East of the Iron Curtain, gallows humour helped society cope
Moscow — Out of the bleakest moments east of the Iron Curtain was born an improbable, subversive humour, feeding a stream of popular jokes despite censure, repression and poverty.
Dreams of abundance in the West were at the heart of the absurd vignettes, known as "anekdoti" in Russia, which remain part of popular culture in the former Eastern Bloc states.
Twenty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, they are one aspect of life under Communism that still unites people from Berlin to Moscow, often refurbished to poke fun at today’s regimes.
Many of the Soviet-era jokes darkly played on people’s dreams of fleeing the Communist bloc: "Why did the USSR decide not to send men to the moon? They were afraid they would demand political asylum."
Another goes: "The leader of East Germany Erich Honecker orders a minister to tear down the Berlin Wall. Stupefied, the minister asks why? ‘I want to be alone,’ Honecker replies."
This gallows humour rejoiced in jeering at the sacrosanct Communist Party, which by the 1980s was widely reputed to be headed by senile and corrupt officials.
"What has 70 teeth and four legs? A crocodile. What has four teeth and 70 legs? The Central Committee of the Communist Party."
But disguising such critiques with puns and allusions was more than a matter of wit under a totalitarian regime where any hint of insubordination could end you in prison.
In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), such anecdotes, or "Witze," were dubbed "3-7 Witze." The preface stood for the three-year jail sentence handed one caught listening to a subversive joke and the seven-year sentence given someone telling it.
But fear did not stem the flow of cynical humour: "This year they again held the Festival of Soviet political jokes. First prize: 10 years of winter vacation in Siberia."
The jokes often turned Communist dogma on its head: "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is exactly the opposite."
Other anecdotes captured the climate of paranoia that reigned in Communist-bloc countries.
A conversation between three inmates at a Soviet labour camp: "’I was five minutes late to work and was charged with sabotage,’ the first man says. ‘I was five minutes early and was sentenced for espionage,’ the second explains.
"In turn, the third man says: ‘Well, I was on time, and I was accused of contraband in Western wrist watches.’"
Even the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s lent itself to laughs as people questioned what Moscow could gain from sending troops there.
"Why did the Soviet Union decided to invade Afghanistan? There must be a strategy for spreading the Communist paradise to the world — the USSR decided to proceed alphabetically."
The wry jibes were heavy with a deep sense of fatalism. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, celebrated with great fanfare in 1982, many dissidents joked the Soviet Union had finally reached retirement age.
"What’s better a communist hell or a capitalist hell?," one popular joke asked.
"The communist one of course! There is always a penury of matches and fuel, the heaters are always out of order, and the devil and his creatures are always busy with party meetings."