There are no shortage of dumb theories about the fall of communism — nearly all of them having to do with Reagan — but I’ll admit I’d forgotten this chestnut.
For some commentators in the 1980s, the existence of … humour in the communist world took on a profound significance. It demonstrated the indomitable nature of the human spirit under oppression; the fact that communism produced such a huge quantity of jokes showed how hugely oppressive it was; and the stubborn persistence of this humour played a major role in undermining Soviet rule. In the end, they said, communism was laughed out of existence.
Ben Lewis, a television documentary producer with a good knowledge of Russian and German and an inquisitive but sceptical mind, has set out to test these claims.
He has travelled through the former Soviet bloc, collecting jokes, inspecting police records and interviewing cartoonists, dissidents, politicians and diehard communists. The result is a fascinating book which . . . engages with the existing theories and argues that most of them are wrong.
This means I’ll have to shelve my book project, “In America, you catch cold, In Soviet Russia, cold catches you”: How Yakov Smirnoff, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher Saved the Free World for Carrot Top and Tom Green.
I suppose there’s no question that humor can be a valuable political tool, but it’s also true that political humor is usually ambiguous enough that it can shore up as well as mock its target. One of the points this review makes is that Lewis discovered that the Soviet leadership itself utilized humor to absorb or contain the harsh and deserved critiques of the system it presided over. The fact that Stalin apparently joked about his own reputation as a sadistic brute is an expression of the same tendencies in humor that allow George W. Bush to crack wise about missing WMD. You could make a good case that the evolution of human wit probably came to an end that evening.
Still, the article reminds me of my favorite old Soviet-era joke:
So Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are riding along in a train when it suddenly breaks down. The three leaders step out onto the tracks, scratch their heads a little, consider the scene and try to decide what to do next. Stalin advises that the engineer be shot. Khrushchev, gently disagreeing with his predecessor, recommends quietly assigning the engineer, pardoning the rest of the crew and offering them a second chance to get the train running. Brezhnev recommends pulling down the shades and pretending that the train is still moving.