Thirty years ago Hungary, like all of socialist Eastern and Central Europe and of course the Soviet republics, buzzed with excellent political jokes. When acquaintances met, the conversation would inevitably begin with “Have you heard the latest political anecdote?” The jokes were spontaneously invented by ordinary people, they grew out of social interaction and circulated without any assistance from the mass media or printed joke books. They were truly jokes of, for and by the people. Today there are many published collections of political jokes and older Hungarians still remember the jokes of the past but few new political jokes of quality are being invented. The political joke has fallen from its previous high peak and is an endangered species.
What accounts for the rise and fall for such a huge part of popular culture? In a single word, it is socialism. The jokes first arose with the arrival of socialism in Russia following the Communist revolution of 1917 and thrived in Hungary only after socialism was imposed on its people by Soviet force and local quislings. When socialism died, so did the jokes.
In the democratic world, political jokes are few, particularly in comparison with the general mass of jokes in circulation about women and disasters, lawyers and doctors, ethnic minorities and neighbouring countries and very few exist relative to the number told under totalitarian socialism. Even in authoritarian societies where political activities and discussion are restricted, as in, say, Mubarak’s Egypt or Franco’s Spain, there are fewer political jokes than under socialism and they are largely about the political leaders, not the political system and its ideology.
What is distinctive about socialism is not so much the intensity of its political repression but its breadth of oppression. There were more jokes in the time of Brezhnev than that of Stalin even though the terror had in some measure abated. Socialism as a political system is totalitarian in that, in contrast to merely authoritarian societies, it penetrates and seeks to control all aspects of life. Because the state owns all or very nearly all productive property and enjoys a market monopoly far more complete than anything to be found in other societies, work and consumption are politicised and become the subject of political jokes. Because the state owns the publishing houses, the newspapers and the periodicals and directs them for its own ends, real political comment is banished and that which is forbidden in public discourse inevitably becomes the subject of jokes. The “biting” humour of the socialist era periodicals with prickly, stinging names such as Krokodil, Nettles, Porcupine, Stag Beetle and Thistle was aimed only against targets chosen by the state. The purpose of this humour was to deflect the widespread indignation of the people at the shortcomings of the socialist order away from the crimes and errors of the powerful and onto the little man – the corrupt and inefficient factory manager or shop assistant, the idle and drunken worker. The periodicals had a very large circulation because they were cheap and had no competitors but their readers knew who was really to blame and the political jokes reflect this. In a democratic society not only is there open political discussion (though not as open as it should be) about ideology as well as institutions and personalities but political humour often of a powerful and mocking kind, is openly published and performed in the form of cabaret, cartoons and satire, essays and skits. Little of this was available under socialism and jokes told in private had to replace it.
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of a socialist society in a modern world was its ideology of Marxist-Leninism through which it attempted to control and shape religion, science and the arts rather than granting their practitioners a proper autonomy. Not only did this absurdity in and of itself inevitably gave rise to jokes but it also politicised jokes about yet more aspects of life.
In a socialist society there is quite simply more to joke about. More is forbidden from public discussion so there are more political rules that can be evaded in jokes. There are no real humorous alternatives to private joking and so it flourishes.
Totalitarian socialism in the Soviet Union lasted for seventy-four years in contrast, say, to the mere twelve years of National Socialist Germany under Hitler, so there was time for the jokes to develop and to become an established tradition. Even in the Baltic States socialism lasted for fifty years and in Central Europe for over forty in contrast to, say, Béla Kun’s regime which was over in four months, not long enough to produce many jokes.
The earliest political jokes are Russian from the 1920s and they turn up in English translation in the 1930s, having been recorded much earlier by English-speaking expatriates in Moscow such as the American Eugene Lyons. There are many jokes that refer to this early period but it is often impossible to say for certain whether a particular joke was invented then or later. Many of the best jokes about Lenin date from the time of the officially sponsored adulation that greeted the centenary of his birth in 1970.
During the famine of the civil war, a delegation of starving peasants came to Lenin’s headquarters in the Smolny in Petrograd to submit a petition. “We have even started eating the grass like horses”, says one peasant. “Soon we will start neighing like horses!”
“Come on! Don’t worry!” says Lenin reassuringly. “We are drinking tea with honey here, and we are not buzzing like bees, are we?”
A military guard in Petrograd spots someone trying to sneak past late at night. “Stop! Who goes there? Show me your identity documents.”
The frightened man, shuffling through his pockets, drops a sheet of paper. The soldier picks it up and reads slowly, with difficulty: “U.ri.ne A.na.ly.sis…” He thinks: “Hmm… he must be a foreigner… He looks like a spy to me… Why not shoot him on the spot!”
He reads further: “Proteins: none, Sugars: none, Fats: none…”
“You are free to go at once, proletarian comrade! declares the soldier. Long live World Revolution!”
