LAUGHING UNDER the COVERS
(RUSSIAN ORAL JOKES and ANECDOTAL TALES)
Compiled, edited, translated from the Russian and supplied with an introduction and commentaries
by Mark Perakh
This collection of Russian orally circulated jokes is aimed at acquainting English-speaking readers with an amazing phenomenon which probably had no exact equivalent in the entire history of the humankind. During the seventy-three years of the communist sway over the giant country they named the USSR, an unprecedented effort had been sustained by the ruling communist Party apparat to suppress each and every manifestation of free thinking, however faint, and to overwhelm the minds and souls of the people by the unrelenting din of the propaganda drums. The population of the largest country on the globe had been deprived of every source of information and fed disinformation on a scale not seen ever before, either in scope or in its complete disregard of facts.
The communists used to say that the USSR was the first in the history socialist state. As it has been proven many times over, that statement was false in every respect, since, first, the social and economic system in the USSR had very little in common with socialism, but was, probably, best defined as state capitalism; and, second, since similar systems of distribution of wealth did exist more than once before, even though none of them had reached the level of a totalitarianism.
The honor of being first in the history was however fully deserved by the USSR, even though this "first" was quite different from the officially proclaimed one. The USSR could be quite precisely defined as the first in the history propagandistic state.
In that smothering air of the ubiquitous disinformation, lies, boasting, and slander, supported by the never relaxing hand of the dreadful KGB, the only outlet for the people's self-expression had become the world of anekdoty. Before 1917, this Russian word (its singular form isanekdot, and the plural one is anekdoty) had the same meaning as its equivalent anecdote has in English. According to the American Heritage dictionary, anecdote is either a) 'a short account of some interesting or humorous incident, or b) secret or hitherto undivulged particulars of history or biography.' However, after 1917, the word anekdoty has acquired in the USSR a new meaning. Rather than denoting accounts of a real event, it now referred to invented jokes which propagated via word of mouth. A special place among these jokes belonged to numerous satirical pieces with political connotation, usually deriding the official communist propaganda.
I dare to say that only a few other languages and cultures can compete with the Russian language and the underground culture in the USSR during the years of the communist rule, in regard to the oral underground jokes, with their richness, scope, ingenuity and wit, many of such jokes revealing in a highly compressed form the feelings, opinions, desires, and expectations of the oppressed and suppressed people of what used to be the Soviet Union.
The number of anekdoty has never been counted, but beyond any doubt they number in thousands. Every event, be it the next campaign by the official press against the vicious imperialists and warmongers, or the replacement of the General Secretary of the communist Party, or the newest report by the Central Statistical Authority on the unbelievable success of the agriculture in the country, immediately led to the instant and spontaneous appearance of a series of new anekdoty, which, quite contrary to the official line, revealed the actual attitude of "Masses" to the disgusting reality.
By no means had all those anekdoty been explicitly political. Many of them had sexual connotation, which, in a sense, reflected as well the people's rejection of the officialdom, since the sexual topics had always been considered unfitting the communist morals, so that the official media pretended those topics to be non-existent. Some of those jokes played with ethnic stereotypes, thus defying the official line of the complete eradication of the animosity between various national and ethnic groups in the USSR.
A Russian adage says, "One can't kick out a word from a song, " this saying meaning that the truth, however unpleasant, is still the truth and has to be acknowledged. In regard to ethnic jokes, one has to mention that some of them may be quite ugly, displaying ethnic derision and hatred. While some of these ethnic jokes may be innocent, many others denigrate non-Russian people of the former USSR, such as Armenians, Tatars, Georgians, Chukchas, or Jews. There is a large number of "Jewish jokes" of various types, considerable portion of them being more or less anti-Semitic. However unpleasant such anekdoty may be, they cannot be ignored as they are telltale in regard to certain trends existing in the Russian reality, and to pretend they do not exist would be tantamount to whitewashing the situation in Russia.
For many years, telling an anekdot, even on a person-to-person basis, entailed the risk of being jailed for the so called "anti-Soviet propaganda".
