The Soviet Union by Political and Economic Anecdotes

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The Soviet Shock Metal Worker

Many anecdotes are centred on the theme of inefficiency in the Soviet Union. I feel this is down to two main reasons. The first is the general dissatisfaction and frustration many Soviets had with the goods they received and the conditions they lived in. The second reason is the influence of the West, showing the Soviet public what they were missing out on and exacerbating the poor standard of living Soviets were forced to endure.

Christie Davies, a sociology professor at Reading University, says that the biggest topics for jokes under a Communist regime were shortages, queues, the poor quality of housing and the lack of consumer goods.[1] There were certainly many aspects of the Soviet centrally planned economy that required restructuring. The need to import large quantities of grain in the early 1980s, the cramped living conditions of urban dwellers, and the poor quality and lack of goods throughout the Soviet Union spoke volumes. Gorbachev even says in the late 1980s that “we can’t go on living like this” and makes claims that “the priority of universal human values” has not been achieved in the Soviet Union.

Soviet cars

The difficulty of obtaining goods and services is illustrated very well in the anecdote below;

‘Can a regular Soviet person get an automobile?’

For two days there is no answer.

‘Why don’t you answer?’

‘Sorry, we’ve been laughing too hard!’ [2]

The automobile theme is especially popular in Soviet anecdotes because it represents success, wealth and freedom. For this reason it is also potentially one of the most damaging anecdotes because it strikes at something the Soviet Union is very sensitive about. The lack of automobiles in the Soviet Union is being critiqued here and although we cannot be certain that anecdotes of this nature are aimed at striking a blow at the government directly, the popularity of them is important to remember. They epitomise the lack of industrialisation, the long waiting lists (years in automobile cases), lack of choice (few models), and poor quality of goods (Soviet automobiles notorious for breaking down) available in the Soviet Union. In 1974, private cars in the Soviet Union numbered only three million, compared with 100 million in the U.S. Road accidents were rife and service centres were few and far between.[3]

Soviet inventions

Many anecdotes liked to compare the quality of Soviet inventions and goods to those of the U.S, and emphasis how far behind the Soviet Union actually was.

Who discovered the electric razor? It was discovered by Ivan Petrovich Sidorov. In a dustbin behind the American Embassy [4]

To accept that the West had triumphed by producing better inventions was to accept that capitalism had scored a point against socialism. Khrushchev, in a speech about peaceful coexistence, says that “our certainty of the victory of Communism is based on the fact that the socialist mode of production possesses decisive superiority over the capitalist mode of production”.[5] The economy and the advancement of it were central in the socialist struggle for communism and the Soviet Union was very sensitive to the progress of technology because of this. For this reason, many inventions were claimed to be the work of home grown talent residing in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s claim to possess brilliant scientists, skilled engineers and superior athletes was exaggerated in order to compete with other nations and prove that the socialist model was superior. Hedrick Smith says that this boastfulness originated with Stalin, with the generalissimo claiming it was in fact Aleksandr Lodygin, not Edison who invented the light bulb.[6]

Truth revealed in jokes and anecdotes

Like in the anecdotes above and below, the teller frequently made fun of the absurd claims to achievement that the Soviet state made. This shows an extraordinary public awareness of what was happening in the Soviet Union, and the rise of jokes from the Stalin period run concurrent with this trend.

‘In the foreign press you might run across a claim that the law of universal gravity was discovered by the Englishman Newton’, intoned the lecturer. ‘However, long before Newton that law was in effect here’.[7]

Many Western academics believed that the West’s material and moral strength would lead to the destruction of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and therefore understood the need to highlight this fact. They exploited various avenues of the media to do this,[8] and were sometimes permitted to show U.S films in the Soviet Union under a cultural exchange.[9] The increase in foreign travel from the Soviet Union also brought back knowledge of the West. Journalists and businessmen were allowed to travel abroad, bringing tales of the West home with them.

Anti-Soviet propaganda

By comparing foreign goods with Soviet, we can infer that the joke teller is increasingly aware of the advancements occurring in the West. Knowledge of the West started to creep in to the Soviet Union after Stalin for many reasons. One way this is achieved is through the increasing scope of the media, notably television during the late 1960s and 70s, but also through radio channels like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the BBC. Radio channels were broadcast in a multitude of languages, including Russian, despite Soviet attempts to jam the broadcasts. Indeed, the popularity of television is thought to be as a result of a government drive to turn the public away from the harmful effects of foreign radio broadcasts. [10]

The anecdote below, about the Moscow based news agency TASS, makes light of Soviet attempts to cover up the truth and the poor quality of their coverage. Because of the heavy censorship in the Soviet Union, many citizens were forced to read between the lines and make inferences to gauge what the press was really saying. The presence of the anecdotes below shows that people were aware of the press’ nature and its tendency to distort the news. They were tempted by other sources of media coverage like the foreign radio stations because they could not trust Soviet reports.

