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HAMMER & TICKLE

Communism is the only political system to have created its own
international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that
communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety
valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the
ruled-even Stalin told some good ones.

BY Ben Lewis

A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice:
he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants
to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside
the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it
like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in
capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and
then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”

“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!”
He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of
people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the
front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who
looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world, Karl,” he
says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”

“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then
they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with
sharp knives.”

“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor,
“Why such a long queue?”

“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t
have knives, sometimes no hot water…”

It was in Romania, while making a film about Ceausescu, that I first
stumbled across the historical legacy of the communist joke. There I
learned that a clerk from the Bucharest transport system, Calin Bogdan
Stefanescu, had spent the last ten years of Ceausescu’s regime
collecting political jokes. He noted down which joke he heard and when,
and analysed his total of over 900 jokes statistically. He measured the
time gap between a political event and a joke about that event, and
then drew up a graph measuring the varying velocity of Romanian
communist jokes. He was also able to assert-somewhat tenuously-that
there was a link between jokes and the fall of Ceausescu, since jokes
about the leader doubled in the last three years of the regime. The
story of Stefanescu, the statistician of jokes, was, ironically, much
funnier than the jokes themselves. It seemed to capture the prosaic
reality of the little man struggling against the communist universe.

I was charmed. Soon my volume of Stefanescu’s Ten Years of Romanian
Black Humour was joined by 30 or so other collections of communist
jokes-such as Reinhard Wagner’s Jokes of East Germany Volume 1-2
(1994/96), and Hammer and Tickle (1980) by Petr Beckmann. The earliest
volume I found, Humour Behind the Iron Curtain, was published in 1962
by the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, under the pseudonym Mischka Kukin.
I wondered if Wiesenthal found communist jokes a diversion from the
business of tracking down Nazis, or if they represented to him another
struggle against injustice. I also came across a wonderfully
overwritten PhD thesis by the Stanford anthropologist Seth Benedict
Graham: A Cultural Analysis of the Russo-Soviet Anekdot (anekdot is the
Russian word for a political joke). Graham’s earnest academic language
suggests the standard theory of the joke as a tool of subversion: “An
important reason for the anekdot’s pre-eminence was its capacity to
outflank, mimic, debunk, deconstruct, and otherwise critically engage
with other genres and texts of all stripes and at all presumed points
on the spectrum from resistance to complicity.”

Graham gestures towards the Orwellian notion of the joke as “a tiny
revolution.” Jokes were an essential part of the communist experience
because the monopoly of state power meant that any act of
non-conformity, down to a simple turn of phrase, could be construed as
a form of dissent. By the same token, a joke about any facet of life
became a joke about communism. There have been political and
anti-authority jokes in every era, but nowhere else did political jokes
cohere into an anonymous body of folk literature as they did under
communism. With the creation of the Soviet bloc after the war,
communism exposed itself to Czech and Jewish traditions of
humour-mutating viruses to which the system never developed the right
antibodies. Some jokes that were traceable back to the Austro-Hungarian
empire found their apotheosis under communism-like this one about the
Hungarian communist leader Matyas Rakosi: Two friends are walking down
the street. One asks the other “What do you think of Rakosi?” “I can’t
tell you here,” he replies. “Follow me.” They disappear down a side
street. “Now tell me what you think of Rakosi,” says the friend. “No,
not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment
block. “OK here then.” “No, not here. It’s not safe.” They walk down
the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. “OK, now you can
tell me what you think of our president.” “Well,” says the other,
looking around nervously,”actually I quite like him.”

