Coincidences are funny things. Yesterday I read an old joke from Stalin’s time: Stalin has lost his pipe, and sends off Lavrenti Beria, the head of the KGB, to find it. A day later Stalin summons Beria to tell him that he has found the pipe, which had fallen into his boot. ‘But Comrade Stalin,’ expostulates Beria,’ I have already found five prisoners who have confessed to stealing it!’
The day before I heard another joke from a somewhat later period. ‘Why don’t Hungarian workers work?’ ‘Well, the working class is now, under Communism, the ruling class, and the ruling class don’t work!’
And it took me back to the 1980s, when my Political Science Department at the ANU had a lively and productive Soviet and East European speciality. One of its by-products was an endless stream of jokes. And what jokes they were — all about politics. My international experience of jokes was that in the USA the jokes were largely about race, in the UK about the class system, in Australia about sex. But in the Soviet Union they were all about politics, and they were very funny.
Here’s another. ‘Why do the KGB go about in threes?’ ‘Well, one of them can read, and one can write. The third one is there to keep an eye on the two intellectuals!’
And another, rather like the Hungarian one: asked about labour productivity, a worker explains, ‘Well, they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work!’
There is a queue outside a Moscow butcher’s shop, because it is thought that a load of sausages will arrive that day. It grows in length, and finally an official comes out, and says, ‘The sausages will be not so many. The queue is too long. All Jews leave.’ They leave, and half an hour passes. The official appears again. ‘Queue still too long. All Gypsies leave!’ This process continues as Ukrainians, Rumanians and Moldavians all go. The queue is now small, and consists only of Russians of good standing. The official comes out again, and says, ‘Comrades, there will be no sausages today’. The queue disperses, with one of their number saying, ‘Ah, the Jews, always for them the lucky break!’
Irony runs through all the jokes of this time. One of my favourites concerns the visit of an American capitalist who is given a great tour. At the Kremlin he points to a man gazing out from a tower. ‘What’s he doing?’ The interpreter explains that the man up there has great eyesight and is looking for approach of Communism. ‘I’d like to talk to him,’ says the American. Down the man comes, and the capitalist instantly offers him a much better job, in the US, at the top of his skyscraper, where he will look out for the approach of Democracy. To his surprise, the Russian refuses, and the American bids up, again and again, until he is offering a salary of more than $1 million a year. The Russian steadfastly refuses. ‘OK, ‘ says the American, ‘if you won’t come, at least tell me why.’ The Russian says,’Your offer is very attractive, but if I go to your job, there will be no certainty of employment. Here, I have a job for life!’
The former East Germany produced a car, the Trabant, which was renowned for its poor quality and erratic performance. Franz, having saved up the amount to buy his Trabant, enters the office, and fills in the form. He passes over the money and gets the receipt. ‘When can I take delivery?’ Franz asks. ‘Ah, comrade, the car is so popular that there is along waiting list, but I think I can guarantee that you can take delivery in just five years’ time — in fact, tomorrow morning in five years!’ ‘Oh,’ says Franz, ‘could it be in the afternoon five years from now?’ ‘Yes, that can be arranged. But why in the afternoon?’ ‘The plumber is coming in the morning,’ explains Franz.
From Poland comes the magic goldfish story. There are a number of these tales, all built around the notion of a magic goldfish, who, when caught, promises to reward the fisherman if he returns the fish to the stream. The reward always comes with a twist, as in this one. The young fisherman knows at once that he has caught a magic goldfish, and trembles to hear the words. ‘Put me back, fisherman, put me back, and I will grant three wishes!’ ‘At once, magic goldfish, at once, and my three wishes are that I should be a prince, and live in a palace, and have a beautiful young wife.’ ‘Put me back, put me back,’ cries the fish, ‘and it will all happen.’
He puts the fish back, and Zap!! He finds that he is sleepy but waking up. He is in a large, soft bed, and reaching out he can feel that there is a warm space next to him. As his eyes open he sees in front of him a beautiful young woman, dressed in a filmy negligee, the sunlight behind her outlining her lovely body. She looks lovingly at him, and says ‘Wake up, wake up, Franz Joseph. Today we go to Sarajevo!’
I doubt I would have lasted long in the Soviet bloc, but I love the jokes of that time. They are a tribute to the role of humour in human survival.