The Russian smile , 2004
The painting :
The era of communism is receding , but the colorful previous rulers are not forgotten.
Carnation is the Soviet national flower - the flower of love or flower of the gods , while Chamomile is the Russian state flower , one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxons .
I was 6 when I first saw a white person.
I was hanging around in the street outside my uncle's retail shop one slow summer afternoon , bored out of my mind and alone for once as all my cousins were engaged in chores , when I saw a strange little girl about my age . She seemed equally startled to see me and ran round the corner of the street to join a man sitting at the bottom of a staircase . They both had very white skin and pale hair.
I ran back to the shop and asked the grown-ups " Who're those people ? "
" They're the White Russians " They said, disinterested.
Satisfied the name befited the looks, I raced back to the little girl , shoved half of the red bean bun which was my afternoon snack towards her and demanded that she played with me . She shrank into the man who said something in a funny language, shook his head and gestured me away .
Autumn the same year I was put into school . Everyday walking back from school I would check on the little girl and her father , who sat motionless like statues at their spot , staring into space. Then one day they were gone .
Panicked, I asked the grown-ups " What happened to the White Russians ? "
" They've probably been relocated to a third country. " They said " They're refugees "
It then struck me in all the months I'd tried to befriend the little White Russian, she never spoke and never smiled .
Maybe for refugees there's not much to smile about .
In the summer of 2004 I visited Russia , and was again struck by the earnest solemnity of the Russian people .
" Do Russians have a sense of humour ?" I asked Tania , our tourguide .
" Of course we do !" She said , then paused , " I think we do . "
Russians do have a sense of humour although a lot of the jokes make me want to cry .
For most of the Russian history , humour has been an expression of the human spirit under duress . Soviet Russia being one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations , its jokes cover not only the usual topics on sex , spouse relations, mother-in-law, but other subjects peculiar to Soviet culture and customs , ethnic stereotypes, and of course , politics .
A typical mother-in-law joke :
A man rang the hospital.
" Please send an ambulance , my mother-in-law has eaten poisonous mushrooms ."
The ambulance came and the paramedic asked, " But why is she covered all over with bruises and scratches ?'
" Didn't want to eat the mushrooms ."
Jokes on ethnic stereotypes :
What do you call one Russian ? ----- A drunk
What do you call two Russians -----A fight
What do you call three Russians ----- The junior sub-committee of the 3rd Party Secretariat of the 8th District........
What do you call one Jew ? -----A financial center
What do you call two Jews ? ------ The World Chess Championship
What do you call three Jews ? -----Native Russian Folk Instrument Ensemble
Chukotka is the most remote northeast corner of Russia , and the inhabitants are depicted as simple- minded and primitive :
A Chukcha walks into a shop and asks : " Do you have colour TV ? "
" Yes, we do . "
" Give me a green one . "
Estonians are seen as slow, mean and stubborn :
" I told some Estonian guys that they're slow "
" What did they say ?"
" Nothing , but they beat me up the following day "
Jewish jokes is a highly developed subset of Russian humour , largely based on the self-image of the Jews ( as opposed to anti-semitic jokes ):
Avram cannot sleep, tossing anf turning in bed, finally his wife Sarah protests : " Avram, what's bothering you ? "
" I owe Moishe our neighbour 20 roubles , but I've no money to repay him "
Sarah bangs on the wall and shouts to the neighbour :" Moishe ! My Avram still owes you 20 roubles ? Well, he isn't paying you back !"
Turning to her husband she says :" Now goes to sleep and let Moishe stay awake "
Chinese jokes center on the enormous numbers of Chinese people, the Chinese language and the perception of the Chinese as cunning, industrious and hard-working :
" During the Damansky Island incident the Chinese military developed three main strategies :
The Great Offensive , The Small Retreat , and infiltration by Small Groups of One to Two Million Across the Border . "
Russians are very fond of using pun in their jokes :
In America you can always find a party; in Soviet Russia the party can always find you
Six paradoxes of the socialist state :
Nobody works , but the plan is always fulfilled .
The plan is fulfilled , but the shelves in the stores are empty.
The shelves are empty, but nobody starves.
Nobody starves, but everybody is unhappy.