There’s another factor that reinforces the mode of covert protest in
communist jokes-the way former citizens of the communist countries
felt about them. I suggested to each interviewee that most of these
jokes weren’t actually very funny, or at least had dated badly. How
could they laugh at so many mediocre and repetitive jokes? They were
outraged by the question. “Every week there was another great new joke.
The strange thing is that you always asked: where do they come from?
You never knew. The author was a collective-the people,” said Ernst
Röhl, one of East Germany’s leading satirists. “I remember, as a
student, when we had to gather the harvest and we told jokes
incessantly,” I was told by Stefan Wolle, the author of Back in the
GDR. “Then we sat in the pub until midnight telling jokes. Everyone had
his special collection.” “Some of these jokes are minor masterpieces,”
said Doina Doru, a Romanian proofreader who spent ten years checking
that Ceausescu’s name was spelt correctly in the daily newspaper. “What
is colder in a Romanian winter than cold water?” she continued by way
of illustration, “Hot water!”

So far as I know, no one was executed for telling a joke. But people
routinely went to prison. The archives of the Hungarian secret police
are full of the dossiers of people arrested for telling them. Day in,
day out, officers of the state were taking the time and trouble to
track down joke-tellers, or going out of their way to add the evidence
of joke-telling to other charges, and then handing out short sentences.

Perhaps the most emblematic story of the joke-as-resistance is a report
of the prosecution of a joke-teller in Czechoslovakia in 1967, which I
found in the archives of Radio Free Europe, the anti-communist cold war
broadcaster. An arriving refugee brought the news that a worker in a
liquor factory had been arrested for telling the following joke: Why is
the price of lard not going up in Hungary? So that the workers can have
lard on bread for their Sunday lunch.

The joke had been overheard by the party secretary of the factory, who
immediately reported the worker. The joke-teller was arrested on
charges of “Incitement and defamation against the People’s Democracy.”
After six hearings, the employee was fired. The sentence was relatively
lenient because the co-workers all stood by the employee, saying that
the party secretary did not hear the introductory words of the
joke-teller: I heard a very stupid joke yesterday…

The joke wasn’t very funny-the implication is that since there is no
meat in the shops, Sunday roasts have been replaced by lard sandwiches.
But the real story produces its own punchline. Communism was a
humour-producing machine. Its economic theories and system of
repression created inherently funny situations. There were jokes under
fascism and the Nazis too, but those systems did not create an absurd,
laugh-a-minute reality like communism.

Communist jokes were a way to criticise and outmanoeuvre the system,
but they were also something more than this. They comprised a secret
language between citizens-membership of a club to which the
government was not invited (or so they thought).

The first jokes about the Russian revolution surfaced immediately after
October 1917. In one, an old woman visits Moscow zoo and sees a camel
for the first time. “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!”
she exclaims. As the system became harsher, a distinctive communist
sense of humour emerged-pithy, dark and surreal-but so did the
legal machinery for repressing it. Historian Roy Medvedev looked
through the files of Stalin’s political prisoners and concluded that
200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, such as this: Three
prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. “I am
here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged
me with sabotage,” says the first. “I am here because I kept getting to
work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying,” says the
second. “I am here because I got to work on time every day,” says the
third, “and they charged me with owning a western watch.”

Yet there is an obvious problem with the idea that communist jokes
represented an act of revolt: it wasn’t just opponents of the regime
who told them. Stalin himself cracked them, including this one about a
visit from a Georgian delegation: They come, they talk to Stalin, and
then they go, heading off down the Kremlin’s corridors. Stalin starts
looking for his pipe. He can’t find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded
head of his secret police. “Go after the delegation, and find out which
one took my pipe,” he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five
minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls
Beria-“Look, I’ve found my pipe.” “It’s too late,” Beria says, “half
the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died
during questioning.”

Stalin’s laughter underlines the cynicism of the Soviet enterprise. But
after his death the joke trials petered out. One of Khrushchev’s first
acts was to release all those imprisoned for minor political crimes,
which included telling jokes. In his famous secret speech to the 20th
party congress, Khrushchev cracked one too. He said that Stalin would
have liked to have deported all the Ukrainians, but didn’t know where
to put them. The stenographers recording the speech noted the reaction
of the party-“laughter.”

