The existence of the threat, the possibility that
the teller could pay dearly for telling a
with interrogation and imprisonment
— created a separate genre of jokes:
Conversation in a prison:
are you in for?"
"For laziness. I was at a party
and someone told a joke. I went home and thought:
Should I inform now, or wait till the morning? In
the end, I said to myself, I'll go tomorrow. That
night they took me away."
A judge walks out of his chambers laughing
his head off. A colleague approaches him and
asks why he is laughing.
"I just heard the
funniest joke in the world!"
"Well, go ahead,
tell me!" says the other judge.
"I can't - I
just gave a guy ten years for it!"
The danger added subversive spice
to the social act of telling a joke and, together
with reading samizdat books (books that had been
banned by the censor and published underground),
created a broad community of people with shared
cultural interests. There are those who will argue
that the Russian intelligentsia drew quite a bit of
its power and solidarity from the quiet resistance
that was expressed in forbidden humor.
The jokes evolved into a
secret language between citizens
— the signs of
membership of a club to which the government was not
invited. They were a
way of dealing with the hardships of life,
an essential social safety valve that let out frustrations and
At the same time, by
exposing the lunacy of
Soviet bureaucracy, the jokes
gradually shook the foundations of communism
and ultimately convinced
people that communism was an unworkable system.
Exactly how communist jokes functioned
politically, socially or psychologically is a
question as complex as the meaning of works of art.
They were a way to criticise and outmanoeuvre
the system, but they were also something more than
this. A joke could be an act of rebellion or a
safety valve, an expression of revulsion against the
system... but also of familiarity, even warmth toward it:
The jokes both
subverted and supported; they undermined and they prolonged.
contradiction is something else to consider in examining the mysterious Russian
soul, which simultaneously, with the very presence of jokes, protests against
the regime and apologizes for its chief.
— What do you feel towards the Soviet power?
— Pretty much the same feelings I have for my wife:
a little love, a little fear, a little sex, a little
cheating, sometimes desiring something new, but
generally it's a habit.