The book I’ve been reading for fun over the last few days could, for once, actually be described as fun: Ben Lewis, Hammer and Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes (2008). Actually, it isn’t that funny, partly because analyses of humour never are (the worst research seminar I’ve ever been to was about Soviet humour, but that’s another story), partly because most Russian and Soviet anecdotes seem to be in the wry smile rather than the laugh-out-loud category. But it did make me nostalgic for some of the Brezhnev and KGB gags that were still doing the rounds in the USSR at the beginning of the nineties.
Lewis’s attempt to construct a theory of communist jokes (essentially, did jokes contribute towards the collapse of communism?) is a bit feeble, and the first third of the book leaves something to be desired — I’m really not convinced that narrating the history of Stalinism through the humour of the time really does anything more that make it a bit less grim, while not really telling us much about the humour either. It works best when he just relates the history straight and intersperses it with apposite anecdotes, but often he prefers to tell the story through the role of jokes, which is not always successful. It picks up in the chapter on Nazi vs communist jokes, when the comparison of the two is quite illuminating on the differences between the ideologies and the attitudes of the German and Soviet populations to them.
Perhaps it’s because I learned something new, but I though the second half (post-Stalin) was much more better, even if the jokes were on average weaker. When he’s dealing with the Soviet bloc, he interviews some interesting witnesses, including stand-up comedians and satirists, who give fascinating perspectives on the vicissitudes of dissidence and accommodation within the party and government. While they pretty much rescue the book, it’s still nearly sunk by Lewis’s preoccupation with his girlfriend from the former GDR. Obviously the gradual demise of their relationship is there to dramatize the clash of ideologies, but frankly, it just makes him look like an idiot. He does sort of admit that at the end, but by that time he’d long since lost my sympathy. And speaking of the end, giving a summary of the preceding 300 pages is not, in my book, a conclusion.
There were a couple of omissions. Firstly, although he gives a brief survey of satirical writers in the twenties and thirties (pp. 33-40), including Bulgakov and Zoshchenko, there’s no reference to Kharms, who, as regular readers will know, is one of my favourites. Obviously Kharms was barely published in his lifetime, but much of Bulgakov’s satirical work also remained unpublished until long after his death, so that’s not why he’s ignored here. And Kharms is important because his humour, more akin to slapstick, is so different from the sort of classic Soviet satire represented by Zoshchenko. Where does Kharms’s brand of absurdism come from, and what does that say about communism?
Second, Vovochka doesn’t make an appearance. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Vovochka, a foul-mouthed kid with distinctly adult drinking, smoking and sexual habits, is a stock character of Russian jokes — you can see some examples here, though I warn you, some of them are remarkably crude. Nowadays Vovochka jokes are definitely considered political because they refer to Putin (Vovochka being a diminutive of Vladimir), but as Lewis eventually has to admit, there are no new jokes, only new contexts, and in the fag-end of the Soviet era, at least among the circles I moved in, Vovochka was Lenin, often only implicitly, but sometimes overtly, as in the following example:
Vovochka puts his hand up in class and says ‘Please miss, I don’t feel right, I need to go home’. His teacher gives him permission to leave. On his way out of the school gates he bumps into a friend who’s got a packet of cigarettes.
‘Hi Vovochka’, he says, ‘fancy a smoke?’
‘Nah’, says Vovochka, ‘I’ve got to get home. Something’s wrong.’
He heads home and round the corner sees another friend, this time with a bottle of vodka.
‘Vovochka, fancy a drink?’ he says.
‘I can’t today’, says Vovochka. ‘I’m going home. I don’t know what’s wrong, but…’
He carries on and meets his girlfriend.
‘Hey Vovochka’, she says, ‘fancy a quick shag?’
‘Not today’, he says, waving her away, ‘I need to get home.’
As his friends gather to discuss what on earth’s wrong with Vovochka, he finally arrives home. As he opens the door, his mum blurts out:
‘Vovochka, thank God you’ve come home! Terrible news! Your brother tried to kill the tsar!’
Well, I didn’t guarantee it was going to be funny, did I?