Every time you tell a joke, a dictator gets a little weaker. If you grew up in any household of former eastern European emigres, then you’re probably familiar with the very particular form of Soviet black humour. There is no North American equivalent to the anekdot – aside from the jokes that periodically make the rounds in elementary schools (and, I suppose, knock-knock jokes), there isn’t the same kind of repository of jokes that everyone knows and draws from. The one-liners and zingers that we get on late-night TV tend to be very in-the-moment, and are quickly forgotten. Ben Hammer digs deep into the culture of Soviet jokes in Hammer and Tickle.
“Hammer and Tickle: The Communist Joke Book” is a documentary [link has been updated], and book of the same name, by British documentary filmmaker and writer Ben Lewis. It’s a decade-by-decade overview of the jokes – or, anekdotey – that were popular as the communist system grew, stagnated and then collapsed. In Lewis’ telling, the types of jokes and how the authorities responded, closely mirrored the politics of the day. Communism is the only political system to have produced its own brand of jokes. A lot of the jokes were the same across the east bloc, and other were particular to the regime.
Cheese Shop and Toilet Paper:
It’s a great concept and I could have watched the many expert commentators, historians and former Eastern Bloc citizens, talk about the topic for a lot longer (maybe that’s what the book is for). But, it’s too bad that the cheap gags and cheesy cartoon animations that are used to bolster up so many of the jokes make for a painful viewing experience. Perhaps it was an attempt to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the communist situation, but it comes off as hokey, as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the seriousness, or importance, of his work.
And though I’m clearly not the target audience, I’d like to think that the simplistic, children’s version of the Bolshevik revolution is unnecessary – either explain the history or don’t, but please don’t talk to your audience like children hearing about the big bad wolf for the first time.
“Tell me, comrade, since the revolution, has your life gotten better?”
Commissar: “How could that be?”
Driver: “Before the revolution, I had two suits. Now I have only one.”
Commissar: “What are you complaining for? In Africa, people walk
Driver: “Really? When was their revolution?”
Final quibble – it’s sometimes hard to know when he’s using real historical footage and when it’s a simulation for the film. I’m the kind of person who likes to know those details, so I can relish the historical authenticity of every real moment.
And by the way, if you followed the news a few weeks ago of Harper’s plans to eavesdrop on public conversations at the Ottawa airport, you’ll find the scene of Hungarian secret police dropping mics into trees to eavesdrop on couples in the park particularly chilling.
- Sometime after Stalin died, the Soviet government stopped sending people to the gulag for telling jokes. No one quite knows why, though there’s some speculation it was related to Kruschev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, and the general thaw of that period.
- Under Kruschev, 250,000 people were freed from the gulags, who’d been imprisoned for the crime of telling jokes. That’s the same number of ppl who immigrated during the Soviet Jewry movement!
- Between 1948 and 1953 was the most dangerous time to tell jokes in Hungary. And after Stalin’s death, 200 people were arrested, presumably reflecting the rise of “dead comrade Stalin” jokes. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the jokes are now forever recorded in these files.
- After the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, the citizenry went to war through posters – every day, countless new posters appeared ridiculing the Soviets, which the soldiers then removed at nights. Example: “Soviet circus back in town. All new acts!”
- There are an awful lot of people studying jokes. There is Christie Davis, the Professor of Jokes at Reading University, and Gyorgy Dalos, a historian of Hungarian communist jokes, or Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, a statistician of Romanian communist jokes. Yes, really.
- Reagan had a particular interest in Soviet humour. The White house asked the State Department to collect Soviet jokes, and this became proof for him that the people themselves wanted a change. The jokes came up frequently in his speeches.
- By that time, Gorbachev was also telling anti-communist – and anti-Gorbachev – jokes, including a joke about the lengthy queue of people waiting to kill him on a BBC talk show.
As always, the jokes are funnier in Russian.
Adam and Eve:
And one of my favourites, though it doesn’t appear in the documentary:
The second one replies, “I called Zbarsky a revolutionary.”
“That’s funny,” the first one says. “I called Zbarsky a counterrevolutionary.”
“That’s funny,” the third one says. “I am Zbarsky.”