A regional Communist Party meeting is held to celebrate the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The Chairman gives a speech, “Dear comrades! Let’s look at the amazing achievements of our Party after the revolution. Maria here, where was she before the revolution? An illiterate peasant; she only had one dress and no shoes and stockings. And look at her now. She is a champion milkmaid celebrated throughout the entire region. Or take, Ivan, he was the poorest man in this village, he had no horse, no cow, not even an axe. And now? He is a tractor driver with two pairs of shoes! Or Trofim Semenovich Alekseev – he was a vicious hooligan, a drunk, and a wastrel. Nobody would trust him even with a snowdrift in winter as he would steal anything he could get his hands on. And now he’s Secretary of the Party Committee!”
The number of jokes rose greatly under Stalin and according to the calculations of the Estonian scholar Arvo Krikmann, peaked in the time of Brezhnev. The jokes from the Stalin era, the time of terror, refer directly to the terror, to the executions and disappearances, the farcical trials and the labour camps not just in the Soviet Union but in the states of Eastern and Central Europe subordinate to it.
Three men were talking in a labour camp about why they had been arrested. “I was sent here because I was late for work”, said the first.
“I was so anxious not to be late that I arrived half an hour early and was accused of being a saboteur”, said the second.
The third said, “I turned up exactly on time and was accused of owning a foreign watch.”
Who dug the White Sea Canal?
The right bank was dug by those who related anecdotes.
And the left bank?
By those who listened.
What is the most boring whodunit in the world? The most boring whodunit is “The History of the Communist Party” because by the third page you know who committed the murders.
Yet the same grim humour permeated socialist reality. Stalin’s Hungarian economic adviser JenőVarga used to play cards every week with Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD secret police. Varga heard that his fellow Hungarian Marxist, György Lukács, also living in Moscow, had been arrested and was going to be executed and just as their card game began he asked Beria to intercede. Beria said he would spare Lukács’s life but only if Varga won at cards that evening. Lukács, who had himself arbitrarily ordered others to be executed in Hungary, survived but his life had hung on the turn of a card; the irony is that the incident encapsulated the essential nature of a socialist system far more accurately than Lukács’s vapid theorizing ever could have done. As so often an anecdote has summed up a situation.
The time of terror was succeeded by the era of decadence when some consumer goods were produced but by an inherently inefficient economy. It was inefficient because there was no proper price mechanism which also led to a grotesque waste of resources, the fetish of investment in heavy industry, particularly those linked to armaments and a complete lack of innovation except in weapons. Jokes now focussed on the inevitable shortages and queuing and the poor quality of such goods as were available.
A brand new food store had opened – everything looks sparkling and there is a brisk young shop assistant in a crisp white coat.
A customer enters and says, “Wrap me up a pound of meat please.”
The shop assistant takes out a large sheet of paper and says, “Certainly, give me your meat”.
General Jaruzelski, the Polish communist leader is being driven through Warsaw in a limousine.
He sees a long line of people outside a food store.
He tells his chauffeur to stop and asks them how long they have been there. “Six hours”, they reply.
“This is dreadful”, says Jaruzelski, “I must do something.”
An hour later a truck arrived and unloaded a hundred chairs.
A Hungarian tourist comes home after visiting the USSR. He is carrying two very large and heavy suitcases. On his wrist is a brand new Soviet-made watch. He tells the customs man: “This is a wonderful new Soviet watch. You can’t get one in the capitalist countries. It tells you the time, the rate of your heart beat, the phases of the Moon, the weather in Moscow, Budapest and Cairo, and ever so much more!”
“Yes, it’s marvellous”, the customs man agrees. “And what is it you have in these big suitcases?”
“Oh, just the batteries for that watch.”
The other great monopoly that gave rise to mockery was the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which was not only a tangle of abstractions linked by a spurious logic but an absurd secular cult with its own myths, fables and icons. The bizarre cult of Lenin in particular gave rise to endless jokes. Lenin was made out not only to be the infallible founding leader but benign “grandpa Lenin” who loved children and he appeared as such in stories told to primary school children. The jokes say otherwise.
What is the Marxist definition of a hole? A partial negation of a total continuity.
Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, visited a school to tell the children what a wonderful man Lenin had been and in particular how kind he had been to children.
“One day”, she said, “Lenin was standing outside his dacha, peeling an apple with his knife. A hungry little boy came and watched him and asked him what he was doing.
“Can’t you see, little boy”, Lenin said, “I am peeling an apple.”
The children in the school were puzzled. “How does that show how kind Lenin was?” one of them asked.
“Don’t you see”, said Krupskaya in a fury, “Lenin could have cut the hungry little boy’s throat but he didn’t.”
An old priest died and went to heaven. He was asked if he had one last wish before entering. He replied that he would like to have a conducted tour of hell. They began in the deepest pit reserved for those whose lives had been utterly evil. There he saw a lake of boiling shit in which stood Hitler and Stalin. Stalin was up to his waist in it and Hitler up to his nose.
“That’s outrageous”, said the priest, “Why should Hitler be punished more than Stalin? I suffered under both and Stalin was just as evil as Hitler.” “You don’t understand”, said his guide, “Stalin is standing on Lenin’s shoulders.”
Under socialism it was taken for granted that the state could dictate what kind of artistic styles should prevail and what the findings of the scientists ought to be. Hitler’s regime denounced the work of most of the master artists of the twentieth century as “degenerate” and insisted on heavy buildings and muscular statuary essentially similar to the socialist realism of the Soviets.
