Soviet Humor (?)
My new novel, The Ghost Code is set in 1950's Soviet-era Russia. As I wrote and edited the book, I turned to numerous non-fiction books for a perspective of that time, place, and culture. Among the books I read were The Siberians by Farley Mowat, The First Socialist Society by Geoffrey Hosking, and Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams, by David Shipler.
I learned so much from those books, but what I want to share today is, of all things, jokes. The way a joke is told, the way it plays out, can tell you a lot about a time and place. From all the reading I did, two jokes really stuck with me, they are both from the 1970's, when the Soviet economy was starting to flag (Just like the US economy of the 70's!). By this time the natural resource boom and economic benefits of industrialization were giving away to economic stagnation. While jobs were still guaranteed by the government, the chances of being promoted or finding meaningful work were getting smaller. Real wages were in decline, even a centralized economy could not stop that.
So these jokes are Russian jokes that address the slow decline of the Soviet economy. Also, I just think they're funny.
The train ride joke:
Soviet leaders Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev are riding on a train together. Everything seems to be going fine, until the train slowly grinds to a halt. It turns out there is some problem with the train or the tracks (no one is sure), but the train engineers are working on it.
Minutes go by, and then hours, but still nothing happens. Finally, in a fit of bloody rage, Stalin- who was responsible for the deaths of millions- tells his soldiers to go outside and shoot the engineers. "That'll show them!" Stalin says. "After that, everyone will be scared, and they'll start the train again immediately." The soldiers go out and kill the engineers, but- unfortunately- the train is still sitting there, not moving at all.
After a long time, Khrushchev says, "Well, let me try." And Khrushchev, who had worked to lessen the burden of the earlier Soviet violence, writes a long, heartfelt letter pardoning the engineers for any past crimes, and he declares that they were, in fact, heroes. He sends the letter out. "When people hear that that we have pardoned the engineers, they will take heart, and they will start the train," he says.
However, that does not work either.
More time passes, and the train continues to sit quietly, not moving at all. Finally, Secretary Brezhnev, who presided over the collapsed economy of the 70's, gets up. He goes to each window in the railcar and pulls down the shade, so no can see out. Then he says, "You know, let's all just pretend we're moving."
The professor joke:
A famous professor of economics is traveling outside of Moscow. As part of his travels, he visits factories and farms in the hinterlands of the Soviet Union. In a small town, he gets finds himself in a discussion with a factory worker. "So you study economics?" the worker asks.
"Yes, I'm an expert," the professor explains. "My specialty is the structure of the Communist economy, which your factory is part of. Would you like me to explain the basics to you?"
"Oh no, I already understand," the factory worker says.
"Oh sure. We pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us!"