Everybody is unhappy, but nobody complains.
Nobody complains, but the jails are full.
In England , what is permitted is permitted, and what is prohibited is prohibited
In America everything is permitted except for what is prohibited
In Germany everything is prohibited except for what is permitted
In France everything is permitted even what is prohibited
In the URRS everything is prohibited, even what is permitted
Five precepts of the soviet intellectual :
Do not think .
If you think - do not speak
If you think and speak - do not write
If you think , speak and write - do not sign
If you think , speak , write and sign - don't be surprised
Political satire had always been considered potentially dangerous under the Russian Autocratic Monarchies , and much more so in Soviet Union. Telling political jokes was in a sense an extreme sport , for according to Article 58 ( RSFSR Penal Code ) , " anti-Soviet propaganda " was a potential capital offense . Inspite of, or perhaps because of its oppression, Russian humour flourished as a liberating culture .
A competition of the best joke has been announced :
First prize : twenty five years ;
second prize : twenty years;
and two condolence prizes : fifteen years each
Communist economic theories and system of repression created inherently funny situations . The absurd system created a big gap between everyday reality and propaganda , so sharp jokes addressed social shortcomings and let out frustration . A distinctive communist sense of humour emerged , dry and deadpan .
A delegation of foreign ministers visited a Moscow kindergarden.
The children were instructed to answer all questions with " In the URRS everything is the best in the world ! "
The visitors asked : " Children, do you like your kindergarden ? "
" In the URRS everything is the best in the world ! " the children shouted.
" And what about the food you get ? "
" In the URRS everything is the best in the world ! "
"Do you like your toys ? "
" In the URRS everything is the best in the world ! "
At that the smallest boy in the class started crying.
" Misha, why are you crying ? What happened ? "
" I wa-a-a-nt to go to the URRS ! "
Jokes on freedom of speech :
Is it true there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union the same as in the USA ?
Yes ! In the USA you can stand in front of the white House in Washington DC and shout " Down with Reagan ! " and you will not be punished.
Just the same you can stand in the Red Square in Moscow and shout "Down with Reagan ! " and you will not be punished either .
Napoleon was resurrected and was invited to watch the military parade held to commemorate the 1917 Bolshevik upheaval in Moscow .
The Minister of defense said to him , " Your majesty , if you had such tanks and military machines , you'd have won at Waterloo ."
To that Napoleon answered , " If I had such press as yours , nobody would ever know I lost at Waterloo! "
Chernobyl jokes :
" Grandpa , look at this light bulb ! The blue colour is so pretty ! "
" Baby, it's not a light bulb . It's a bottle of milk from Chernobyl . "
A grandson asks his grandfather : " Grandpa , is it true that in 1986 there was an accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant ? "
" Yes, there was . " answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson's head .
" Grandpa , is it true that it had absolutely no consequences ?"
" Yes, absolutely " answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson's second head .
And they strolled off together, wagging their tails .
Much of the jokes were on the hardship of life under communism :
" Is it true that when comminism comes we will be able to order our food via the telephone ? "
" Yes, and we will enjoy it via the television .
A man is buying a refrigerator , and is told to expect delivery in 10 years , on a friday .
The man replies " Oh no, not on that Friday, that's when the plumber is coming ! "
After waiting five hours in line to buy meat in the dead of winter, Igor begins to snap.
He starts jumping up and down, yelling " Communism sucks ! "
A secret policeman approaches Igor points his finger to his temple mimicking a pistol and whispers " Bang ! "
Igor returns home especially dejected.
His wife asks , " What's the matter ? Are they out of meat again ?"
" Worse ! " Igor says , " They're out of bullets "
A woman walks into a food store .
" Do you have any meat ? "
" No, we don't ."
" What about milk ? "
" We only deal with meat . Across the street is the store where they have no milk . "
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers he has a choice : he can go to Capitalist hell or to Communist hell . Naturally he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to Capitalist hell and asks the devil in charge, " What's it like in there ?" " Well, " the devil replies , " in the Capitalist hell we flay you alive, then we boil you in oil, then we cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives .
"That's terrible !" he gasps. And he goes off to check out the Communist hell , where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in .
