My son has been reading the good bits of Ben Lewis’ book Hammer and Tickle to me – the history of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc told through their jokes. Actually, it’s full of good bits. Here’s a couple that catch the flavour of the book.
Everyone knows about the seven wonders of the world, but what about the seven wonders of Communism?
- Under Communism there’s no unemployment.
- Although there’s no unemployment, only half the population has to work.
- Although only half the population works, the Five-Year Plans are always fulfilled.
- Although the Five-Year Plans are always fulfilled, there’s never anything to buy.
- Although there’s never anything to buy, everyone is happy and contented.
- Although everyone is happy and contented, there are frequent demonstrations.
- Although there are frequent demonstrations, the government is always re-elected with 99.9% of the vote.
Obviously, the jokes from Stalin’s Terror are the darkest – and cleverest. This may be my favourite joke in the book, at least from the ones I’ve had shared with me:
A clerk hears laughing behind the door of a courtroom. He open the door. At the other end of the room, the judge is sitting on the podium convulsed with laughter.
‘What’s so funny?’, asks the clerk.
‘I just heard the funniest joke of my life’, says the judge.
‘Tell it to me’.
‘I can’t’, says the judge.
‘Because I just sentenced someone to five years hard labour for doing that.’
Lewis says that an eighth of the people in the gulag were there for ‘telling anecdotes’, a figure that he finds small but I thought sizeable enough. The joke about the notorious White Sea canal project, built by prison labour, goes as follows:
Who built the White Sea canal?
The right bank was dug by those who told jokes…
And the left bank?
By those who listened.
The point of punishing joke-tellers was to demonstrate that the state would tolerate not the smallest or most casual expression of dissent, as Roy Medvedev tells Lewis. There’s a joke about that as well:
What is the difference between Stalin and Roosevelt?
Roosevelt collects the jokes that people tell about him, and Stalin collects the people that tell jokes about him.