In these strange times, people naturally turn to the past for orientation: Londoners recall the spirit of the Blitz, while citizens of St Petersburg look back to the Nazis’ Siege of Leningrad to remind themselves what they can overcome. But tales of suffering and heroism take us only so far. Humor is just as important. It punctures the sense of pervasive anxiety and shines a light into unfamiliar and dark places.
Here, too, the past can serve as a guide. History reminds us that laughing in the face of fear is a powerful impulse, regardless of the risk involved. Soviet citizens lived in a world where a single wrong word could mean denunciation and their lives being torn apart by Stalin’s ruthless secret police. A harmless joke could lead to the dreaded 5 a.m. knock, ransacked apartments, and a terrifying ride in a ‘Black Raven’ prison car to an NKVD cell. There, these unfortunate souls were frequently subjected to days-long interrogations by officials determined to extract confessions that transformed a careless joke into evidence of a conspiracy against the Soviet project. A directive issued in March 1935 declared that sharing political jokes was essentially the same as leaking state secrets, so the intentions of joke-tellers were to be systematically disregarded.
Even those totally committed to the Soviet project were not safe. Card–carrying party members often shared ‘anekdoty’ (political jokes) with each other to air their frustrations with a regime that constantly fell short of its grandiose promises. In early 1934, Paraskovaya Pomelova, a party member in her late twenties, shared a joke with one of her colleagues:
Stalin went for a swim in the River Neva and began to drown. A collective farmer was passing by and jumps in to save him. Back on shore, Stalin begins to ask the farmer what he’d like as a reward, but, realizing who he’s saved, the farmer interrupts: ‘Nothing! Just don’t tell anybody that I saved you!’
Pomelova was arrested in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, for the joke she had told three years earlier.
In these circumstances, the truly amazing thing about jokes shared by Soviet citizens is that they were told at all. Yet diaries, memoirs and even the records typed up by stony-faced bureaucrats reveal that many couldn’t resist poking fun at the regime, not only at home, but even in the workplace and at official meetings. Like a flower pushing its way through concrete, laughter could never be wholly suppressed.
When the Soviet media tried to elevate Stalin to the status of a demigod sitting benignly above politics, ordinary citizens would respond by hanging his portrait above the toilet, mocking his Georgian accent, or replacing the ‘t’ in his name with an ‘r’, making him ‘Sralin’ — not the ‘Man of Steel’, but the ‘Man of Shit’. While the radio rhapsodized over Bolshevik achievements, most people were forced to spend hours each day lining up to receive meager rations. As one joke ran:
Two people argue over who is the greater leader, President Hoover or Comrade Stalin. One says: ‘Hoover taught the Americans not to drink.’ The other responds: ‘That’s nothing — Stalin taught the Russians not to eat!’
Some of the jokes told by Soviet citizens can, with just a little adjustment, even speak to our country’s current predicament. How about this one, about empty shelves in shops:
A customer walks into a store and asks: ‘Does this store have any fish?’
The sales assistant replies: ‘No. This is the store that doesn’t have any meat. The store that doesn’t have any fish is next door!’
Or this one making fun of forces beyond our control:
Retired married couple on the bus:
The old man lets out big sigh.
His wife snaps back: ‘I thought we agreed not to talk about politics in public!’
Just replace the word ‘politics’ with ‘the pandemic’.
The suffering of the Soviet people under Stalin was of course far worse than anything that we are experiencing in our lockdown. Yet, like the jokes of the struggling Soviet population, the gallows humor of so many coronavirus memes and group texts is an attempt to laugh in the dark, to use jokes as a way to create psychological distance from the things which frighten and disturb.
When people are searching for answers during times of uncertainty, an absurd answer is often better than none at all. In this way, dark humor offers a powerful placebo: objectively it should do nothing, but subjectively it can make all the difference.
Since jokes are inherently social, they can also nurture a sense of community when the world seems to be going to hell. Just one day after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, someone put up an anti-looting poster on the window of a rug store which read: ‘Don’t try. Sleeping inside with a big dog and an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer.’ Later that week, a new sign appeared: ‘Still here. Woman left Fri. Cooking a pot of dog gumbo.’
Even in the wreckage of a broken city, in which looting and violence were real possibilities, these darkly funny words invited all who read them to laugh in the face of danger and death and, in the process, to find some power over their suffering. The joke was a decision not to be victimized by terrible circumstances. The often wild and politically incorrect coronavirus memes we’re seeing today perform the same function.
When all of this is over we will remember the tragedy and the fear, but we’ll also remember how we drew together in spite of it all, and how the jokes that we made helped us hold on to our common humanity.