" What's it like in there ?" he asks the devil in charge . " Well, "the devil replies , "in the Communist hell, we flay you alive but sometimes we don't have knives, we boil you in oil but very often we're out of oil ................"
On the absurdities of the communist system :
The principle of communism economy :
The authorities pretends they are paying wages, the workers pretend they are working
Local authorities were unsure what to do with the increasing number of elderly citizens, so they went to Moscow for instruction.
Moscow gave the following directions : " Send those whose hands are shaking to a mill to sieve flour, and those who heads are shaking to sit on the podium in political meetings . "
On the economy :
The President of the USA has one hundred security advisors. One of them is a KGB agent . Who that man is , is being investigated.
The President of Zambia has one hundred lovers. One of them has AIDS, who that woman is , is being investigated.
The President of URRS has one hundred advisors on economy. One of them understands economy. Who that person is, is being investigated
A country decided to follow the Soviet economic model and didn't do well.
As the USSR promised help the country's President sent a telegram to Brezhnev, " Please send food . "
Brezhnev answered with a telegram , " tighten the belts . "
The next telegram from the President said , " Urgently send belts . "
On the frustrations of the people :
Why did the man who shoot at a government limousine in the Red Square missed the target ?
Because the guy standing next to him tried to wrestle the gun from him, shouting , " Let me shoot ! "
What is a Soviet musical duet ?
It's a musical quartet after a trip abroad .
Prison jokes :
Two prisoners get to talking about why they are there.
" I'm here because I always got to work late and they charged me with sabotage , " says the first .
" I'm here because I always got to work on time and they charged me with owning a Western watch " says the second.
A guard asked a political prisoner , " What is your term ? "
" Ten years . "
" What for ? "
" For nothing . "
" Liar ! For nothing they give only five years ! "
Telling jokes about the KGB was thought to be like pulling the tail of a tiger :
The KGB, the GIGN and the CIA are all trying to prove they are the best at catching criminals.
The Secretary General of the UN decides to give them a test .
He releases a rabbit into a forest and each of the bureau has to catch it .
The CIA goes in .
They place animal informants throughout the forest. They question all plants and mineral witnesses. After 2 months they conclude that rabbits do not exist .
The GIGN goes in .
After 2 weeks with no lead they burn the forest, killing everything in it, including the rabbit , and make no apologies .
The KGB goes in .
After 2 hours they come out with a badly beaten bear . The bear is yelling " Okay ! Okay ! I'm a rabbit ! I'm a rabbit ! "
According to the KGB classification there are three categories of soviet people :
1) those who have already been to prison
2) those who are now in prison
3) those who will be in prison
An international team of scientists is excavating an Egyptian pyramid and found an unmarked mummy .
The German scientists studied it for a month and release a report proving it's from the Middle Kingdom .
The US team studied it for a week, and concluded the mummy is from the 19th Dynasty.
Then the Russian scientists go in , come out a day later and announce it's Amenhoyep the third , 19th Dynasty , 53 years of age, ruler of Egypt for 37 years .
Everyone is stunned : " How did you figure that ? "
The Russians smile : " Oh , he confessed . "
Jokes on the Soviet leaders are based on their unique character :
Karl Marx -
Karl Marx was resurrected and was shown around the URRS.
At the end of his tour he requested to make a speech on TV .
The Poliburo hesitated as they were might say something they wouldn't approve.
Marx promised he would say only one sentence , so the Poliburo agreed.
Karl Marx uttered the following sentence : " Workers of all countries , forgive me ! "
Lenin jokes make fun of the propaganda in his name -
In the Red Square outside Lenin's tomb in Moscow, a group of on-lookers watch the change of guard .
A kid asks ," Daddy, why do they always keep guard at the tomb ? "
" Didn't you hear what they say all the time ? Lenin lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live forever .
God forbid, what if he's indeed alive and decides to walk out of the tomb ? "
Stalin jokes center on his cruelty and morose dark personality -
" Comrade Stalin ! This man is your exact double ! "
" Shoot him ! "
" Maybe we can shave off his mostache ? "
" Good idea ! Shave it off then shoot him ! "
Once Stalin received a delegation of workers from the Urals.
After the workers left Stalin could not find his pipe , so he called Beria , the Head of the KGB .