In this new era, political leaders took the view that the jokes were a
harmless way for people to let off steam. They believed that jokes
would help people to cope with the hardships of the difficult stage of
socialism, before the communist utopia arrived. They also imagined that
the jokes could be used as an early warning system; problems indicated
by humour could be tackled before they caused a revolution. Ilie Merce,
a senior member of the Romanian Securitate, said that he used to file
reports on the jokes-who was telling what-in order to convey the
popular mood to the ministry of the interior.

Everyone told jokes, even the apparatchiks. Guenter Schabowski, the
East German newspaper editor and later politburo member, told me: “At
Neues Deutschland we told each other jokes in the canteen. We weren’t
blind to the failings of the system, but we convinced ourselves that
this was only because it was the early days and the class enemy was
perpetrating sabotage. One day, we thought, all problems will be solved
and there won’t be any more jokes because there won’t be anything to
joke about.”

There were still occasional outbreaks of arrests for jokes in the 1960s
and 1970s-usually linked to moments when the state felt
vulnerable-when the Berlin wall was built or when there was another
price hike. At these times, newspapers would publish “Outraged of
Vladivostok” letters railing against the flood of jokes, like this one
from Izvestia in 1964.

Dear Sir, Ten days ago I went to our savings bank. In front of the
clerk’s window there were five people waiting for their turn. And while
standing there I heard too much. There were two of them in front of me,
well fed, healthy, and really well dressed… and in a public place and
with an insolent casualness they were trying to outdo each other,
swapping their “best” political jokes… How can I restrain myself in
front of these “jokers,” who tell me mockingly a “new anecdote”?
Nothing is sacred to them. They spit on everything!… We have to fight
them; it is necessary to discredit, shame and dishonour them in front
of honest people.
With deep respect, Nikolay Kuritsin, external student, Kadykchan
village.

In the 1960s, the Soviet bloc was deluged by a flood of new jokes.
There were around 20 subcategories. The most popular theme was the
economy: One housewife to another: “I hear there’ll be snow
tomorrow”-“Well, I’m not queuing for that.” There were jokes about
Soviet propaganda: The capitalists are standing at the edge of the
abyss. Soon communism will overtake capitalism. There were gags about
Marxist-Leninist theory: Why is the individual placed in the centre of
socialism? So it’s easy to kick him from all sides. There were jokes
about communist art: What is the difference between painters of the
naturalist, impressionist and the socialist realist schools? The
naturalists paint as they see, the impressionists as they feel, the
socialist realists as they are told. There were jokes about
communist-style democracy: When was the first Russian election? The
time that God put Eve in front of Adam and said, “Go ahead, choose your
wife.” And, of course, there were Jewish communist jokes: “Hey Hymee,
how’s your brother Joseph?” “He’s living in Prague and building
socialism.” “And didn’t you have a sister, Judith-how’s she doing?”
“She’s well too-living in Budapest and creating a communist future.”
“And your older brother Bernie?” “Oh he moved to Israel.” “And is he
building socialism there too?” “What, are you crazy? Do you think he’d
do that in his own country?”

The point of this last gag seems to be not just to have a laugh at
communism, but to shift the blame for it away from the central
committees to the Jews. In other words, jokes could aid the system as
well as undermine it. This, it seems, is what Graham’s thesis on the
meaning of the anekdot was grasping for when it described a “spectrum
from resistance to complicity.” A joke could be told about Stalin, or
by Stalin; it could mock both the makers of the system and its victims.
A joke could be an act of rebellion or a safety valve, an expression of
revulsion against the system or of familiarity, even warmth towards it.

This is not to deny that the communist joke was often at its best in
its dissident form. When Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, the
population fought back with wit. Every night graffiti appeared in
Wenceslas Square with lines like “Soviet State Circus back in town! New
attractions!” and “Soviet School for Special Needs
Children-End-of-Term Outing.” People cracked jokes: Why is
Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? Because it
doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs. And: Are the
Russians our brothers or our friends? Our brothers-we can choose our
friends. “We showed our intellectual superiority,” one former dissident
told me proudly.

