of Silver Age painting sits side by side with the pedantry and overstatement of socialist realism. Visual contrasts find their equivalent at the level of language, as a people who combined linguistic sophistication with playfulness were obliged to live within the invigilated categories of Stalin’s catechism and the sovok (literally dustpan – a non-standard term for meaningless language and the dispiriting realities of Soviet life) of his successors.

One way of regarding the joke tradition would be as a receptacle, at the level of speech, for displaced impulses towards the imaginatively gratuitous, the playful and the inconsequential. Those who told anekdoty were nothing if not linguistically self-conscious and took pleasure in a variety of registers, including in bad language, and in the misapprehensions which arose when kolkhozniky (collective farm workers) met members of the Moscow intelligentsia sent into the countryside to dig potatoes. Such was the level of word play in jests of this kind, and delight in inversions of accepted meanings, that it is an area into which non-native speakers can only enter with diffidence and the assistance of local guides. One example, a story told by Tamara G, who recalled hearing it in the late 1950s in a working class setting, may suggest something of what was involved. A factory director decided to “liquidate” foul language (mat) in the work place. He therefore suggested that, in place of their favourite profanity, his colleagues should substitute the word neboskryob (skyscraper). Later in the day when he tours the factory he is pleasantly surprised– a number of hilarious examples are given – to find that in situations where previously the members of the work brigade would have said yob they now make use of neboskryob. When he asks why his suggestion has been so enthusiastically taken up the director is told that “the word is harmonious, is multistoried and the final syllable is consistent with the interests of the workers”. The first comment is self-explanatory. The second adverts to the standard description of someone who uses vulgar language in a sustained and consistent way as a multistorey speaker of mat, while the concluding comment finds in the final syllable of neboskryob an echo of the banished yob.

Tamara G was able to tell this story, and others in a similar vein, because like many Russians she regarded mat as a discrete verbal area, which she would not normally use, but was prepared to enter for the purpose of the joke. Others, principally women in my experience, were more reticent, and were concerned to maintain linguistic standards and prevent any slide towards coarse hilarity. This may have been as much a matter of educational background as of sex and of a commitment to a high literary culture and a corresponding lack of sympathy with oral forms and low urban comedy.

In the anekdoty, those who try to limit the use of mat are often women. One of those who makes the effort is Vovochka’s schoolteacher. One day she asks the children in her class for volunteers to sing. When most have performed she notices that Vovochka is crying. “What’s the matter, Vovochka?” she asks him. “You allowed everybody to sing except me,” he complains. “But Vovochka,” she tells him, “you know that when you sing, you use a lot of mat.” “If you let me sing,” he tells her, “anytime there is a bad word, I will say ‘la’.” The teacher agrees and Vovochka sings:La la la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la
Rodina moya.

Rodina moya (my homeland) is a standard phrase in songs of love of country. Not only do the anekdoty imply that the quest to exclude mat is futile, but they tend to a sceptical view of claims to linguistic innocence. A recently married young woman comes crying to her mother. “My husband knows dirty songs,” she complained. “Does he sing them?” the mother asked. “No,” replied the daughter, “but he hums them.”

In 1931 the philosopher and liberal politician Pyotr Struve, then living in exile, – he was one of the many opponents Lenin had swept aside – attempted a definition of the anekdot. Struve’s reflections had a dual focus; he saw the genre as a narrative based upon a real event but which, in addition to its individual and accidental quality, possessed a typical and shared meaning. Russian commentators, following up on Struve’s insight, have attempted to place anekdoty within the wider context of their country’s rich folkloric tradition. The affinities between the two seem obvious. Like the old genres of the Russian countryside, anekdoty had to be acceptable to the community in which they were narrated if they were to survive and be retold. While daily life throws up all kinds of fragments of speech and mini-narratives, it was the “typical and shared” aspect of the anekdoty which ensured that they passed through the filter of collective reception and entered the joke tradition.