" Yes Yosif Vissarionovich , I'll take immediate proper action . " Beria said .
Ten minutes later, Stalin opened a drawer in his desk and saw his pipe , so he dialled Beria to tell him .
" What a pity ! " Beria said . " All of them have already confessed . "
Khrushchev jokes were on crop failures due to mismanagement of the agriculture , his rude manners and iliteracy -
Who is the greatest magician in the Soviet Union ?
Khrushchev : He sows in Kazakhstan and harvests in Saskatchewan !
Dim-witted Brezhnev was the Soviet Geroge W. Bush -
At the 1980 Olympics , Brezhnev begins his speech .
" O ! " ------ applause
" O ! " ------ more applause
" O ! " ------ yet more applause
" O ! " ------ an ovation
" O ! " ------ the whole audience stands up and cheers .
An aide comes running to the podium and whispers " Leonid Ilyich , that's the Olympic rings, you don't need to read it ! "
Brezhnev went to America where he delievered a speech . The speech was supposed to last 25 minutes, but it went on for 75 minutes.
" Oh God ! " Brezhnev's aide said " It's my fault, I somehow gave him three copies of the speech ! "
To sum up the Russian experience with political leaders thus far :
Lenin shows you how you can rule a country
Stalin shows you how you shouldn't rule a country
Khrushchev showed any moron can run a country
Brezhnev showed that not just any moron can run a country
Gorbachev's perestroika-era jokes centered on his slogans and ineffective actions -
Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who showed any sense of humour for jokes on himself . He told the following joke in 1996 when he appeared on the Clive Anderson show in Britian :
A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he's had enough and he says to a friend " That's it ! I'm going to kill that Gorbachev " and marches off.
Hours later he meets his friend again " Well," says the friend, " did you do it ?" " No, " replies the man, " there's an even longer queue there !"
Jokes on Gorbachev that he'd rather forget :
A CIA agent was sent to Russia with a task to inflict as much damage to the Soviet Union as possible.
For several years the CIA did not hear from him, then one day he showed up and reported to his superior that he's done a really good job .
" You mean what happened in chernobyl ......"
" Oh no, boss ! I was not involved in trivial matters. I did something much worse : I succeeded in putting one Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremin . "
In a restaurant :
Why are the meatballs of cubic shape ?
Perestroika ! ( restructuring )
Why are they undercooked ?
Uskoreniye ! ( acceleration )
Why are they bitten ?
Gospriyomka ! ( state approval )
Why are you telling me all this so brazenly ?
Glasnost ! ( openness )
Since the fall of the Soviet Union jokes have taken a different vein :
Vulgar rich business man joke -
"Daddy , all my schoolmates are riding the bus, I'm the odd one riding in this Mercedes Benz. "
" No worries, son . I'll buy you a bus , and you'll ride like everyone else ! "
After the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin was installed in the Kremin , while the Russian citizens are still allowed a degree of freedom and can make choices about their lives, there's visible tighter state control on the political front, not lest the abolishing of direct election of provincial governors . The bid to silence oppsition reviewed plots more devious and intriguing than a 007 James Bond tale , culminating in the bizarre assasination of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisonimg .
Fifteen years on Russia ranked 126 in the world corruption index , alongside Niger, Albania and Sierra Leone .
Russia is plagued by gross inequalities in wealth and there is no noticeable improvement in the standard of living in the provinces .The rule of law is weak throughout Russian society and tax evasion is universal ; 10% of the country's reputed to be under mob control and the crime rate hit 3.8 million last year ( 2003). Police corruption is rampant : I met 4 Chinese men who had been in Moscow for a few weeks on business, and they told me they were stopped almost every other day by the police for identity checks, their passports confiscated each time and returned only after they coughed up the bribe .
In the post-communist era the public health system in Russian has practically collapsed due to lack of funding . Russia also has to deal with a mounting AIDS crisis , the number of registered cases rising by 30% each year .
From what I could see there's no restrictions on the sale of alcohol at all , not even to minors , with the result the White Russians are drinking themselves to an early grave. While the retirement age is 60 , the average life expectancy of the Russian male is 58 years .
Maybe there just isn't much to smile about in Russia afterall .