June 2, 2008


Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes by Ben Lewis (Christopher Hart, 6/01/08, The Sunday Times)

This marvellously original new study of the collapse of the Soviet bloc began as an article on communist jokes in Prospect magazine. Ben Lewis's thesis is not simply that jokes alleviated the sufferings of those who lived under Soviet communism during those long, grey decades, but that by constantly depicting communism as ludicrous and unworkable, they ultimately - along with numerous other factors, of course - helped bring about its collapse.

Lewis has worked hard and travelled far and wide in pursuit of his mission, or obsession. He interviews an ancient Soviet-era cartoonist in his Moscow tower block, now aged 107, who once made jokes against Trotsky to please Stalin. He looks up Lech Walesa, still living in Gdansk, and now rather an embittered figure, like so many former political leaders. And he unearths the kind of jokes that wouldn't necessarily work too well today in the pub. One from the early days, for instance, goes, “An old peasant woman is visiting Moscow zoo, when she sets eyes on a camel for the first time. ‘Oh my God,' she says, ‘look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!'”

Then again, other Stalin-era jokes still have bite. “What were Mayakovsky's last words before he committed suicide? ‘Comrades, don't shoot!'” And surely one of the best here: “A teacher asks his class, ‘Who is your mother and who is your father?' A pupil replies, ‘My mother is Russia and my father is Stalin.' ‘Very good,' says the teacher. ‘And what would you like to be when you grow up?' ‘An orphan.'”

It's no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, who was to Stupid to believe--like the expert Sovietologists--that the USSR could last long, reveled in telling these jokes. We'd have been better served the past few years if W had similarly ridiculed Al Qaeda more often.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2008 5:19 PM
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