Recalling communism through its black jokes
I remember the jokes. They were usually about one of two things: hardship or fear.
It’s been strange, this week, to reflect that most people will never know, as I did (albeit as a visitor) what it was really like in the old Soviet Bloc. But the jokes used to tell the story.
An American dog, a Polish dog and a Russian dog are talking. The American dog says “Where I live it’s good. You bark loudly enough, and they give you meat”. The Polish dog says” What’s meat?” The Russian dog says “What’s bark?”
Why have they brought in this new law in Moscow that the bread shops have to be separated by two kilometres? To keep the queues apart.
I was in Poland, in the autumn of 1981. Lech Walesa had founded the national Trade Union, Solidarity, the year before, and with the tacit support of the Polish Pope, had reached unprecedented heights of popularity. The rectangular red and white ‘Solidarnosc’ badges were on every second lapel. But people feared (rightly as it turned out) that the crackdown would come soon. Hence the joke I was told:
“You’ve heard they’re making round Solidarnosc badges now? Easier to swallow.”
In much-invaded Poland there was also bitterness about the neighbours – on both sides.
“If the Russians and the East Germans invaded tonight, which would you shoot first? The Germans. Why? Duty before pleasure.”
In Czechoslovakia in 1968, silenced by the tanks, they came out and painted the jokes on the walls:
“Why is Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? Because it doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs”.
Were these jokes a form of samizdat – the underground literature of communism, but in oral form – or were they actually a sort of safety-valve, tacitly allowed by the regimes, and even used by them as an early warning system for public disaffection?
There’s academic disagreement about that, but one thing is clear: that at one time in Communist history, jokes were very dangerous indeed. As Ben Lewis points out here archival research by the dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev on political prisoners, indicated that 200,000 people went to jail in Stalin’s time for the sole ‘crime’ of telling a joke. Many of them were not released until after the dictator’s death.
Sending people to the gulag for a one-liner, of course, was small beer to Stalin. The Oxford historian Professor Archie Brown estimates that 10 to 20 million people died – directly or indirectly – because of Stalin’s orders or his policies. You can hear an extended interview with him here.
Note that the figure – 10 to 20 million – does not include the 25 million who died in the Second World War. Professor Brown says several million of those died because Stalin had purged the Army, meaning that he had had many of its most competent officers killed, so the first part of the Soviet campaign against Hitler was profoundly wasteful.
My own first encounter with Soviet bloc communism in action was in Mongolia in 1971. I was, as I’ve written here before, a student, on vacation, visiting my father, the British Ambassador in Ulan Bator. It was strange living in the Embassy: you always had to be careful what you said.
The Embassy had one phone line, but there were no less than six telephone cables coming out of the building – and for no apparent reason, they were all routed via the sentry-box outside.
British Foreign Office ‘sweepers’ would come out periodically from London to de-bug the building. Then, in a ritual dance, ‘heating technicians’ would arrive from the Mongolian Interior Ministry, (the city ran on a centralised heating system) and re-bug it.
On one celebrated occasion my father used this fact to his advantage. The low-security, but sealed, diplomatic bags that came in via Moscow, had been opened at some point – either by the Russians or by the Mongolians themselves. Dad had lodged a protest, but met a brick wall. So that night, during dinner, he motioned us for silence, sat back in his chair, and delivered a loud, clear monologue at the ceiling.
The import of his lengthy remarks was that, not only was Her Majesty’s Government angry at what had happened, it was absolutely livid. Indeed, he had received a highly secret cable from London that very afternoon saying that, unless a full apology was forthcoming within 24 hours, he was to break off diplomatic relations, pack up the Embassy and go home.
Promptly at 8 the next morning, an emissary of the Foreign Minister was at the front door in a car, ready to transport him to the Ministry to receive the grovelling apology he had asked for.
Of course, with diplomatic privilege, being bugged had few real consequences: but for ordinary people all over the Communist world, the possibility of microphones in the walls was a daily fear.
Hence the sense that you always had, even in the flats of dissidents, that it was not quite safe to talk freely. It might be all right for you – a tourist in other people’s oppression.
Whether I working was in Warsaw, Budapest or Moscow, the need to go for walks, or conduct interviews in cars, and even then, always to wonder whether I was endangering my interviewees’ safety or even their life.
The jokes were all part of the doubleness of life under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, and it was a doubleness that was everywhere; always there was that sense of the overground and the underground, separated by what people really thought but could seldom actually say out loud.
My father and I used to go fishing on long summer afternoons in Mongolia, a country where religion was banned, apart from a single (licensed and closely-observed) monastery in Ulan Bator.
In the wild, after long drives across the steppes, miles from the nearest town, we would always find them: prayer flags, tied to branches, flying over springs and rivulets, in homage to the gods and spirits of wood and water.
We never saw anyone leaving them or praying at them, but half a century after the religion (closely related to Tibetan Buddhism) had been ‘eliminated’, the resistance remained.
That was how it was, in different ways, in all the Soviet satellite countries, always the silent resistance and the jokes: and that’s why, when the Wall came down, the whole system collapsed: the domino theory the Americans feared in Vietnam actually worked in reverse, so the dominos fell all the way back to Moscow. There was just no will any longer to keep up the pretence.
Is there a danger it could come back, if we allow what happened to fade in memory?
It seems incredibly unlikely in many of the former East European client-states: they’re mostly either in the European Union already, or on their way in, and even the global financial crisis has done little to revive the cold Communist Parties.
As for Russia, the habits of totalitarianism have certainly died hard: a poll recently showed Stalin was still the third most popular historical figure of all time, and the Medvedev/Putin Government has been busy trying to stop people from “besmirching” his memory, or writing too much about the Gulags.
But even in Russia, Marxism-Leninism itself – redistribution of property and the means of production, driven always by the Central Role Of The Party – is probably gone for good.
All that remain are the memories - and the jokes, dark and pungent like the bread.
Brezhnev is being driven through the countryside when his limousine hits a pig. An angry crowd approaches from the nearest village. He sends the chauffeur to pacify them. Cowering behind darkened windows, he sees the chauffeur approach the mob and start to talk. Suddenly they start to cheer, and carry him back, shoulder-high in triumph. He gets back in the car and they drive away. Brezhnev, astonished, asks “How did you manage that?”
“I don’t know”, says the driver. I just said “I’m Brezhnev’s driver: I killed the pig”
“Here in the Soviet Union we have a pretend economy. We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
And finally, the one that, with hindsight on the events of 1989, you could interpret as prophetic:
“Capitalism is teetering on a precipice. Soon Communism will overtake it”.
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