Two years before Struve proposed his definition, Vladimir Propp, in his groundbreaking Morphology of the Folktale, argued, on the basis of an examination of a group of stories from Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Tales, for the existence of a number of deep structural patterns common to all fairytales. Although, in comparison with the shaped, almost architectonic, form of the fairytale, the anekdot must seem the most fluid and casual of genres, certain uniformities can nonetheless be discerned. As it can be told almost anywhere, the anekdot is of its nature brief and, because orally delivered, avoids grammatical complexity. It generally consists of a single episode, commonly narrated in the present tense. Like other oral narrative genres, it tends to confine itself to two actors – Vovochka and his mother, Vovochka and his schoolteacher, Lenin and his wife, Natasha and Poruchik Rzhevsky, Chapaev and Petka, Winnie and Piatachok, Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena, Stirlitz and Müller.

It seems possible to detect, underlying some of the joke types, the use of a number of recurrent constructional mechanisms. The confident yet Delphic utterances of Radio Armenia invariably assume a question and answer format. In his dealings with Natasha Rostova, Poruchik typically avoids contesting her exalted language and instead, by a piece of adroit word play, moves the discussion to his own considerably less exalted terms. Sherlock Holmes jokes are built around parodies of the deductive method, while those which make use of children’s TV characters commonly translate the original cartoon situation into a less genial and more adult set of terms. Some jokes, like the story of the first tractor on the kolkhoz – it is offered hay to eat – come “with a beard”, recalling stories common throughout Europe about the reactions of local people to the first introduction of tea or coffee to a locality. Jokes about Pushkin commonly assign him a role as a Don Juan, Chapaev is usually dim, Vovochka foul-mouthed, Brezhnev slurred and half-asleep, while New Russians are invariably vulgar and uncultured. The Armenians whom we meet in the jokes are likely to be quick on the uptake, Ukrainians greedy and verbally ponderous, Estonians slow to rouse and Moldovans stupid, while in a thousand anekdoty Chukhas visiting Moscow are puzzled by television sets, washing machines and the metro system.

While such uniformities may explain something, for anyone familiar with the world of the jokes they do not explain much. One’s impression of the anekdoty is of variety and surprise, of unexpected and at times fantastical angles of vision, and of a content which mirrors the variety of a whole society and its multiple possibilities for human interaction. One joke, which the narrator warned was “flat” (that is unamusing) told how a cow climbed up a tree. When a crow asked why, it replied that it wished to eat some apples. “Are you stupid?” said the crow, “this is a birch tree.” “I already have the apples with me,” replied the cow. Another told of two Arctic explorers stranded on an iceberg. One announced that a ship was approaching. “What’s it called?” the other asked. “Titanic,” said the first. “Titanic kak Titanic,” said his companion, in a reply of almost untranslatable fatalism.

A joke which located itself on more familiar ground, told of a woman on a komandirovka (business trip) who found herself in need of accommodation. The manager of the only hotel in town explained that he had no free rooms. “All I can offer,” he told her, “is a bed in a double room, but unfortunately there’s already a young man in the room.” Having no alternative the woman accepted, went to the room, turned out the lights and got into bed. After five minutes she said to the young man: “It’s too warm in here. Open the window.” The young man got up and opened the window. After another five minutes she said: “It’s too cold in here. Close the window.” The young man got up once again and closed the window. These instructions were repeated five times, with the young man opening and closing the window each time as instructed. On the fifth occasion he said to her: “Maybe we’ll move to spousal relations?” “I’m ready,” said the woman. “Then get up and close the window yourself.”

The pleasure of some of the anekdoty seems inseparable from the particularities of the society in which they were told. The Olympic Games of 1980 were recalled as a delightful interval, when the shops were filled with Finnish salami, fruit juice and cheese and when Moscow took on an exotic air as announcements in the metro were made in English as well as Russian. In a corner shop, in one of the distant suburbs, the manageress announced to her customers (at this point the narrator explains that bormotukha is a cheap port wine of low quality favoured by the undiscerning drinker, before delivering the punch line in Russian and English), “bormotukha is out of stock.” Another anekdot recalled the distinguished Soviet physicist and academician Mstislav Keldysh, who was much in the news in the 1970s. His name sounded strange to Russian ears and for some reason, like prime minister Gaidar’s vouchers decades later, became a synonym for penis. At that time the Academy of Science gave a dinner for its members in a well known restaurant. One of the academicians in attendance, anxious to impress his wife, said to her: “I’ll show you Keldysh.” She was none too pleased and replied: “Why do you have to do that here – can’t you show it to me at home?”