Jokes under communism were shaped by the cultures that produced them,
as they are anywhere else. For the Czechs, a sense of humour
encapsulated a type of national resilience. East German jokes,
meanwhile, tended to be touchingly self-deprecating. And yet there was
a pan-communist umbrella of comedy that stood above national
distinctions, just as the international socialist project itself did.
What ultimately defined the genre was less the purpose it served than
its style. The communist joke was by nature deadpan and
absurdist-because it was born of an absurd system which created a
yawning gap between everyday experience and propaganda. Yet sometimes,
through jokes, both communists and their opponents could carry on a
debate about the failings of communism.

The logic of this discourse led to the strangest coded conflict, as the
pages of the East German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel reveal.
Eulenspiegel was founded in 1954 as the state’s official organ of
humour. There were no censorship laws, as the East Germans were so
proud of telling the west. Instead the editors had to guess what kind
of jokes were permissible. Every week the magazine carried three or
four pages of anti-imperialist humour, in which capitalists in top hats
counted their money, GIs enslaved Africans and doves sat atop hammers
and sickles. Eulenspiegel could also print anodyne comic critiques of
daily life in East Germany, as long as they didn’t incriminate the
politburo. Ernst Röhl was able to write things like this: Man doesn’t
live from bread and ham alone. He needs something green. And green
things have been in short supply for a long time. Cabbage has been more
the subject of discussion than digestion. And the Adam’s apple is the
closest one gets to fruit at the dinner table. But this year Mother
Nature has been particularly green. Cucumbers are no longer the
shoemaker’s bribe. Onions no longer raise laughs in cabaret sketches…

People like Röhl saw themselves, rather self-indulgently, as fifth
columnists, eating away at the regime from the inside. But there were
limits to permissible satire. Once the cover featured “young pioneers”
with long hair-a decadent western fashion. The politburo was livid,
but the magazine had already been sent out, so the police reclaimed all
the copies they could from newsagents and post offices. Eulenspiegel
once tried to make common cause with Pardon, its West German left-wing
counterpart. After all, Pardon also attacked Adenauer and American
imperialism. But the editors of Eulenspiegel were stung when Pardon
rebuffed their advances, on the grounds that the communist satirists
should criticise their own leader, Walter Ulbricht, the same way the
capitalist ones went for theirs. The editors of Euelenspiegel printed a
rebuttal entitled “How do we write about Walter Ulbricht?” in 1963: “We
know from various reliable sources that President Ulbricht has a
terrific sense of humour… [but] the transparency and virtue of our
state makes it not only difficult but simply impossible to write a
satire about its representatives. Where there is nothing to uncover,
the satirist will find no material. So how do we satirists write about
Walter Ulbricht?… We send our greetings and best wishes to the first
secretary of the central committee. We wish comrade Ulbricht health,
stamina and a long life.”

This article could have been satirical, but wasn’t. Rather, it occupies
the strange socialist space where the serious and the humorous are
identical. Eulenspiegel was the only place where serious criticism of
the state could be published. Readers wrote in with complaints about
their leaking prefab apartments and so on, and there was a column
called Erledigt (Dealt With) which celebrated the grievances that the
Eulenspiegel had managed to redress, and often came with printed
apologies from factory managers and landlords. Nothing illustrates
better the inverted reality of communism: real problems could only be
presented in a context of laughter, presumably so that one could always
claim one was only joking. In this realm, where humour turns out to be
a complex social dance, the idea of the joke as simply subversive
breaks down.

But on this side of the iron curtain, communist jokes were only
interpreted as evidence of anti-communism; their wider significance was
lost. In 1950-51, a group of Harvard anthropologists undertook one of
the most influential research projects of the postwar era. The US
government wanted to find out how Soviet citizens might react if the US
invaded Russia. So the academics interviewed thousands of displaced
Russian citizens living in camps in Germany. When asked to describe
what Soviet society was like, the refugees told jokes: “Did you hear
the one about the sheep who tried to leave the USSR? They were stopped
at the border by a guard….” “Why do you wish to leave Russia?” the
guard asked. “It’s the secret police,” replied the sheep. “Stalin has
ordered them to arrest all the elephants.” “But you aren’t elephants.”
“Try telling that to the secret police.”

