Thursday, May 04, 2006

'Hammer & tickle', Prospect Magazine

'Hammer & tickle', Prospect Magazine

After the Russian revolution in 1917, there was this old Russian peasant woman from a small village, who finally was able to visit the Moscow Zoo for the first time. And after walking through many exhibits of different exotic animals, she sees a camel for the first time .. and exclaims "Look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!"

The joke is paraphrased from the Prospect Magazine article by Ben Lewis, whose film "Hammer and Tickle: The Communist Joke Book" was playing at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. (Sorry I didn't find this sooner.) It will also be shown on BBC4 in September. It examines the Russian anekdot, which existed not so much as a way of protest, but as a way of coping with the realities of life under communism in Russia. This distinction appears to have been lost on western authorities, a point which the film reportedly examines. It also appears such humore was a way of connecting with your fellow citizens.
There's another factor that reinforces the mode of covert protest in communist jokes—the way former citizens of the communist countries felt about them. I suggested to each interviewee that most of these jokes weren't actually very funny, or at least had dated badly. How could they laugh at so many mediocre and repetitive jokes? They were outraged by the question. "Every week there was another great new joke. The strange thing is that you always asked: where do they come from? You never knew. The author was a collective—the people," said Ernst Röhl, one of East Germany's leading satirists. "I remember, as a student, when we had to gather the harvest and we told jokes incessantly," I was told by Stefan Wolle, the author of Back in the GDR. "Then we sat in the pub until midnight telling jokes. Everyone had his special collection." "Some of these jokes are minor masterpieces," said Doina Doru, a Romanian proofreader who spent ten years checking that Ceausescu's name was spelt correctly in the daily newspaper. "What is colder in a Romanian winter than cold water?" she continued by way of illustration, "Hot water!"
The film also makes the case that humor has dried up in Russia since the fall of communism. I'm rather skeptical of this claim, as I always have found the Russian sense of humor to very much be intact. The targets might now be New Russians, rather than Old Communists, but the tongue is just as sharp and just as funny.

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