Nevertheless, the "omniscient" KGB could never suppress the anekdoty. Their authors remained unknown. A new anekdot, appearing overnight, would spread with the speed of light all over the country. Apparently, these tiny jewels of wit underwent the process of a stringent selection, the weaker ones dying on the first or second leg, and the really witty and apt ones, being refined and sometimes modified in the process of transmission from mouth to mouth, becoming known the same day in Moscow, Kiev, and Vladivostok.
It is doubtful anybody can gather most of those jokes in one collection. There were too many of them, and they always existed only in oral form.
In this collection I attempted to assemble a representative selection of some of the Russian anekdoty. Of course, many of Russian anekdoty would simply remain obscure for English speaking readers as, to invoke a humorous reaction, they require a knowledge of certain facts, circumstances, etc, which used to be quite well known to the people of the USSR, but are well beyond the ken of an average reader in this country. I did not include any of such anekdoty in this collection. In those cases when the joke could be understood with an additional explanation of its background, I tried sometimes to provide such an explanation. For obvious reasons, I have also not included any jokes based on Russian language puns, of which there is a multitude, many of them highly inventive and funny.
I would like to illustrate the foregoing explanation with a few examples.
The first example is a joke which is based purely on a pun and therefore can't be translated into other languages without fully losing its comic effect. To understand this joke, first we have to learn that in Russian the word pila (pronounced peeluh with the accent on the second syllable) means a saw. But it also is the past imperfect form of the verb to drink if related to a female. In the joke in question, a drunken man came home late and, in the dark, walked right into a tree that grew next to his house's entrance. Irritated, the man decided to cut off the tree. He walked into his place and said to his wife, "Gde pila?" which meant, "Where is the saw?" But the wife interpreted his words as the question "Where did you drink?" So, she answered, "At the neighbor's." The husband then said, "Zachem dala?" which literally means "Why did you give?" Of course he meant to ask why did she give the saw to the neighbor. But, again, here is the second pun. The word give, besides its literal meaning, when applied to a woman, also means to engage in a sexual intercourse (a more or less close equivalent in the English vernacular is probably to put out). So, the wife interpreted the question in the second sense and answered "Because I thought you'd be drunk as usual." The comic effect in this joke is based on the two puns mentioned. Naturally, I had no choice but to exclude this joke as well as many other pun-based items, from this collection.
Now look at another example of an anecdote, which, although not based on a straight pun, is nevertheless not funny at all unless one is familiar with the peculiarities of the Russian vernacular. To understand it, one has to know that in Russian vernacular the word sit has not only the literal meaning of using a seat but means also to be in jail. For every Russian speaker the expression "he sits," depending on context can mean either that "he is in a sitting position," or that "he is in jail." Moreover, the same word "sit" acquires additional meanings in different phrasal constructions. For example, the expression "he sits and reads," would mean that "he is reading at all times."
Only after this explanation the joke in question could be understood. It goes as follows:
"Who sits and invents all those anecdotes?
"Whoever invents, he sits."
Of course, being supplied with such a lengthy explanation the joke has lost its spontaneity and wouldn't evoke much more than a lukewarm nod of appreciation, while for a Russian speaker its punch line invokes a strong comic effect.
Finally, there are many a joke which, though not based on puns or on language peculiarities, still can hardly be understood by a foreigner while for a Soviet citizen they at once evoked a strong comic or satiric effect. I mean the jokes so dependent on allusions to places or events widely known to a Russian listener, but obscure for a foreigner, that it would be impossible to retain their comic power in translation. Still, some of them can be appreciated by an English speaking reader if supplied with a reasonably short explanation. One example is the following joke, one of the series of jokes told in the form of the alleged Armenian Radio broadcast (of which over a hundred items are collected in Chapter 3). "This is Armenian Radio. Our listeners asked us why our broadcasts are now so much obscured by statics. We answer, 'Until recently our broadcasts came from Erevan, but now they come from Magadan." Every Soviet citizen knew that the city of Erevan was the capital of Armenia, while the city of Magadan was the center of the vast Gulag system in the Far East of Siberia. Therefore the answer of the alleged Armenian radio had an immediate effect of a dark humor. (More about the Armenian radio see in the introductory remarks to Chapter 3).
I believe these examples show why I had, with regret, left out so many anecdotes, either being pun-based jokes, or alluding to events or places scarcely familiar to many an English-speaking reader.
The Russian anekdoty gathered in this book have been grouped in ten separate chapters in accordance with their topics.
