Eesti Elu
Soviet political jokes, a barometer of dissatisfaction with the system
Arvamus 23 Dec 2011  Eesti Elu
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Question: “How does trade take place between Estonia and Russia?” Answer: “We send them a train load of dead meat. They send back a trainload of live meat.” (The equating of meat and people shows how visceral was the Estonians’ reaction to what was considered to be ethno-cultural genocide.)

In a similar vein: Gorbachev is preparing for a trip to Estonia. His advisers warn him not to go. Why? Huge numbers of Russians have been sent there and not a single one has come back. (The large influx of Russians during the Soviet years was seen as an alarming trend by the indigenous Estonians. Deliberate Russification was taken as a threat to ethnic survival.)

Those jokes from 1976 resonated immediately with every Estonian. That which was left unsaid often carried the humour. Needless to say it was unabashedly politically incorrect. Moscow was maximizing its effort in populating Estonia with non-Estonians, while at the same time grabbing its food production to fill the huge gaps in its own agricultural output.

Brezhnev is out for a walk in Lithuania with both hands in pockets holding pistols. He considers the Lithuanians to be unfriendly. In Latvia he has one hand in his pocket holding a pistol. People seem friendly, but who knows? In Estonia he takes a walk with both hands covering his behind, with a whistle in his mouth. (He feels no danger but is wary of the locals currying favour. Obviously the derision and disdain with which Estonians held Communist power brokers was also meant for their own party elite.)

What are the basic achievements of socialism? Stores are empty but refrigerators at home are full. There’s no unemployment, but nobody really does any work. Everybody individually opposes Soviet rule, but together they all raise their hands. (Stark cynicism dominated the jokes.)

Why do Soviet policemen patrol always in groups of three? One knows how to read, another how to write and the third wants to pass time with the other two intellectuals.

In spite of the fact that the failure of Communism was real and conclusive, it still gave birth to incisive humour. Jimmy Carter at the Helsinki summit apparently asked Brezhnev whether he collected anecdotes about himself. “I certainly do. Two labour camps full of them.”

It was observed that the number of jokes making its way from person to person was an indication of the extensiveness of political control and suppression. The forbidden jokes were important to those who told them, at some risk to themselves. Some took them as a form of protest, albeit a sustained, but quiet protest.

It’s also been observed that jokes aptly capture the unique national character of a people. When the Soviet system collapsed, a story puts the separate ethnic personas of the three Baltic states into an interesting perspective:

In the early 1990s statues of Lenin were systematically removed from public places. For this a meeting was convened in Vilnius. After a brief and emotional discussion the meeting’s participants hurried to the nearest Lenin monument, having grabbed a thick rope on the way, threw the rope around offending statue and yanked it crashing to the ground. In Riga a similar meeting was convened, a committee was formed who went and accurately measured and weighed the bronze Lenin, then ordered a work crew with exactly the right crane and truck who carefully took the heavy object away. In Tallinn, after a short discussion, the participants at the requisite meeting picked up their first generation mobile phones and hired an appropriate Finnish firm to do the job for them. Was this a harbinger of the Estonians’ high comfort level with IT short-cuts or their perceived natural avoidance of anything Leninistic? Anybody’s guess.
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