Book Review: No Laughing Matter

Jul 22, 2005
The Moscow Times

Tiny Revolutions in Russia: Twentieth-Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes

By Bruce Adams
173 Pages. $97

By Carl Schreck

Educated as an engineer, Klava was working as a manicurist to pay the bills while she waited for permission to leave Brezhnev's Soviet Union. She was tending to her customers' fingernails one day when a longtime client sauntered in and tried to move to the head of the line. Klava explained that she would have to wait like everyone else, and while she waited, Klava and her customers swapped political wisecracks subverting popular Party slogans:

"When we say Lenin, we mean Party," they said. "When we say Party, we mean Lenin. And this is how we deal with everything. We say one thing, we mean something else."

After Klava had finished with her other customers, the unscheduled client told a joke of her own: "There was a competition for the best joke about Lenin. And the first prize is 10 years to where Lenin used to go," meaning jail or exile. The client, it turned out, was a KGB agent. "If I did not value you as my manicurist, I would send you for 10 years to where Lenin used to go," she said.

Klava was eventually allowed to emigrate, and the story appeared in an article by anthropologist Elliott Oring last year. Still, the irony of a KGB employee threatening the seditionist with a seditious joke beautifully embodies not only the prevalence of political jokes in Soviet society and the dangers associated with such humor, but the cruel, arbitrary nature of the Soviet regime.

Jokes, or anekdoty, were indeed risky business in the Soviet Union, Bruce Adams maintains in the introduction to "Tiny Revolutions in Russia," his light if thoroughly entertaining recap of Soviet history told through a mix of amusing, tragicomic, baffling and plain unfunny jokes that will strike a familiar chord with any foreigner who has shared a couple bottles of vodka with a table full of Russians.

George Orwell was the first to dub jokes "tiny revolutions," but it's an especially fitting title for Adams' book, which reminds us that humor can have very serious consequences when the joke is on a totalitarian regime. The eight years Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent in prisons and labor camps came as punishment for jokes he had made about Josef Stalin in his private correspondence, Adams writes. "The anecdotes were necessarily underground humor shared only with close friends."

The meat of "Tiny Revolutions" is divided into six chapters devoted to leaders from different eras. Vladimir Lenin, Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev each get their own chapter, while Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the infirm symbols of the crumbling Soviet gerontocracy, are forced to share, as are Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Embedded in Adams' historical accounts of each period, the jokes address the absurdities of Soviet life and take down the vanguard of the world revolution a notch or two.

The Lenin years, Adams explains, marked the first appearance of Rabinovich, a staple Jewish character who can never quite find his place in Soviet society, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was supposed to have disappeared on the road to communism:

"When no African delegates showed up at a Comintern Congress, Moscow wired Odessa [a very cosmopolitan port city with a large Jewish population]: 'Send us a Negro immediately.'

"Odessa wired right back: 'Rabinovich has been dyed. He's drying.'"

Political jokes naturally continued in the Stalin era, lampooning everything from shortages (especially of food), the First Five-Year Plan and grandiose construction projects like the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which saw hundreds of thousands of convicts dig 227 kilometers of canal "with primitive tools in horrible conditions." Jokesters appear to have been included in the work force:

"'Who built the White Sea-Baltic Canal?'

"'On the right bank -- those who told anecdotes, on the left bank -- those who heard them.'"

The funniest jokes in "Tiny Revolutions" are from the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, not only because both leaders were ripe for mockery, but also thanks to the political thaw that followed Stalin's death. Adams dubs the era "the golden age of the anecdote."

The famously bald Khrushchev's meddling with agriculture policy is best summed up by one joke from the "Armenian Radio" genre, in which a quick-witted radio operator from Yerevan sticks it to the bosses in Moscow:

"'What is Khrushchev's hair-style called?'

"[Armenian Radio]: 'The harvest of 1963.'"

Similarly, the Brezhnev-era jokes tend to ridicule the increasing senility of His Eyebrowness:

"Brezhnev begins his official speech opening the 1980 Olympics: 'O! O! O!'

"His aide interrupts him with a whisper: 'The speech starts below, Leonid Ilich. That is the Olympic symbol.'"

But the Brezhnev chapter also includes a few gems about the rampant paranoia of foreign spies and insidious Western propaganda:

"Because the BBC always seemed to know Soviet secrets so quickly, it was decided to hold the next meeting of the Politburo behind closed doors. No one was permitted in or out. Suddenly Kosygin grasped his belly and asked permission to leave. Permission was denied. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. A janitress stood there with a pail: 'The BBC just reported that Aleksei Nikolayevich shit himself.'"

In a sharp departure from the earlier chapters, the funniest jokes from the Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin section are not political at all, but instead aimed at gaudy and ruthless New Russians. Take, for instance, the New Russian equivalent of "Why did the chicken cross the road?":

"Two new Russians meet on a Paris street. 'Look at this,' brags the first, 'I just bought this Pierre Cardin tie for $300.'

"'Big deal,' retorts the other, 'I got the same tie yesterday for $500.'"

The jokes in Tiny Revolutions are hit-or-miss throughout, but the final chapter is somewhat anticlimactic. According to Adams, this is because the political anecdote has essentially become obsolete due to increased employment, a booming stock market and the declining rate of poverty. It's not a particularly convincing causal link, nor an easy idea to explain in just three paragraphs, which is all he devotes to this provocative subject.

"Tiny Revolutions" offers too cursory an account of 20th-century Russia to be considered an authoritative work of history, and with less than 800 jokes, it's not exactly a comprehensive anthology. To use basketball parlance, one might compare it to a "tweener" -- a player too small to play under the basket yet lacking some of the requisite skills to be effective from the perimeter.

But the happy medium that Adams strikes is exactly why his book works so well. Despite a standard-issue academic binding that threatens to induce sleep faster than a handful of Imovanes, "Tiny Revolutions" deserves a better fate than to be relegated to dust-collecting duties in Eastern European Studies sections of university libraries.

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