Communism was a ghastly failure, but it produced some splendid jokes. The authorities were not amused: President Jimmy Carter at the Helsinki summit in 1977 asks Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev whether he collects stories against himself. "I certainly do—two labour camps full of them" replies the Soviet leader.
Such jokes were not just a safety valve but also a form of resistance to the hateful boredom and stagnation of the failing planned economy and repressive one-party rule. Party leaders' verbosity, for example, was notorious: speeches could last for many hours, with workers expected to sit through them attentively, applauding dutifully. So this was a
particularly popular joke: [Cuban communist leader Fidel] Castro to his doctor: "I have insomnia! Doctor: "Try reading your own speeches". Brezhnev's speeches were six-hour marathons too: because he read not only the original, but the carbon copy too, his long-suffering audience used to joke.
Sometimes, satire was allowed. As a student behind the Iron Curtain, in Cracow in 1986, I was amazed to find a gallery selling the works of the Polish artist Andrzej Mleczko, featuring savage attacks on the authorities, laced with pornography. My favourite was a party hack teaching a caged parrot to talk: "Repeat after me: `I am free, I am happy'". Across the Soviet border, telling jokes was riskier.
But since the collapse of communism life has become nicer—and provided less material for the dry, black humour so characteristic of the old days. Post-communist politicians have their shortcomings, but these days they are sleazy rather than scary. Old jokes about Stalin (such as the one where he ends up in hell and prompts a wave of refugees) resurfaced briefly in Serbia, under the warmongering rule of Sloboban Milosevic.
Probably the best political jokes now are about the uneasy tandem of Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and former president, and his nominal boss (but real-life sidekick) Dmitry Medvedev. Putin and Medvedev are ordering dinner in a restaurant. "I'll have a steak" says Putin. "and the vegetable?" asks the waiter. "He'll have steak too" says Putin.
But for the most part jokes against the authorities are a mixture of western and third-world themes, such as the French and Romanian mayors who exchange stories about purloining EU funds: "See this bridge—10% went to me", says the Frenchman. "See this bridge—100% went to me" says the Romanian, "What bridge?" asks the Frenchman, puzzled. "Precisely!" says the Romanian.
While politics gets boring, mocking neighbours remains the best terrain for jokesmiths. This is no longer politically correct in Western Europe (telling Nazi jokes about Germany is still, just, OK in England, but is seen as rude and unfair in France or the Netherlands. Germans are not really allowed to tell jokes in public about any other countries, except, on occasion, the Austrians).
Indeed, Poland's foreign minister Radek Sikorski (then a more junior minister) won kudos in 1999 by forcing CNN to apologise after Ted Turner told a silly joke implying that Polish sappers used their feet to detect mines. But wisecracks about slow-witted "Polaks" are going out of fashion in America, just as Irish jokes are no longer seen as amusing in Britain. (The exception is those that concern the Emerald Isle's financial plight: "What's the capital of Ireland? About five euros")
The butts of western jokes have moved further east: while it is no longer acceptable to poke fun at the Poles the fictional Borat was regarded as hilarious, especially by people who couldn't find Kazakhstan on a map. Kazakhs did not see the joke. Neither did the Romanian villagers gulled into being the extras in the film, depicting filth, backwardness and perversion.
Inside eastern Europe, customs are less politically correct. In countries where memories of Soviet rule are still fresh and painful, lingering Russian imperialism is good for a laugh too. A Russian is filling in a form at the Estonian border. "Occupation?" asks an official helpfully. "No, it's just a business trip". In other jokes, stereotypes remain too: Romanians are scheming, Hungarians gloomy and Czechs cowardly.
As Estonia soars into the ranks of advanced Nordic countries (it joined the euro in January 2011) its envious southern and eastern neighbours still find the "hot Estonian guy", stingy, dim-witted and undersexed, highly amusing.
Jokes about Jews, which would plunge a London dinner party into icy silence, can still be told without fear (even though the scourge of history means that in most countries in the region few Jews remain to be the butts of wisecracks, let alone to take offence at them). Jokes about "new Russians" and their crudeness and extravagance are legion ("How
much did you pay for that tie? "$500". "Shame on you—I bought it for $1,000").
The best jokes are still about history. They often involve old people: Hungarians still joke about the stereotypical elderly Kohn and Grün, fearful of the future (and sometimes of the fast-changing past). My favourite is about the origins of World War One, told as the story of a scrap in a bar.
Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together drinking when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria's pint. Austria says the splashes have ruined the trousers and demands that Serbia buy it a complete new suit. Serbia offers to pay for the dry cleaning. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone. Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium.
France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over.
Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria. France is thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and keeps fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out and wakes up brain damaged, with a personality change. Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises its fists in the air and runs round the room chanting.
America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then smashes it with a barstool, pretending it won the fight all by itself. While Germany is still unconscious, Britain France and America go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.
Similar versions exist for the Second World War. A particularly clever version tells the story of the conflagration through Facebook, with nicely savage lines such as "USSR and Germany were tagged in an album" (illustrated by a picture of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). When France surrenders to the Nazis in 1940, the tag line reads "UK and France went from being "in a relationship" to "in an open relationship". After the Normandy landings of 1944, they switch back again. In 1943 Germany and Italy go from being "married" to "it's complicated". When Italy surrenders, Germany is "single".
So much for history. But many in the ex-communist world would like see some more jokes about the present-day. They might include ignorance, complacency and double standards in Brussels, and some savage humour about the clumsy and inattentive attitude of the Obama administration towards Eastern Europe.
But telling jokes about outsiders is one thing. Telling jokes about oneself is another. The most encouraging trend is self-deprecating humour. Just as rabbis tell the best Jewish jokes, Estonia has paved the way with savage jokes at its own expense.
In a recent TV commercial two fearsome officers of the Soviet NKVD burst into an idyllic Estonian farmhouse, brusquely telling the family that they have an hour to pack their things before deportation to Siberia (real-life experience for tens of thousands during the Soviet era). The Estonians are so delighted that the trip will be free of charge "a free holiday, a free holiday" that they quite fail to grasp the true horror of what is happening, and ply their persecutors with food and drink. A talented Estonian has also produced short animated films (available on YouTube) lampooning his country's idiosyncratic version of English, as well as its tendency to self-centredness –"The world seen from Estonia"—and its half-hearted attitude to tourists—"not recommend".
Such self-deprecating humour is the ultimate sign of emotional and political maturity, just as a rabid prickliness is typically a sign of unresolved complexes about superiority, inferiority, and lack of attention from the outside world.
The sanction for those countries that don't produce enough self-critical jokes is a simple one: they will be ignored. That is an even worse punishment than being mocked.
An Estonian businessman I know was recently posted to Vilnius to sort out his company's troubled subsidiary there. He forced through radical management changes involving minute-taking, attendance at meetings and punctuality. In return, he sat through a week of back-slapping anecdotes about Estonians' social, sexual and other short-comings. Eventually his hosts tired of the fun and asked him for some Estonian jokes about Lithuanians. "We don't have any. Our jokes are about the Finns", he responded coolly.
Edward Lucas has been covering Eastern Europe since 1986, mostly for The Economist. This article was originally distributed to his mailing list
Some new years fun (including Estonian jokes. ed.)