The Impressionists painted what they saw, the Expressionists what they felt and the Socialist Realists what they were told.
Likewise Lenin denounced as “Machism” any view of physics that seemed about to undermine his crass materialist philosophy and the Nazis rejected Einstein’s theory of relativity because it was “Jewish physics”. A particularly outrageous piece of interference came in 1948 when any dissent from Lysenko’s strange theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was forbidden and indeed punished. During the Lysenkoism campaign the plant breeder Michurin’s more weird ideas were promoted as “productive” Soviet biology, opposed to “fruitless” capitalist genetics. The deceased Michurin was made an official hero. His followers in Budapest wanted to grow oranges out in the open in the Hungarian winter presumably by freezing the pips to get them used to the climate before planting them. Not surprisingly this led to many jokes and Hungarians may well have gone to jail for telling them.
Why did Michurin want to cross an apple tree with a dog?
To get a tree that was self-watering and barked if anyone tried to steal an apple.
Why did Michurin cross corn with a typewriter?
So that when you get to the end of the corn-cob you are eating, a bell rings to warn you.
Who invented barbed wire?
Michurin. He crossed earthworms with hedgehogs.
The jokes of socialism began to decline in the time of Gorbachev because there was more openness particularly after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when traditional socialist secrecy collapsed as the radioactive contamination spread westwards.
Moscow has claimed that only two people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. The two people who died were the men who had to bring the news of the disaster to Gorbachev.
At the May Day parade in Budapest the parade was led by the Party activists. Behind them came the youth activists and finally the Radioactivists.
Romania asks Gorbachev for assistance after Chernobyl and Gorbachev promises to provide it.
The Romanians doubt him and ask, “Will the Hungarians be able to deliver?”
There were also prescient jokes suggesting that there was bound to be an attempt by the hardliners to get rid of Gorbachev.
What is the difference between Gorbachev and Dubček? There isn’t any, but Gorbachev doesn’t know it yet.
When the attempt failed and the entire rotten system came tumbling down, the jokes faded away. But initially there was a period of enthusiastic collecting and publishing of the political jokes of socialism in countries as diverse as Estonia and the Ukraine. It was a celebration of the new freedom to publish the products of an oral tradition that had previously only been stored in people’s memories or in the humorous equivalent of a samizdat.
What then has happened to the old jokes? Some are still told because they are good jokes and do not depend on a detailed knowledge of the politics and daily life of the past, which renders some jokes meaningless to those born since the collapse of socialism. Who can still understand these old Soviet jokes which to those with the necessary knowledge are very funny?
A Georgian carrying a big basket is flying from Tbilisi to Moscow. A hijacker takes over the flight and demands that the pilot fly to Paris. The pilot agrees but the Georgian pulls out his knife, cuts the hijacker’s throat and tells the pilot, “Lisssn here, genatsvale, you fly to Moscow and right away.”
When the plane lands, the Georgian is immediately awarded the highest of
medals, he is made a Hero of the Soviet Union. After the award, the KGB take him away and demand, “Why did you really stop the plane being hijacked? You had better tell the truth.”
The Georgian replies, “How could I sell my oranges in Paris?”
What is the difference between India and Russia?
In India one man starves for the people, and in Russia the people starve for one man.
“They’ve taken Guadalquivir.” “What? And his wife too?”
Other have been stripped of their socialist political colouring and switched to other targets. Jokes about the economy have become jokes about bankers, tort lawyers and trade union leaders, about McDonald’s and the nouveaux riches. Jokes about the stupidity of Brezhnev or the militia have been switched to blondes to the point where in November 2004 blonde Hungarian women held an angry protest outside the Parliament building in Budapest, saying that they were being discriminated against in the workplace and the job-market. Blondes real, tinted and peroxide alike paraded with posters saying “We’re blonde not stupid” and “Love us for our minds”. The demonstrators from Hungary’s “Blonde Women’s Movement” also attacked a bar called Blondy with eggs and cakes and urged the blonde barmaids working there to go on strike. A Hungarian joke is no laughing matter.
A friend is taking a blonde to the cinema. Above the entrance there is an illuminated advertisement which proclaims:
Two hours of excitement! Two hours of thrill! Two hours of relaxation! Two hours of real entertainment!
The blonde says: “Are you crazy? Why have you brought me here? Do you think that I am going to sit 8 hours in the cinema?”
If necessary even the old jokes about the dim aristocrats Tasziló and Arisztid enjoyed by earlier generations can make a come-back.
Tasziló decides to visit Austria and tells his friend Arisztid. Arisztid says, “I’d like to go with you”. Tasziló says, “All right, I’ll put you in my bag and at customs I’ll say I’m carrying porcelain.”
At customs the official asks Tasziló what he has in the bag and Tasziló says, “Porcelain”. The customs officer kicked the bag and Arisztid went “chohrump, chohrump, chohrump”.
Jokes flourish in most societies but not many of the jokes are political. We all have other things to think about that impinge more directly on our lives. Socialism politicised everyday life by making all institutions subordinate to the state and all ideas subordinate to the ruling ideology. In doing so it also politicised its jokes.