Victor Sebestyen

How many Russians does it take to change a lightbulb?

Communist Jokes

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Hammer and Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes

Ben Lewis

Weidenfeld, pp. 354, £

In 1969, the Slovak writer Jan Kalina published 1001 Jokes, a collection of (mainly) anti-Communist stories which sold out within a couple of days. This was during the permafrost that descended on Czechoslovakia following the Russian suppression a year earlier of the Prague Spring. The ruling regime’s retribution was predictable. Listening devices were placed in his flat so the authorities could find out who passed the jokes on to him, and after a year of this surveillance Kalina was charged with slandering the state. He was jailed for a couple of years. During his trial the prosecution claimed, hilariously, that the bugging equipment in his home had been placed there by Western secret agents. ‘I never told that joke,’ Kalina said in response.

As Ben Lewis explains in this charming, highly original, elegantly written and valuable piece of cultural history, the best Communist jokes were often — rather like the Kalina story — straightforward reportage of real events. They were also the product of a particular place and time, which can make them difficult to translate.

‘In Romania, what is colder than cold water? Hot water.’ When I first heard that, among friends in a freezing Bucharest flat, the Ceauçescu regime banned people from heating their homes for more than a couple of hours a day even in sub-zero temperatures. Telling and re-telling the joke seemed a way of keeping warm. Days after the Chernobyl disaster the joke was doing the rounds in Budapest among people terrified of radiation poisoning: ‘How many Russians does it take to change a lightbulb? None; they all glow.’

This book began life as a BBC television documentary and Lewis travelled widely throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in search of punchlines. Often as funny as the jokes themselves are Lewis’s interviews with the bizarre collection of people who collected and collated them — from a Romanian woman whose sole job as a proofreader was to make sure Nicolae Ceauçescu’s name was correctly spelled in the Romanian press, to a centenarian who used to supply Stalin with anti-Trotsky gags. Funny and true: the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, whose moustachioed face was often suffused with a giant smile, had little sense of humour, while the sombre-looking Communist General Jaruzelski could crack a good yarn.

Was Communism laughed out of existence, as Lewis half suggests? Not exactly. Like so many single-cause explanations for the collapse of a social system (President Reagan’s Star Wars programme, Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimages) that scratches the surface with an over-tidy conceit. More to the point, the jokes made living under Communism more bearable. They brought people together. Telling them was an act of rebellion, an offence for which about 50,000 people found themselves in prison during 70 years of what was called, with no humour intended, ‘actually existing socialism’. Several hundred, in the worst of times under Stalin, were executed.

As Lewis shows, the classic communist jokes — called anekdody in Russian — were a phenomenon of central and Eastern Europe. They do not exist, he claims, in China, North Korea or Cuba. In fact, many of them pre- dated Communism. Some notably amusing stories highlighting bureaucracy can be traced back to the black humour found in The Good Soldier Schwejk. Many are also Jewish gags turned around as anti-communist — ‘Tell me Rabbi, can there be Socialism in one country? Yes, my son, as long as you live in a different country.’

As the best Jewish jokes are told by Jews, some of the best Communist jokes were told by Communists. Mikhail Gorbachev loved telling them, but this was an off-the-cuff quip he told a delegation of French politicians who visited the Kremlin in the mid- 1980s. He arrived late at a meeting looking flustered and explained that he was sorry but he had been delayed sorting out a problem to do with Soviet agriculture. ‘When did the problem arise?’ asked a French Senator. ‘1917’ said Gorbachev.

This is very funny book. Like the best Communist jokes, it is funniest when it is grimmest.