In the 1950s, the New York Times Magazine would devote the odd page to
jokes from the Harvard project. From the 1960s onwards, volumes of
communist jokes were published in paperback form in Europe and North
America. Willy Brandt was a renowned communist joke-teller, but there
was one western politician who took the jokes more seriously than
anyone else: Ronald Reagan. He ordered the state department to collect
the jokes and send them to him in weekly memos. As a result, Paul
Goble, head of the Balkan desk in the 1980s, assembled a collection of
15,000 communist jokes. Reagan often used Goble’s gags in his speeches
and negotiations. When Gorbachev came to Washington, Reagan told him a
communist joke, later boasting at a press conference that he had
laughed. The joke, which made fun of the communist theory that a
transitional era of socialism was preceding the communist utopia, went
like this: Two men are walking down a street in Moscow. One asks the
other, “Is this full communism? Have we really passed through socialism
and reached full communism?” The other answers “Hell, no. It’s gonna
get a lot worse first.”

Communism ground on into the 1970s. Brezhnev and his geriatric cronies
gave rise to some new jokes (Brezhnev reads a speech at the Winter
Olympics “O-O-O-O-O.” “No,” his aide whispers to him, “that’s the
Olympic logo.”) And the technology gap gave rise to others: The latest
achievements of the East German electronics company Robotron were
celebrated-they built the world’s largest microchip. Meanwhile the
state was seemingly less worried by the jokes. In Poland, the most
liberal regime of them all, they even permitted communist jokes on
television.

Jokes did not bring down communism. That was achieved by the nonsense
of its economic policies, and by the decisions of the leaders of the
superpowers, east and west-in the case of Reagan, by pricing the
Soviets out of the arms race; in the case of Gorbachev by glasnost and
perestroika. This much is well known-what isn’t is the significance
both leaders attached to communist jokes. Gorbachev knew the jokes, and
like his predecessors, he told them. You can’t imagine Stalin or
Khrushchev telling a joke about his own unpopularity, but Gorbachev
did. In 1996 he appeared on the Clive Anderson show in Britain and told
this one, whose lineage can be traced back through the 20th century: A
man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns
round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that
Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,”
says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was
an even longer queue over there.”

Gorbachev and his aides talked openly about the jokes. In 1989 he told
a crowd of workers, “political jokes were our salvation,” a reference
to the way the jokes let out frustrations and debunked propaganda. As
the first reforms faltered, one of his ministers warned him that if the
new laws didn’t work “the people would return to the bottle and the
political joke.” One could even argue that Gorbachev’s policies
liberalising the economy, press and politics were addressing the
implicit complaints of decades of jokes.

Exactly how communist jokes functioned politically, socially or
psychologically is a question as complex as the meaning of works of
art. What is self-evident, however, is that since the fall of the wall
the jokes have dried up. Life just isn’t as funny any more. The vast
enterprise of communism gave a universal quality to the meaning of the
jokes that hasn’t been replicated since its collapse. They subverted
and they supported; they undermined and they prolonged. As Gorbachev’s
respect for the jokes and Reagan’s obsession with them show, they were
intrinsic to the whole communist experience. Jokes were to communism
what myths were to ancient Greece: anonymous, oral stories which both
represented and shaped people’s views and actions.

Jokes may not have carried the weight of the great forces which ended
communism, but they were more than mere figures of speech. Jokes kept
alive in the minds of the citizens of the Soviet bloc the idea of an
alternative reality, and they made light of four decades of occupation
of eastern and central Europe. They may even explain why the end of
communism was so sudden and so bloodless. No point anyone getting hurt
over a little joke, right?

Ben Lewis’s film, “Hammer and Tickle: the communist joke book” shows on
BBC4 “Storyville” in September.