Russian Political Jokes

Hammer & Tickle

Russian political jokes can be grouped into the major time periods: Imperial Russia, Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia. Quite a few political themes can be found among other standard categories of Russian joke, most notably Rabinovich jokes (short fictional Russian stories or dialogs with a punch line) and Radio Yerevan, also known as the Armenian Radio jokes, which mocked the ‘Question & Answer’ series of the Armenian Radio.

A typical format of a joke was: ‘Radio Yerevan was asked,’ and ‘Radio Yerevan answered.’ For example: Radio Yerevan was asked: ‘Comrades, will there be war?’ Radio Yerevan answered: ‘No, but there will be such a struggle for peace that everything will be razed to the ground.’

According to ‘Hammer & Tickle: The Communist Joke Book,’ a 2006 documentary film about the nature of Russian political jokes, under the watchful eyes of the oppressive Soviet government, the Russian people had very few outlets in which they could publicly express their disapproval of their government and its policies. The film shows the story of how jokes served as an outlet for the people’s expression of their desire for reform and freedom.

These jokes were often told quietly to one another, as to avoid retribution from the Soviet secret police agencies who kept a close eye on such expressions of political dissent. Eva Kovacs of the Secret Police Archives in Hungary tells the story of a university student who spent two years in prison and had all his possessions confiscated after telling an unseemly joke about Comrade Rákosi. A former Colonel of the Communist Romanian secret police agency Securitate said his agency paid particular attention to jokes about the lack of availability of basic products and the censorship of television, as they ‘functioned as indicators of the spirit of the people.’

In Imperial Russia, most political jokes were of the polite variety that circulated in educated society. Few of the political jokes of the time are recorded, but some were printed in a 1904 German anthology. ‘A man was reported to have said: ‘Nikolay is a moron!’ and was arrested by a policeman. ‘No, sir, I meant not our respected Emperor, but another Nikolay!’ – ‘Don’t try to trick me: if you say ‘moron,’ you are obviously referring to our tsar!’

Every nation enjoys political jokes, but in the Soviet Union telling political jokes could be regarded as a type of extreme sport: according to Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ was a potentially capital offense.

‘A judge walks out of his chambers laughing his head off. A colleague approaches him and asks why he is laughing. ‘I just heard the funniest joke in the world!’ ‘Well, go ahead, tell me!’ says the other judge. ‘I can’t – I just gave someone ten years for it!”

‘Who built the White Sea Canal?’ – ‘The left bank was built by those who told the jokes, and the right bank by those who listened.’

Ben Lewis of ‘Hammer and Tickle’ claims that the political conditions in the Soviet Union were responsible for the unique humor produced there; according to him, ‘Communism was a humor-producing machine. Its economic theories and system of repression created inherently amusing situations. There were jokes under fascism and the Nazis too, but those systems did not create an absurd, laugh-a-minute reality like communism.’

According to Marxist–Leninist theory, communism in the strict sense is the final stage of evolution of a society after it has passed through the socialism stage. The Soviet Union thus cast itself as a socialist country trying to build communism, which was supposed to be a classless society. ‘The authorities pretend they are paying wages, workers pretend they are working. Alternatively, ‘So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.’ This joke persisted essentially unchanged through the 1980s.

‘Three men are sitting in a cell in the (KGB headquarters) Dzerzhinsky Square. The first asks the second why he has been imprisoned, who replies, ‘Because I criticized Karl Radek.’ The first man responds, ‘But I am here because I spoke out in favor of Radek!’ They turn to the third man who has been sitting quietly in the back, and ask him why he is in jail. He answers, ‘I’m Karl Radek.’

‘A new arrival to Gulag is asked: ‘What were you given 10 years for?’ – ‘For nothing!’ – ‘Don’t lie to us here, now! Everybody knows ‘for nothing’ is 3 years.’ (This joke was reported from the pre-Great Purge times. Later ‘for nothing’ was elevated to 5 and even 10 years.)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book ‘Gulag Archipelago’ analyzes the humor of zeks (gulag inmates). Some examples: ‘He was sentenced to three years, served five, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time.’ (The joke alludes to the common practice described by Solzhenitsyn of arbitrarily extending the term of a sentence or adding new charges.) In a similar vein, when someone asked for more of something, e.g. more boiled water in a cup, the typical retort was, ‘The prosecutor will give you more!’

Radio Yerevan jokes have the format, ‘ask us whatever you want, we will answer you whatever we want.’ They supply snappy or ambiguous answers to questions on politics, commodities, the economy or other subjects that were taboo during the Communist era. Questions and answers from this fictitious radio station are known even outside Russia.

Q: ‘What’s the difference between a capitalist fairy tale and a Marxist fairy tale?’
A: ‘A capitalist fairy tale begins, ‘Once upon a time, there was….’ A Marxist fairy tale begins, ‘Some day, there will be….”

Q: ‘Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the USSR, just like in the USA?’
A: ‘Yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, ‘Down with Ronald Reagan,’ and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in Red Square in Moscow and yell, ‘Down with Ronald Reagan,’ and you will not be punished.’

