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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Brezhnev dies and winds up in Hell. The devil tells him he can choose his torture.
Walking along, he sees Hitler bathing in a tub of boiling oil and Stalin stretched out on a rack. Then he sees Khrushchev sitting with Brigitte Bardot on his lap.
"I want the same torture as Khrushchev," he tells the devil.
"That's not his torture," the devil says. "It's hers."

Thomas Swick is the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and, more recently, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.

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.)

A new convict arrived at a prison camp. The inmates began questioning him about the length of his sentence.
"Twenty-five years," replied the newcomer.
"What for?"
"Nothing. Didn't do a thing; I'm innocent."
"Don't give us that story. The innocent only get five years."

In the 1940s, the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence and Communist humor became multilingual.

After the war, different national traditions of humor from Central and Eastern Europe came together and enriched the Communist joke, which already benefited from the culture of Jewish humor and the Russian anekdot. The result was the emergence of a new breed of super-jokes, perhaps the best that had ever existed in history.

The Soviet Bloc as Comedy Central.

The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, inspired more jokes, but only in the East. Which is probably not surprising, considering that there it went by the risible name of the "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall."

In Halle, Lewis meets with two former student comics, Ernst Röhl and Peter Sodann, who believed in the German Democratic Republic (the name itself a kind of bad joke) and thought that, through humor, they could provide constructive criticism. They are among a number of fascinating characters the author exhumes-fruits of his exhaustive look at Communist humor in all its forms (satire, cabaret, cartoon, etc.)-and they show that there was more going on than just a series of jokes (however clever and subversive) being circulated among a beleaguered citizenry. Lewis does everyone a service in telling their stories, which give the much-ballyhooed human face to what could have been simply a joke anthology.

Further elevating the book is his analysis, which is scholarly but not dense, and usually astute, though his sympathy for the German comics, and their continuing sympathy for the regime, lead him to reflect on the tragic quality of the jokes: "Behind the contempt, frustration, and fear lay a note of attraction and forgiveness. However awful Communism was, the ideals and goals behind it never lost their allure."

That may have been true for Röhl and Sodann, but not for millions of unwilling subjects. As the unheralded comedy writer Josef Stalin once said (in a quote not included here): "Communism fits Poland like a saddle fits a cow."

The Communist joke reached its apotheosis, Lewis writes, in the 1960s. And to prove it he tells a day-in-the-life story entirely through jokes.

Less than a half-century after the revolution, there was no aspect of life under Communism that wasn't ripe for ridicule. A system that promised cradle-to-grave security now delivered absurdity.

But do you know, I'm getting so absent-minded: I left the house today, I shut the front door and looked at the empty bag in my hand and for a moment I couldn't remember if I was about to go shopping, or if I had just come back.

Not everyone was amused, or is amused today, as Lewis discovers when he attends a meeting of the Janos Kadar Appreciation Society and spouts jokes about the former Hungarian leader. He has a much more successful visit in Bucharest with Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, "the world's only statistician of Communist jokes." His Trabi jokes fall flat at a rally of Trabant owners in Zwickau. And he gets a cool reception from Lech Walesa when he asks the former Polish president and solidarity leader what would happen if Communism were introduced to Saudi Arabia. (There would be a shortage of sand.)

Walesa takes himself far too seriously these days, but his impatience signifies something else, which Lewis addresses. Orwell may have claimed that "every joke is a tiny revolution," but jokes don't prosper during moments of revolt. The act of insurgency calls for courage and earnestness; cynicism and derision belong to the helpless observers of history.

"I was slowly coming to the conclusion," Lewis writes, "that, as the people of the Soviet Bloc rose up, they cast aside not only their chains but their jokes as well."

But what a waggish legacy they left behind. The jokes, according to Lewis, "are proof that they weren't simply lost years. They are evidence that some kind of soul came out of that era, and that [the people who suffered under Communism] have something that we in the West never had and will never have. Jokes were eastern Europe's jazz, the music of the oppressed."

I would change "jazz" to "blues." And I would add that, while many of the jokes are now dated, some remain timeless.

Brezhnev dies and winds up in Hell. The devil tells him he can choose his torture.
Walking along, he sees Hitler bathing in a tub of boiling oil and Stalin stretched out on a rack. Then he sees Khrushchev sitting with Brigitte Bardot on his lap.
"I want the same torture as Khrushchev," he tells the devil.
"That's not his torture," the devil says. "It's hers."

Thomas Swick is the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and, more recently, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.