Anekdoty: Quiet Pessimism

As the systemic crises of economic failures and political inefficiency continued from the ‘reforms’ of Khrushchev to the ‘restoration’ of Brezhnev into the 1970’s, the dissolution of term limits led to an increasingly ossified leadership. In effect, setting the state of events in stone. While these political restructuring weren’t the only reason for the economic and social crises, it certainly didn’t help the situation. As increasingly citizens realized that the Soviet system was not providing the means or solutions to the problems of living conditions and economic growth, they turned to comedy.

An entire genre of jokes arose out of a need to cope with the increasingly gloomy situations. “Anekdoty”, Soviet jokes primarily from the Breznev era became popular, and even synonymous with Soviet life, especially on cigarette breaks, between university classes, and even in public parks. In fact there even arose a slang expression for these gatherings where jokes were told and traded, “traveet”.

From what I can gather, many jokes focus specifically on the ignorance or stupidity of Brezhnev himself, as well as the inanity of the Soviet system:

“Man on Red Square shouts, ‘Brezhnev is an idiot!’ He gets sentenced to 15 years: five years for insulting the Soviet leader, and 10 years for betraying a state secret.” #1

“After the Americans have landed on the Moon, Brezhnev calls in his space bosses and says: ‘The Party and government direct you to land our cosmonauts on the Sun as soon as possible.’ ‘But the Sun is so hot that you can’t even fly close to it.’ ‘OK, then you’ll have to launch the rocket at night.’ #2

“How do you know if Brezhnev is on a level stage. He drools from both sides of his mouth.” #3

These jokes demonstrate not only that the Soviet citizens were increasingly cynical about their leadership and the Soviet system, but also increasingly cynical and pessimistic about the involuntary role they were forced to play in it. As Siegelbaum points out, the pessimistic citizen was not an overt political dissident, or at least wasn’t seen as such by the Soviet authorities. The anekdoty, increasingly pessimistic film, books, and music were all tolerated by the authorities to a degree. While the early forms of the “Pessimistic citizen” was regarded as harmless, the political consequences of this generations dismissal of the Soviet system would have far reaching consequences in the future.

Featured Image Source: Poster for Eldar Ryazanov’s 1975 dark comedy “The Irony of Fate” 

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9 Comments

  1. Satire can be an effective method of coping with and criticizing one’s state. You make an interesting point that the Soviet people were not overtly political in their comedy, and rather, from what I gathered, the jokes were more personal, pessimistic jabs at Brezhnev with the intention of making one another laugh than attempts to expose state practices.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That podcast you cite is awesome! There’s a book, “Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation,” by the same author that you would love — it really lays out the idiosyncrasies of the disaffected majority in the late soviet period.

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  3. Soviet comedy interested me, and I tried to write about KVN but all of the Soviet jokes were over my head. I loved the jokes that you found, and I think they represent Soviet humor well. You picked a really interesting topic and I think you were able to simplify it and connect it to the bigger themes of the time. Great post!

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  4. It was interesting to learn of this coping mechanism that Soviet citizens used. Comedy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the Soviet Union. I like how you highlighted this aspect of society.

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  5. This post was awesome! I liked the jokes you added in there. It is interesting to see how comedy is something that helps people get through tough situations. I see it in my day to day life as well! There is also a parallel between the types of jokes that they said and the types of jokes we say about Trump. A lot of pessimism turned comedy going on right now.

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  6. This is really interesting. It seems to be pretty common for societies to resort to fairly dark comedy when things aren’t going well, and few do dark comedy like the Russians. I recall reading about similar jokes being made about Nazi leaders in the last years of World War II, I’ll have to see if I can find them again. Great job!

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  7. This is such an intriguing topic! I never picture communist citizens to be humorous people because of the stereotypes that our generation has adopted towards the practice. This post allowed me to see these people for what they were. I think it’s great that they were able to poke fun at the absurdity that was Breshnev.

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  8. So, I loved this post and the podcast especially. The Lenin is a Mushroom thing is hilarious. The anekdoty are still popular in my experience, especially among the older generation… for the longest time I just thought the Russian word translated the same, as “anecdotes,” and I always wondered why people kept asking me for anecdotes, when they really wanted me to just tell them a joke. This was the first time I’ve heard of styob… I think nowadays people mostly say “prikol”. The only anekdot I remember was about sausage deficit… something like a salesperson in a store asks if a customer wants to buy another half inch of sausage and the customer resonds “gulyat’ tak gulyat'”, which means something like “if you’re going to buy something, might as well splurge”.

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