How do we learn about world news? From the denials of TASS[11]

Why did Pravda adopt the following format?

XXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXX

So that people would find it more difficult to read between the lines.[12]

Soviets were driven to alternative forms of media coverage because of the gap between reality and coverage. Because of this, ordinary Soviets were increasingly being exposed to the realities of the West. By knowing about the West’s material wealth, the Soviet public learnt how bad their conditions really were as illustrated below.

Will we catch and surpass the USA?

We might catch up, but how can we run ahead of them with out arses bare like this?[13]

A Soviet citizen returning from abroad reports that capitalism is indeed decaying, but reports with a sigh, ‘But oh the smell.’[14]

Russian Newspapers

Newspapers are also a good source to look at to explain how knowledge of the West entered into the Soviet Union. Ellen Propper Mickiewitcz explains how international news was what readers would turn to first, and this interest is consistent across all age groups and education levels. When asked what they would like to learn more of, the surveys Mickiewitcz examines showed that knowledge of other countries was what motivated Soviets most to read the newspaper.[15] This is something that Shlapentokh supports, explaining how international news had precedence over domestic.[16]

But it wasn’t just knowledge of the West and Western influence that pushed the public in to telling anecdotes about the economy. After the Stalin era, people were becoming better educated and critical ideas could now be better articulated and expressed without the risk of encountering massive reprisals. The rise of Samizdat in the Soviet Union helped spread information and ideas, and provided a platform to express ideas on all aspects of the Communist regime, including the economy. George Sanders, editor of Samizdat; Voices of the Soviet Opposition, believes that the appearance of journals like Russkoe Slovo and Notebooks of Social Democracy in the mid 1960s mark a shift in the public, evolving from cultural concerns in to more political ones (economy).[17]

This spread of knowledge is helped along by the greater social mobility of the Soviet people, a result of Khrushchev’s Thaw. This is something that Ludmilla Alexeeva explains very well in The Thaw Generation, explaining how social groups (Kompaniya) emerged in the mid 1950s. Because of the increased communication through social mobility, anecdotes about the economy and the rampant inefficiency that infected most areas of society were allowed to be communicated and increased in scale.

Seth Benedict Graham explains that jokes became very potent in the 1960’s because of Soviet citizens’ shared knowledge. As a joke can only be humorous if both the performer and audience share common ground, this standardisation of information is fundamental in contributing to the genre’s rise[18] and explains why the 1960s was “the golden age of communist jokes” according to Lewis.[19] The Soviet Union was becoming less repressive and censorship was easing after Stalin. Because of this, Soviet citizens were able to compare their situations to those abroad as knowledge spread. As the U.S was the key target in Soviet propaganda attacks, jokes emphasising the superiority of Western goods was a double blow to the Soviet Union, belittling their elitist rhetoric as well as their inability to meet demand.

Sources:

  1. [1] Davies. C, Humour and Protest; Jokes under Communism (International Review of Social History, Vol. 52, 2007) pp. 297
  2. [2] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 290
  3. [3] Smith. H The Russians (Crown, 1976) p. 77/78
  4. [4] Lewis. B, Hammer and Tickle; A History of Communism told through Communist jokes (Phoenix, 2009) p. 66
  5. [5] Khrushchev Speech on ‘Peaceful co-existence’ 1956
  6. [6] Smith. H The Russians (Crown, 1976) p. 381
  7. [7] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 142
  8. [8] Coste. B, Propaganda to Eastern Europe (The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4) pp. 639
  9. [9] Rubin. B, International Film and Television propaganda; Campaigns of Assistance (Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 398, Nov 1971) pp. 85
  10. [10] Roth-Ey. K, Finding a Home for the television in the U.S.S.R, 1950-1970 (Slavic Review, Vol. 66, No. 2) pp. 287
  11. [11] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 339
  12. [12] Harris. D & Rabinovich. I, The Jokes of Oppression; The humour of Soviet Jews (Aronson, 1988) p. 177
  13. [13] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 405
  14. [14] Ibid, 409
  15. [15] Mickiewicz. EP, Media and The Russian Public (Praeger, 1981) p. 58
  16. [16] Shlapentokh. V, The Study of Values as a Social Phenomenon; The Soviet Case (Social Forces, Vol. 61, No 2) pp. 405
  17. [17] Sanders. G (ed), Samizdat; Voices of the Soviet Opposition (Anchor, 1974) p. 35
  18. [18] Graham. SB, A Cultural Analysis of the Russo- Soviet Anekdot (2003) p. 120
  19. [19] Lewis. B, Hammer and Tickle; A History of Communism told through Communist jokes (Phoenix, 2009) p. 159