Q: ‘What is the difference between the Constitutions of the US and USSR? Both of them guarantee freedom of speech.’
A: ‘Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.’

‘Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are all travelling together in a railway carriage. Unexpectedly, the train stops. Lenin suggests: ‘Perhaps we should announce a subbotnik, so that workers and peasants will fix the problem.’ Stalin puts his head out of the window and shouts, ‘If the train does not start moving, the driver will be shot!’ But the train doesn’t start moving. Khrushchev then shouts, ‘Let’s take the rails from behind the train and use them to lay the tracks in front’ (an allusion to Khrushchev’s various reorganizations). But still the train doesn’t move. Then Brezhnev says, ‘Comrades, Comrades, let’s draw the curtains, turn on the gramophone and pretend we’re moving!’ (an allusion to the Brezhnev stagnation period). A later continuation to this has Mikhail Gorbachev saying, ‘We were going the wrong way anyways!’ and changing the train’s direction (alluding to his policies of glasnost and perestroika), and Boris Yeltsin driving the train off the rails and through a field (allusion to the breakup of the Soviet Union).’

Jokes about Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, typically made fun of characteristics popularized by propaganda: his supposed kindness, his love of children (Lenin never had children of his own), his sharing nature, his kind eyes, etc. Accordingly, in jokes Lenin is often depicted as sneaky and hypocritical. A popular joke set-up is Lenin interacting with the head of the secret police, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, in the Smolny Institute, the seat of the revolutionary communist government in Petrograd, or with khodoki, peasants who came to see Lenin.

‘During the famine of the civil war, a delegation of starving peasants comes to the Smolny, wanting to file a petition. ‘We have even started eating grass like horses,’ says one peasant. ‘Soon we will start neighing like horses!’ ‘Come now! Don’t worry!’ says Lenin reassuringly. ‘We are drinking tea with honey here, and we’re not buzzing like bees, are we?’

Jokes about Stalin usually refer to his paranoia and contempt for human life. Stalin’s words are typically pronounced with a heavy Georgian accent. ‘Stalin attends the premiere of a Soviet comedy movie. He laughs and grins throughout the film, but after it ends he says, ‘Well, I liked the comedy. But that clown had a moustache just like mine. Shoot him.’ Everyone is speechless, until someone sheepishly suggests, ‘Comrade Stalin, maybe the actor shaves off his moustache?’ Stalin replies, ‘Good idea! First shave, then shoot!’

‘Stalin loses his favorite pipe. In a few days, Lavrenti calls Stalin: ‘Have you found your pipe?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Stalin. ‘I found it under the sofa.’ ‘This is impossible!’ exclaims Beria. ‘Three people have already confessed to this crime!’

Jokes about Nikita Khrushchev often relate to his attempts to reform the economy, especially to introduce maize. He was even called kukuruznik (‘maizeman’). Other jokes target the crop failures resulting from his mismanagement of agriculture, his innovations in urban architecture, his confrontation with the U.S. while importing U.S. consumer goods, his promises to build communism in 20 years, or simply his baldness and crude manners. Unlike other Soviet leaders, in jokes Khrushchev is always harmless.

‘Khrushchev visited a pig farm and was photographed there. In the newspaper office, a discussion is underway about how to caption the picture. ‘Comrade Khrushchev among pigs,’ ‘Comrade Khrushchev and pigs,’ and ‘Pigs surround comrade Khrushchev’ are all rejected as politically offensive. Finally, the editor announces his decision: ‘Third from left – comrade Khrushchev.’

Leonid Brezhnev was depicted as dim-witted, senile, always reading his speeches from paper, and prone to delusions of grandeur.

‘During Brezhnev’s visit to England, Prime Minister Thatcher asked the guest, ‘What is your attitude to Churchill?’ ‘Who is Churchill?’ Brezhnev said. Back in the embassy, the Soviet envoy said, ‘Congratulations, comrade Brezhnev, you’ve put Thatcher in her place. She will not ask stupid questions any more.’ ‘And who is Thatcher?’ Brezhnev said.

‘After a speech, Brezhnev confronts his speechwriter. ‘I asked for a 15-minute speech, but the one you gave me lasted 45 minutes!’ The speechwriter replies: ‘I gave you three copies…”

‘Somebody knocks at the door of Brezhnev’s office. Brezhnev walks to the door, sets glasses on his nose, fetches a piece of paper from his pocket and reads, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Brezhnev is dying; a doctor and some politburo are present in the room. With his last breath, Brezhnev demands ‘Get me a priest!’ and expires. Only the doctor hears this clearly. A politburo member asks the doctor what Brezhnev said. The doctor replies ‘Invade Afghanistan.’

During Brezhnev’s time, the leadership of Communist Party became increasingly geriatric. By the time of his death in 1982, the median age of the Politburo was 70. Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, died in 1984. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985.

Mikhail Gorbachev was occasionally mocked for his poor grammar, but perestroika-era jokes usually made fun of his slogans and ineffective actions, his birth mark (‘Satan’s mark’), Raisa Gorbachev’s poking her nose everywhere, and Soviet-American relations.

