Freedom to joke

While it’s widely accepted that communism is no laughing matter, it’s a lesser known fact that during the Soviet era you could be sent to the Gulag for something as trivial as telling or listening to a joke. After Stalin’s death, for instance, 200 people were arrested for daring to tell anti-government jokes.

Political jokes were passed in hushed whispers between friends and passed down by parents to their children.  But some of the jokes did come to the attention of the authorities: West German spies secretly recorded some of the jokes told in communist East Germany to try and gain an insight into public attitudes and moods.

Most of the jokes documented by West German spies took a hit at leaders like Gorbachev:

A worker standing in a liquor line says, “I’ve had enough, save my place, I’m going to shoot Gorbachev.” Two hours later he returns to claim his place in line. His friends ask, “Did you get him?” “No, the line there was even longer than the line in here.”

A worker standing in a liquor line says, “I’ve had enough, save my place, I’m going to shoot Gorbachev.” Two hours later he returns to claim his place in line. His friends ask, “Did you get him?” “No, the line there was even longer than the line in here.”

Other jokes set out criticise the communist regime as a whole:

Sentence from a schoolboy’s weekly composition class essay – “My cat just had seven kittens. They’re all communists.” Sentence from same boy’s composition the following week – “My cat’s seven kittens are all capitalists.” Teacher reminds boy that the previous week he had said the kittens were communists. The child replies – “Yes, but now they’ve opened their eyes.”

In fact, the laws around telling jokes were so outrageous that they became the subject of jokes themselves:

Two Soviet judges bump into each other just outside the courtroom. One is laughing out loud.

“What are you laughing at?”

“I just heard the funniest joke!”

“Tell me!”

“I can’t – I just sentenced a man to 10 years in the Gulag for telling it.”

It wasn’t just those under communist rule that found such jokes amusing. In 2017, the CIA made over 13 million pages of official documents available online for anyone to see. In between the records of UFO sightings and psychic experiments and recipes for invisible ink, there was a document of Soviet-era jokes that had been hidden since its creation in the eighties.

The two-page document entitled ‘Soviet Jokes for the DDCI’ (Deputy Director of Central Intelligence) is thought to have been curated for President Ronald Reagan, who was said to be a fan of Soviet quips. Reagan once said that he’d shared his favourite joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and managed to get a laugh out of him. The joke, documented in the CIA files, goes:

An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free he can stand in front of the White House and yell, “To hell with Ronald Reagan.” The Russian replies: “That’s nothing. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,” too.

While these jokes became the subject of much US merriment, they remained dangerous territory for the people of the Soviet Union who could face a sentence of five to eight years in the Gulag if they were found to be telling, or on the receiving endof a seditious joke.

However, not all jokes were deemed unsuitable for Soviet ears. Stand-up comedians were allowed to work during the regime, but their jokes were subject to strict censorship prior to being unleashed on the public. The communist government even assembled a central Department of Jokes which stand-ups would have to submit a list of jokes to every year. Once a comedian’s list had been approved, they weren’t allowed to deviate from their script for the entire year, until the next round of censorship.

At a time of political dissatisfaction and unrest, the ability to tell and laugh at jokes became a form of protest, and humour an act of rebellion. The revolutions afforded us many important freedoms – but next time you crack a joke, think of this one. 


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