The Magazine

Laughter in Red

Humor as a weapon against Soviet Communism.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Hammer and Tickle

The Story of Communism, a Political System Almost Laughed Out of Existence

by Ben Lewis

Pegasus, 368 pp., $26.95

The Soviet Union and its satellites were famous for shortages, but there was rarely any shortage of jokes, a commodity for which they were equally celebrated. People made fun of their leaders, the system, the propaganda, the police.

Why do the police always travel in threes? To have one who can read, one who can write, and one to keep his eye on the two intellectuals.

The wit was quick, defiant, prodigious, heroic. No "someday we'll look back at this and laugh" for the Russians and Eastern Europeans; they laughed while in the throes of pain; they spit (literally, if the joke was good and they'd just sipped some tea) in the face of ideology.

And the worse the crisis, the greater the humor. Martial law, imposed in Poland in December 1981, brought arrests, tanks in the streets, anchormen in military attire, and a relentless salvo of jokes.

What is the lowest rank in the army? Television commentator.

I was teaching English in Warsaw at the time, and one bitterly cold day after the crackdown I went to visit a former colleague. His daughter's hamster sat in its cage in the cramped living room. "He's getting big," I remarked. "Yeah," Krzysztof said with a grin, "he'll be meat for the winter." Humor was, as Jerry Seinfeld once commented with regard to New York City, "in the air."

Humor, of course, is the weapon of the weak, but Ben Lewis, a young British writer, had heard that it was the cudgel that brought down Communism. He was dubious, but so enamored with what he calls "the Communist joke" that he traveled widely through erstwhile Iron Curtain countries in a dogged attempt to find the proof. It was in many ways a fool's errand, but it has produced an engaging, learned, and unsurprisingly funny book.

Early on Lewis notes: "Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy." It is one of those insightfully obvious, now-that-you-think-about-it observations that nearly undermines his mission. For whatever role the jokes played in Communism's downfall, the very fact that the system was a laughingstock suggests fatal flaws.

But the search for evidence gives the book a narrative in addition to that of the rise and fall of Communism, which is told deftly, often through jokes. There is also the hint of a personal story, as the author's humorless girlfriend, an artist born in East Germany, makes brief, usually jarring, and always moody, appearances. (Though her final scene gives the ending an almost Hollywood gloss.)

To tell the tale of the Communist joke, Lewis goes back to the Russian Revolution (actually, before that event, showing how many later jokes about Stalin were recycled jokes about the czar). It took a while for anekdoty to flourish, in part because the system was new, and also because censorship was not fully in place and humor was still appearing in print. With writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, the 1920s were, according to Lewis, "the golden age of Soviet satire."

Still, nascent jokesmiths were already at it:

An old peasant woman is visiting Moscow Zoo, when she sets eyes on a camel for the first time. "Oh my God," she says, "look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse."

If jokes are by nature anonymous ("No one was ever present at the birth of a joke," the Czech playwright Karel Capek is quoted here as saying), the Communist joke was, for obvious reasons, even more so. Yet Lewis singles out Karl Radek, adviser to Lenin and a Comintern star, as one of its inventors. He is the man credited with coming up with perhaps the most famous-Lewis calls it "the most definitive"-joke of the era.

What is the definition of capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. And what is the definition of Communism? The exact opposite.

Adding to its genius is the fact that by simply reversing the order you change the focus of the punch line. It is the perfect, dual-purpose, adjustable joke.

Lewis notes that while most political jokes are directed at others-different classes and ethnic groups-Communist jokes were about the people who told them. And they had, he writes, "a new tone .  .  . dry and cynical, usually pithy (short enough to be whispered quickly) and pitiless."

Who discovered the electric razor? It was discovered by Ivan Petrovich Sidorov .  .  . in the dustbin behind the American embassy.

Some Russians were sent to camps for telling jokes, and there were jokes about being sent to camps. (Though few jokes were told in the camps.)