‘A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is very long. The man loses his composure and screams, ‘I can’t take this waiting in line anymore, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”‘ After 40 minutes the man returns and elbows his way back to his place in line. The crowd begin to ask if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev. ‘No, I got to the Kremlin all right, but the line to kill Gorbachev was even longer than here!’

Telling jokes about the KGB was considered to be like pulling the tail of a tiger.

‘A hotel. A room for four with four strangers. Three of them soon open a bottle of vodka and proceed to get acquainted, then drunk, then noisy, singing, and telling political jokes. The fourth man desperately tries to get some sleep; finally, in frustration he surreptitiously leaves the room, goes downstairs, and asks the lady concierge to bring tea to Room 67 in ten minutes. Then he returns and joins the party. Five minutes later, he bends to a power outlet: ‘Comrade Major, some tea to Room 67, please.’ In a few minutes, there’s a knock at the door, and in comes the lady concierge with a tea tray. The room falls silent; the party dies a sudden death, and the prankster finally gets to sleep. The next morning he wakes up alone in the room. Surprised, he runs downstairs and asks the concierge what happened to his companions. ‘You don’t need to know!’ she answers. ‘B-but…but what about me?’ asks the terrified fellow. ‘Oh, you…well…Comrade Major liked your tea gag a lot.”

‘The KGB, the FBI, and the CIA are all trying to prove they are the best at catching criminals. The Secretary General of the UN decides to set them a test. He releases a rabbit into a forest, and each of them has to catch it. The CIA people go in. They place animal informants throughout the forest. They question all plant and mineral witnesses. After three months of extensive investigations, they conclude that the rabbit does not exist. The FBI goes in. After two weeks with no leads they burn the forest, killing everything in it, including the rabbit, and make no apologies: the rabbit had it coming. The KGB goes in. They come out two hours later with a badly beaten bear. The bear is yelling: ‘Okay! Okay! I’m a rabbit! I’m a rabbit!”

Quite a few jokes and other humor capitalized on the fact that Soviet citizens were under KGB surveillance even when abroad.

‘An English athlete, a French athlete and a Russian athlete are all on the medal podium at the 1976 Summer Olympics chatting before the medal ceremony. ‘Don’t get me wrong’ says the Englishman, ‘winning a medal is very nice, but I still feel the greatest pleasure in life is getting home after a long day, putting one’s feet up and having a nice cup of tea.’ ‘You Englishman’ snorts the Frenchman, ‘you have no sense of romance. The greatest pleasure in life is going on holiday without your wife, and meeting a beautiful girl with whom you have a passionate love affair with before returning home back to work.’ ‘You are both wrong” scoffs the Russian. “The greatest pleasure in life is when you are sleeping at home and the KGB breaks your door down at 3 AM, bursts into your room and says ‘Ivan Ivanovitch, you are under arrest’ and you can reply ‘Sorry comrade, Ivan Ivanovitch lives next door.”

‘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. For example, Maria here, who was she before the revolution? An illiterate peasant; she had but one dress and no shoes. And now? She is an exemplary milkmaid known throughout the entire region. Or look at Ivan Andreev, he was the poorest man in this village; he had no horse, no cow, and not even an ax. And now? He is a tractor driver with two pairs of shoes! Or Trofim Semenovich Alekseev–he was a nasty hooligan, a drunk, and a dirty gadabout. Nobody would trust him with as much as a snowdrift in wintertime, as he would steal anything he could get his hands on. And now he’s Secretary of the Regional Party Committee!’

Some jokes ridiculed the level indoctrination in the Soviet Union’s education system.

‘My wife has been going to cooking school for three years.’ ‘She must really cook well by now!’ ‘No, so far they’ve only got as far as the bit about the Twentieth CPSU Congress.”

Quite a few jokes poke fun at the permanent shortages in various shops.

‘A man walks into a shop and asks, ‘You wouldn’t happen to have any fish, would you?’ The shop assistant replies, ‘You’ve got it wrong – ours is a butcher’s shop. We don’t have any meat. You’re looking for the fish shop across the road. There they don’t have any fish!’

A subgenre of the shortage joke targets long sign-up queues for certain commodities, with wait times that could be counted in years rather than weeks or months.

‘Dad, can I have the car keys?’ ‘OK, but don’t lose them. We will get the car in only seven years!’

‘I want to sign up for the waiting list for a car. How long is it?’ ‘Precisely ten years from today.’ ‘Morning or evening?’ ‘Why, what difference does it make?’ ‘The plumber’s due in the morning.’

Many draw parallels between Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin: his opponents do it accusingly, while neo-Stalinists proudly. Many jokes about past Soviet leaders are retold about Putin.

‘Stalin appears to Putin in a dream and says: ‘I have two bits of advice for you: kill off all your opponents and paint the Kremlin blue.’ Putin asks, ‘Why blue?’ Stalin: ‘I knew you would not object to the first one.”

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