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What is the Shortest Russian Joke? Communism. Russian Cultural Consciousness Expressed Through Soviet Humor

Abstract

In an environment like Soviet Russia where it was difficult, if not impossible, to make assertions that contradicted the official Communist Party word, political humor can be used to challenge, subvert, or uphold official “truths.” The Russian Soviet anekdot—a politically subversive joke—provides an intimate view into the perspective of the Russian people living under Soviet rule. The anekdot serves as a discourse of “cultural consciousness,” connecting otherwise atomized people to a homeland, collective culture, and memory. In conducting a paired content and critical discourse analysis of 1,290 anekdoty collected from Russian archives, I explore how this oral folklore served to construct a Russian collective consciousness that (1) resists Party rhetoric, social policy, and ideology, but also (2) adopts and reifies social boundaries established by Soviet discourse by constructing particular groups as “other.” Those who are familiar with cultural folklore—and the historical context to which it refers—are taught who are the perpetrators responsible for injustices, who are the victims, and how we should feel about these different people; folklore also gives insight into the perspectives of those from the hegemonic '"center."

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Notes

  1. Anekdot is the singular form of “joke” in Russian; anekdoty is plural.

  2. Under the Soviet passport policy, Judaism was conceived as a nationality rather than a religion. The Soviet State was secular on paper and consequently, religious practice of any kind was illegal. Although Jews were forbidden to practice Judaism, their passports identified their nationality as “Jewish” rather than “Russian,” “Ukrainian,” “Georgian,” or whatever nation they were born in. Drawing from this conceptualization, this paper treats Jews as a national group in the Soviet Union rather than a religious sect.

  3. A redundant anekdot was one that had already been included in the sample. Since there was only one person compiling the sample, this was done with relative accuracy. In the end there were only 4 anekdoty that were counted twice and the duplicates were cleaned from the data set prior to analysis.

  4. By “recursive communication” I mean that symbols (and their associated meanings) are so enmeshed with other symbols and other articulations of nationness that they appear to be “natural” or “logical” components of the national identity. They are treated as an assumed quality before anyone has the opportunity to question them or demand an explanation.

  5. Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), presiding over the country from 1964 until his death in 1982. His 18-year term as General Secretary was second only to that of Joseph Stalin in duration.

  6. New Russians are the crony capitalist rich business class in post-Soviet Russia. They are depicted as pilfering from “ordinary” Russians during the transition to a market economy.

  7. Pamyat was a Russian ultra-nationalist organization.

  8. The Spasskaya Bashnya is the main tower with a through-passage on the eastern wall of the Kremlin, which overlooks the Red Square in Moscow, Russia.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Melissa Milkie, Meyer Kestnbaum, Aleia Clark, Carolina Martin, Valerie Chepp, and the anonymous reviewers who provided insightful and directive comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Michelle Smirnova.

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Smirnova, M. What is the Shortest Russian Joke? Communism. Russian Cultural Consciousness Expressed Through Soviet Humor. Qual Sociol 37, 323–343 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-014-9281-0

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Keywords

  • Humor
  • Political resistance
  • Collective identity
  • Soviet Union