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It’s only a joke, comrade! Why even Stalin couldn’t kill the political quip

It’s only a joke, comrade! Why even Stalin couldn’t kill the political quip
Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1935.

20 July 2020

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, one wrong word could spell disaster. Even a harmless joke could lead to the secret police hammering on doors in the middle of the night, confiscating the occupants’ possessions and hauling them off to the cells. There, these unlucky joke-tellers would face violent and often days-long interrogation by NKVD officers determined to transform an off-the-cuff remark into evidence of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy.

David Sigua, a young doctor, told the following joke in the canteen of the clinic where he worked:

Stalin summons his economists and tells them he wants to lay on a great feast for the people, a feast so great they will celebrate for weeks. He asks how much this would cost, but no one can say. Then one of the economists pipes up: ‘It could be done very cheaply. Buy a single bullet and shoot yourself – then everyone will celebrate.’

Sigua was denounced, arrested, and sentenced to eight years in a forced labour camp. Harsh as this was, his fate was not unusual: the Gulag system held countless more like him.

Nevertheless, diaries, memoirs and even the records typed up by stony-faced bureaucrats reveal that, like flowers pushing their way through concrete, laughter could never wholly be suppressed.

If the regime promised a glittering future of abundance to be achieved through five-year plans, the population responded with a song:

Bread gone,

Meat gone,

The Five-Year Plan

Is ten years long.

If the Soviet media crafted a cult of personality for Stalin which tried to place him beyond criticism, some ordinary citizens hung his portrait in the toilets, mocked his heavy Georgian accent, or replaced the “t” in his name with an “r”, making him “Sralin” – not the “Man of Steel”, but the “Man of Shit”.

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Given the enormous risk, why did friends and colleagues find it impossible to resist the impulse to poke fun at the regime, not only in private, but even on the factory floor, and at public meetings? It would be easy to interpret these jokes as courageous acts of resistance to the repressive state, of speaking truth to power, or even to believe George Orwell’s claim that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” But if we treat every joke under this repressive regime solely as an act of resistance, we not only internalise the paranoid worldview of the Soviet leaders, we also overlook what these jokes meant for the people telling them.

In truth, then as now, jokes contain far more than blunt-force resistance — they also help us to blow off steam, temper harsh realities and, in the process, to feel a deep sense of kinship with the people around us. Soviet joke-tellers were rarely activists consciously using humour as a weapon to undermine the Soviet state; they seldom took the risk of speaking truth directly to power, but instead found great reward in sharing truth behind power’s back.

Gulag prisoners in 1949. Image: Kaunas 9th Fort Museum

Gulag prisoners in 1949. Image: Kaunas 9th Fort Museum

While the newspapers raved about Bolshevik achievements, most people had to wait in line for hours each day just to receive basic rations. As one joke ran: “How’s life?”, with the caustic reply, “Like Lenin – unfed and unburied”. Another turned the chronic food shortages into a mock victory for socialism: “Two people argue over who is the greater leader, President Hoover or Comrade Stalin. One says ‘Hoover taught the Americans not to drink.’ The other responds, ‘That’s nothing – Stalin taught the Russians not to eat!’”

Food was not the only thing in short supply. Eugene Lyons, a foreign correspondent who lived in Moscow in the early 1930s, heard another joke about a group of peasants complaining they barely had anything to wear. A Soviet official reassures them, “You put too much emphasis on clothes, comrades. Take the Hottentots and other Africans. They are perfectly happy and they wear nothing but loin-cloths”. One of the peasants immediately responds, “I suppose, comrade, that these Africans must have had socialism far longer than us!”

As one joke ran: “How’s life?”, with the caustic reply, “Like Lenin – unfed and unburied”

Jokes like these provided vital oxygen in a life of stifling conformity and grinding poverty, but, like authoritarians everywhere, the Soviets cracked down on humour because they considered it a form of unacceptable resistance to their new world order. The Bolsheviks had themselves used humour with the intention of undermining the old regime, supporting and distributing satirical pamphlets that mocked the tsarist system by sharing anekdoty, or political jokes, which, as the first edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia explained, were “a special kind of weapon for political struggle.”

