international analysis and commentary

The return of Soviet dark humor in Russia


German thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that a good philosophical work could consist entirely of jokes. In many ways, jokes are a sociological treasure: they capture widespread social perceptions, and they amuse and criticize at the same time. When censorship falls on free speech, as is the case in Putin’s Russia, jokes, being anonymous and oral, become a very important protest weapon. It is not by chance that the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, fostered a return of dark humor, something that was very common during Imperial Russia and even more so in Soviet times.

To better grasp this phenomenon, the USSR’s heritage is fundamental: it is impossible to think about popular culture in the Soviet Union without considering the many anti-system jokes that circulated. At the time, jokes were not a laughing matter: some 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes or for, as they were described, “anti-Soviet propaganda” from 1929 until 1953, as reported by scholar Roy Medvedev in his book The October Revolution (1979).


Jokes helped destroy Communism

Literature analyzing the role and power of jokes in the Soviet Union is wide. Russian essayist Nikolai Zlobin in his Humor as a political protest (1996) makes it very clear:

Humor historically has been the most popular and widespread form of political protest in Russia and the former Soviet Union […]A short joke could obliterate the enormous propaganda efforts of the Marxist-Leninst ideologists in their attempt to create fearless, obedient Soviet citizens. 

According to him and other scholars, jokes somehow helped the Soviet regime collapse, underlying the absurdity of a pompous propaganda that had very little to do with people’s lives. To this regard, a very popular joke format in the Soviet Union was Radio Armenia, which offered witty punchlines that always followed the same format of question and answer:

Radio Armenia was asked: “Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the USSR just like in the USA?”

Radio Armenia answered: “In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in the Red Square in Moscow and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished.”

Jokes then moved from criticizing the system to directly targeting its leader: Leonid Brezhnev’s intellectual weakness was the main topic of most jokes during the 1970s.

A man on the Red Square shouts, “Brezhnev is an idiot!” He gets sentenced to 15 years: five years for insulting the Soviet leader, and 10 years for revealing a state secret. 

An official says to Brezhnev, “Comrade General Secretary, today you are wearing one black shoe and the other is brown.”
“Yes,” Brezhnev answers, “I’ve noticed it myself.”
“Why didn’t you change?”
“I went to change, but when I looked in the closet, there was also one brown shoe and the other was black.” 

If jokes were forbidden during Stalin’s times and somehow tolerated in the 1970s, the last Soviet leader Gorbachev even liked to tell one about himself:

Two men are in line waiting to buy vodka. An hour goes by, then two, and the line barely moves. Everyone is in a terrible mood. Finally, one of the men can’t take it any longer. “This is it! I’m sick of this kind of life. Everywhere there are lines, you cannot buy anything, and the store shelves are empty. All of this is because of Gorbachev and his stupid perestroika. I’ve had enough. I’m going to the Kremlin right now to assassinate him”. The man returns after two hours, still angry, and says, “To hell with it! At the Kremlin the line to assassinate Gorbachev is longer than this one.”

A few months after this joke started to circulate, the system collapsed.


Jokes about Putin

Putin rose to power in 2000 and jokes started to be told, touching upon different traits of his persona, mostly his being a former KGB agent. The real change in tone was in 2011-2012, during the mass protests over election fraud that reconfirmed him as President after Dimitri Medvedev’s term: corruption and power greed were at the heart of most jokes.

Famous writer, journalist and dissident Viktor Shenderovich held an insightful lecture on Putin jokes in 2013. He was one of the 34 people who first signed the Putin Must Go manifesto. During the lecture he recalled a joke he heard on a radio program, that questioned the transparency of the 2012 presidential elections.

The Chairman of the Election Commission goes to Putin after the election: “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”
“The bad news.”
“Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, got 75% of the votes.”
“Holy crap!” cries Putin. “What’s the good news?”
“You got 76%.” 

Putin’s popularity had reached its lowest point in 2011 and regained momentum after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, which was followed by sanctions imposed by the West. The tone changed in favor of Putin, portrayed as a tough leader against the West’s provoking behavior. This change in perception is confirmed by surveys.

A joke appeared and it sounds ominous today:

Obama: “We order Russia to keep its troops as far away as possible from its borders”. Putin: “Will Kyiv do?” 

Another very popular joke started to play with the idea that, after Crimea, Putin might take Alaska back from the US:

Alina Kabaeva, rumored to be Putin’s mistress, is talking to a friend: “You see what the problem is, for the March 8th I asked him for cream not Crimea! Now I am afraid to ask for a stroller!” 

The joke requires a linguistic note: Krim, in Russian “Crimea”, sounds very much like krem,“cream”. “Alaska” is one letter away from kalyaska, the baby stroller.


2022: black humor is back

Since the very beginning of the war against Ukraine, any manifestation of dissent is punished with up to 15 years in prison. Roskomnadzor, the State Agency that controls media contents, prohibited the use of the term “war” obliging journalists and all social media users to refer to a “special operation”. Humor was quick in reacting on the web: in popular memes and tweets, Lev Tolstoy’s masterpiece, War and Peace became Special Operation and State Treason.

Other jokes appeared recently, expressing the fear of international isolation form the West:

“Optimists are learning English, pessimists are learning Chinese, realists are learning to use a Kalashnikov.”

A must-tell joke in Russia, which started to circulate after 2014 reappeared:

A Russian guy is at the Polish border:
“No, no, just visiting.”

Some other jokes are being recycled from Soviet times, like this one:

Putin is getting a haircut while the barber keeps asking questions about the Russian economy and the effect of sanctions.
Putin gets tired and asks the reason for all these questions.
“Mr. President, I work much better when your hair stands up.”

In February 2022, international media showed and commented the meeting between Putin and his top advisors, during which the Russian President harshly contradicted the Chief of Secret Services Sergei Narushkin, as the latter pleaded for “giving another chance to the West” before starting the war. Shortly after, an old Stalin joke reappeared, in which all the arbitrariness and foolishness of Putin is shown, together with the terror felt by his entourage:

Putin is having his meeting with political and military staff.
Suddenly someone sneezes.
“Who sneezed?” Putin asks
Silence in the room.
“First row, you all stand up, you are sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
“So, who sneezed?” Putin asks again.
“Second row, you all stand up, you are sentenced to 15 years in prison.
And so on, third, fourth rows…
Suddenly somebody says: “Mr. President, it was me.”
Putin simply replies: “Bless you.” 

Many jokes concerning the war started to circulate in Ukraine, with the intent to humiliate Russia and its propaganda. Online Ukrainian newspaper Telegraf collected the most popular:

Russian troops where promised flowers if they invaded Ukraine, but nobody specified they meant on their graves.

Travel package for Russians: See Kyiv and then die, cocktails are offered.

According to Putin, what is going on in Ukraine is a battle between Russia and NATO. How is the situation on the battlefield?
Russia has lost 14,000 soldiers, 100 fighter planes, 100 helicopters, 500 tanks, 1,500 armored vehicles, 3 ships, 230 guns and 6 generals. NATO hasn’t shown up yet.

Putin comes back from the afterlife and goes to a bar in Moscow. He is very curious to know if Russia is still a great Empire. He keeps asking questions to the barman.
“So, is Crimea still ours?”
The barman answers: “Yes, Mr. President.”
“And Donbass belongs to us?”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“So, Russia is the most powerful state in the world?”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“That is very good. How much do I owe you?
“10 dollars Mr. President.”  

Humor is a powerful weapon. Voltaire summed it up in his letters: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.”



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