For the sake of comparison, I have included Chapter 10 containing some anecdotes which had been in circulation before 1917. They are a completely different breed as they are supposedly accounts of real events, and therefore, unlike the anekdoty of the Soviet era, meet the definition of an anecdote as given in the American Heritage dictionary. The oral jokes of the Soviet era by no means represent a continuation of the anecdotes of the 19 th century.
After 1917, the new anekdoty fulfilled the need for self-expression, replacing all the plugged outlets for peoples' thoughts and emotions.
It is possible to find the roots of the Soviet era anecdotes in at least three different traditions. One is the Jewish folklore originated in the pale where Jews, the oppressed minority, lived in squalid conditions, and where they often resorted to humor as a kind of a tranquilizer helping to forget about the harsh reality. The second root of the Soviet-era oral jokes can be probably found in the funny stories attributed to the so called Kinto, the traveling salesmen of the 19 th century Georgia. And one more root could be seen in the humorous tales that circulated for centuries in the Central Asia areas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many of these stories had been traditionally attributed to semi-mythical personalities. In the case of Jewish jokes this person usually was a man named Hershele Ostropoler, who allegedly lived in the last quarter of the 18th century and in the first years of the 19th century in Poland and Ukraine, and traveled all over the pale telling jokes and entertaining people. As to the Central Asian funny tales, many of them are traditionally attributed to a man named Khodja Nasreddin, again a half-mythical figure who in his tales is depicted as a fast-witted jester deriding and making fun of the rich, the powerful, the Khans and Kings.
But, whatever roots of the Soviet-era jokes could be identified, these anekdoty certainly constitute a qualitatively new phenomenon which has not yet been sufficiently studied and understood.
This book contains 557 Russian oral jokes of the Soviet era, and, additionally, 17 items (chapter 9) which, even though related to the Soviet era as well, are anecdotes in the sense of the English word. To distuinguish them from the jokes of chapters 1 through 8, I refer to them as anecdotal tales. Finally, chapter 10 contains 26 anecdotal tales dated before 1917, gathered here for comparison, and also because they are funny in their own right.
Of the 557 new anekdoty in this collection, nearly 500, to the best of this writer's knowledge, have never before appeared in English.
Before the advent of glasnost in Russia, any attempt to publish anecdotes in Russia was out of question. Since the glasnost had become a fact of life in Russia, the situation has changed dramatically, and doubtfully many publications have recently appeared in Russia (or in any of the former republics of the USSR which are now independent countries) containing the previously forbidden oral jokes. However, this writer has so far not seen a sufficiently complete collection of Russian oral jokes in English.
Many of the jokes gathered here this writer had simply recovered from memory, by recalling the long nights in the mountains of Caucasus, Tien-Shan and Pamir, where, between climbing the peaks and traversing the glaciers, this writer used to sit at bon-fires telling stories and listening to stories. The remoteness of those mountainous areas as well as the close-knit character of the small group of friends, all mountain climbers, where the presence of a KGB informer was but a remote possibility, were conducive to the tongues being untied and the stories and jokes told in a free-wheeling fashion and settling in the listeners memory for years to come.
Some other anecdotes, those which are of a more recent variety, this writer has heard from newly arriving Russian immigrants or from visitors from Russia, who have been coming lately to this country in increasing numbers.
I believe this collection is by far the largest and fullest ever appearing in English, even after I excluded so many jokes for the reasons listed earlier.
Among Russian oral anecdotes there are quite a few that are rather coarse, sometimes in a very bad taste, some of them containing explicit obscenities. Even though I have singled out the "off-color" jokes in a separate Chapter 8 which can be omitted by those readers who may feel offended by an explicit coarseness, there are also a few items in the rest of the chapters which contain expressions that may not suit the taste of some readers. I have marked such items by placing an asterisk (*), as a warning sign, right before the first word of such an anecdote.
I realize that some of these small pearls of people's wit would not be fully appreciated by people having no experience of living in a communist-totalitarian society. I hope though that the readers of this collection will have fun and might also gain some insight into what Winston Churchill once referred to as a Russian "riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma."
A word about the title of this book, Laughing Under the Covers. The reason for this title should become clear after reading joke 3.90 in Chapter 3.
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