Stalin, together with Nikolai Bukharin, Sergo Orjonikidze, and Jānis Rudzutaks, look out over Red Square in 1929

Stalin, together with Nikolai Bukharin, Sergo Orjonikidze, and Jānis Rudzutaks, look out over Red Square in 1929

But after their dramatic seizure of power in 1917, the Bolsheviks struggled to force the genie back into the bottle. In 1921, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Commissar of Enlightenment, summed up the dilemma: “Words are weapons,” he said, so “just as the revolutionary government cannot tolerate everybody running around with handguns and machine guns […] the state cannot tolerate freedom of printed propaganda.” By the 1930s, this approach had expanded to include any joke aimed at the regime. As a delegate at the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress summed up, the task of Soviet comedy was not only to “kill” enemies with laughter, but to “correct with laughter” those loyal to the regime. Any other, unauthorised use of political humour had now become “anti-Soviet agitation” and was punished under Article 58-10 of the criminal code – the notorious legislation used to silence the regime’s enemies, real or imagined. As a result, during Stalin’s reign, for anyone except the regime’s chosen and carefully-controlled satirists, a single political joke was treated like an act of terrorism.

Even true believers could fall victim to this paranoia. Card-carrying Communists also shared anekdoty to vent their frustration with a government that constantly fell short of its glittering promises. In early 1934, Paraskovaya Pomelova, a Party member in her late 20s, shared a popular joke with one of her colleagues:

Stalin went for a swim in the River Neva and began to drown. A collective farmer was passing by and jumped in to save him. Back on shore, Stalin began to ask the farmer what he’d like as a reward, but, realising whom he’d saved, the farmer interrupted, “Nothing! Just don’t tell anybody that I saved you!”

Pomelova was arrested at the height of Stalin’s purges and barely escaped a firing squad. But was she truly being disloyal to the Soviet cause by mocking “The Boss”?

After all, the Bolsheviks were demanding the impossible: they wanted absolute conformity to a party line that endlessly contradicted itself, and was increasingly spiralling into outright paranoia, seeing “hidden enemies” in every shadow. Pomelova was no fifth columnist – she was simply another victim of a puritanical ideology which had begun to cannibalise itself (in fact, just a year after Pomelova appeared in court, the judge who convicted her was himself sentenced to 25 years in the gulag).

A burial for a miner who died in the gulag on Vaygach Island, 1931

A burial for a miner who died in the gulag on Vaygach Island, 1931

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this purity spiral was the regime’s use of retroactive justice. Just as modern zealots comb through tweets from 10 years ago, the NKVD and its network of informants scoured their information reports to find jokes and wry comments that a few years ago had been no more than dicey, but were now reinterpreted as the tell-tale sign of a hidden enemy. Pomelova told her joke about Stalin’s swimming expedition in 1934, but she was only arrested for it in 1937, when the mass arrests of the Great Terror reached their peak.

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Like Pomelova, most joke-tellers were not counterrevolutionaries; they were the unlucky victims of political correctness gone feral. By 1937, the regime was frantically trying to stamp out anything that resembled criticism: NKVD agents were issued with arrest quotas which many – whether out of conviction, pressure, or in hope of personal advancement – sought to overfulfil. A directive issued in March 1935 had declared that sharing political jokes was as much a crime as leaking state secrets, a ruling that made joke-tellers a prime target for zealous officials tasked with rooting out hidden enemies, and for many citizens contending with a toxic climate of “denounce or be denounced”.

Stalin’s Soviet Union had become the ultimate “cancel culture”, where the uncompromising desire to make the world a better place left no room for any but the most orthodox opinions. Another anekdot perfectly and pointedly summed up the situation:

A husband and wife are riding the tram. The husband lets out a heavy sigh. “Ah, ah!”, his wife reprimands him, “Don’t talk about politics!”

But in their frenzied scramble to uncover imagined conspiracies, the Soviet authorities failed to appreciate how useful political humour was for them. Because telling jokes could provide temporary relief from the pressures of daily life, even the most caustic humour actually helped ordinary people do precisely what the regime wanted: to keep calm and carry on.

Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, 1930s.

Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, 1930s.

Like many of us today, the Soviets misunderstood what humour is and what it actually does for the people who share it. To joke about something is not the same as condemning or endorsing it. More often, humour helps us test out opinions and ideas, recover a sense of autonomy, and avoid feelings of isolation, fear, or loneliness.

More importantly, when we look at political humour under Stalin, we find that the jokes’ targets were often the joke-tellers themselves. When ordinary people sarcastically repeated propaganda slogans like “Life has become better, comrades!” when they heard bad news, or celebrated Stalin for teaching them “not to eat”, they were taking the edge off their suffering by treating it as something laughable. They were, as we all do, using humour to share the burden of difficult circumstances, and make fun of the elephant in the room, rather than being trampled beneath it.

Jonathan Waterlow is the author of It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin. The book is available to buy here.

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