Clusters of jokes arose out of the experiences of particular groups, such as soldiers, students and musicians. Those told by soldiers reflected their view of the army as a place for making people stupid. One told of a recent graduate who arrived in the barracks to begin his military service. “What can you do, Comrade Lieutenant?” he was asked. “I can resolve integrals,” he replied. “Oh! We don’t need that. You better go to the hospital.” He went to the hospital and half his brain was removed. “What can you do, Comrade Lieutenant?” he was asked again when he came back. “I can resolve equations,” he replied. “We don’t need that either. You better go back to the hospital.” So he went back to the hospital and the other half of his brain was removed. When he returned and was asked what he could do he replies (at this point the narrator shifted to a voice that combined loudness with stupidity), “Squad attention!!!”

Student parties were merry affairs but, as those who gave the parties lacked money, the alcohol on offer tended to be of the cheapest kind. A favourite was a port wine called Kavkaz (Caucasus). A student teacher, who spent a lot of his time at parties, arrived one morning in school with a bad hangover. “Today children,” he managed to say, “we are going to study Lermontov’s poem Kavkaz (at this point the narrator shifted to the sound of someone emptying their stomach) – uuuuugggg!” Another joke told how God sent an angel to find out how the students were behaving. When it returned it reported that, while the students in the fil fac (Philological Faculty) were studying, those in the Polytechnic were spending their time at parties. After some months God sent the angel again, who returned to report that nothing had changed. When the exams were getting near, God sent the angel for the third time. When it came back it reported that fil fac was still studying and the Polytechnic was praying. “Those are the ones we’ll help,” said God.

Anekdoty had their origins in the absurdities of Soviet Russian life, which they acknowledged but did not resolve. Young Russians who served in the Soviet army noticed with surprise that their fellow soldiers from the Central Asian republics did not tell jokes and could not see the point in the jokes which the Russians told. It was almost as if some dimension was missing from the minds of young men from residually Islamic areas of the USSR, as a result of which they did not experience life as problematic. Such reports from the Soviet army were borne out, in a small way, in the speech of individuals from the same areas whom I happened to know. Like the soldiers they did not tell jokes. The only exception was a friend from Azerbaijan, who was an enthusiastic dealer in anekdoty about unfaithful wives and their alcoholic husbands. It was clear, however, that these were jokes he had picked up following his arrival in Moscow as a young man. He told no jokes about life in the villages and small towns of his native region of Azerbaijan and regarded its familial and social arrangements with unconditional seriousness.

Russian jokes of the Soviet period were endless. They were “a sea of anecdotes” (more anekdotov), which any chance association could spark off. They were a constituent of conversation, which could be drawn on during the course of the day’s business and applied to almost any circumstance. At first sight they seemed like the proverbs of earlier times, in that something suitable could be found for almost anything life threw up. Unlike proverbs, however, they did not illuminate. They were delightfully inconsequential, being “without raison d’être, without beginning, without end” (bez prichiny, bez nachala, bez kontsa.) They amounted to an immense comedy of manners and, in their own oblique way, were a commentary upon an entire society. The huge nostalgia for that society which informed the jokes of the 1990s has since faded as the USSR has receded into the past, its ghosts and memories have become attenuated, habits have changed and a new generation taken the stage who have no first hand experience of Soviet life. Russian jokes continue to be generated and, having adapted to new technologies, are present in astonishing quantities on the internet. How they will differ from their predecessors, and whether we are witnessing a new chapter or a footnote to what has gone before, remains to be seen.

This essay was first published in December 2010