From The Economist print edition
JOKES under communism were not just a welcome contrast to the dreariness of everyday life; they also helped undermine it. For example. “How do you deal with mice in the Kremlin?” “Put up a sign saying ‘collective farm’. Then half the mice will starve and the others will run away.”
Ben Lewis has collated some of the best, and best-known, jokes that were told under more than seven decades of communist rule. His work is based on more than 40 previously published collections ranging from underground selections, to those published by anti-communist émigrés, and a large sprinkling that appeared after 1989, once it was safe to air them.
Most make you giggle and groan in equal measure. It is worth remembering that in some countries and some eras, being overheard telling or laughing at just one of these jokes could mean you died in a labour camp; there are plenty of jokes about that too. “Who built the White Sea canal [Stalin’s single most murderous slave-labour project]?” “The left bank was built by those who told the jokes, and the right bank by those who listened.”
But the aim of “Hammer & Tickle” is not just to be amusing and poignant, but also to instruct. The author makes the (to him) rather depressing discovery that most communist-era jokes were just recycled versions of older ones. Take this example, which is told twice in the book: a flock of sheep approaches the Finnish border in a panic, pleading to be allowed entry. “Beria [Stalin’s secret police chief] has ordered the arrest of all elephants,” they explain. “But you’re not elephants,” reply the Finnish border guards in puzzlement. “Yes, but try explaining that to Beria.” That sounds spot-on for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. But it can be traced to a Persian poet in 12th-century Arabia, where it involves a fox running away from a royal ordinance that in theory applies only to donkeys.
Unfortunately, Mr Lewis is not content to laugh and remember. He wants a “serious comparative study” of the subject. It is tempting to think that he is joking, and that his theoretical elaborations about the true significance of communist-era jokes are a subtle parody of the way that modern literary critics so often miss the point of the texts they write about. It is almost comical to read his po-faced but pointless consideration of whether jokes about Stalin predated Stalin’s own jokes—almost comical, but not quite.
If Mr Lewis is indeed joking, he pushes it too far. The potted histories of communism he provides as context are leaden and sometimes sloppy. The travelogue of his meetings with jokesters across the Eastern block is fun at first but then becomes dull. In particular, the conceit of linking his research to the ups and downs of his relationship with a tiresomely pro-communist (and humourless) girlfriend from East Germany is jarringly intrusive and self-referential.
No matter: rather than worrying about whether humour was ultimately a safety-valve for communism or subversive of it, the reader can skip ruthlessly and concentrate on the jokes, and the remarks people have made about them. “Jokes against the Party constitute agitation against the Party,” raged Matvei Shkiriatov, a zealous Stalinist, at a Central Committee Meeting in January 1933. That was echoed by Hitler’s propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, in 1939, when he wrote: “We will eradicate the political joke.” But they didn’t.
Many of the jokes told about past Soviet leaders are now told about Vladimir Putin (Stalin appears to him in a dream and says: “I have two bits of advice for you: kill your opponents and paint the Kremlin blue.” Putin asks, “Why blue?”). The world would be a poorer place without the jokes sparked by ridiculous yet ruthless rulers. But Russia would be a lot happier.