The one about the utopian ideology which killed millions
Comedy in the Soviet Union
‘Stalin is in his limo, alone with his driver. ‘Let me ask you a question,’ he says to the chauffeur. ‘Tell me honestly, have you become more or less happy since the Revolution?’
‘In truth, less happy,’ says the driver.
‘Why is that?’ asks Stalin, his hackles raised.
‘Well, before the Revolution I had two suits. Now I only have one.’
‘You should be pleased,’ says Stalin. ‘Don’t you know that in Africa they run around completely naked?’
‘Really?’ the chauffeur replies. ‘So how long ago did they have their revolution?’
Bolshevism was an ideology inherently rich in black humour, being a utopian creed which promised heaven on earth and delivered queues, poverty and show trials. It was the gulf between dream and reality which offered such material for jokes – anekdoty or anecdotes – and whispered comedy became one of the USSR’s few genuine growth areas. This is the subject of Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle, a history of humour under communism, which was published in 2009.
There was initially something of a humour boom after the Russian Revolution. ‘Between 1922 and 1928 seven satirical magazines were published every week in Moscow and St Petersburg with a combined print run of half a million – the same as the daily edition of Pravda; this was the first flowering of Communist humour.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin, most famous for the proto-Orwellian We, also wrote The Last Tale About Phita in 1922 in which ‘a mayor decides that, in order to make the inhabitants of his town happy, he will make everyone equal. He orders them to live together in a large barracks, then shaves every citizen’s hair off to put them on a par with the bald, and makes them mentally disabled to equalise their intelligence’.
Mikhail Zoshchenko’s The Match features a delegate from the Matchmakers’ Union giving a speech to assembly workers where he tells them that ‘total output is bounding ahead’ and the quality and quantity of goods improving. The speaker then tries lighting his cigarette and the flaming tip of the badly made match snaps off and hits him in the eye.
This satire boom would not last, and towards the late 1920s Stalin closed down most of the satirical magazines. As a character in Milan Kundera’s The Joke puts it, ‘No great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes everything it touches’. The regime was following the pattern of revolutionary movements in becoming more conservative as they established power.
Political jokes were banned as ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and the authorities replaced them ‘with their own brand of dull official humour, which they disseminated in satirical magazines…. There were now two kinds of humour: official and unofficial – the written and the spoken, the public and the private. In the censored void, a culture of the spoken joke would develop, a collective satirical work produced by the whole population’.