The Russian humour reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Russian humour

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For most of Russian history, humour remained an expression of the human spirit that was treated with skepticism by the country's leadership. Under the ascetic dogmatism of the clergy in medieval times, human laughter seemed pagan and suspicious, while political satire was considered potentially dangerous under autocratic monarchies, as well as under communist rule. In spite of, or even because of its oppression, Russian humour flourished as a liberating culture and a means to counter and ridicule the elite. During the stagnation period of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s for instance, in a relatively peaceful and politically stable environment, sharp political wit addressed social shortcomings. With the end of authoritarian regimes in Russia in the 1990s, the decline of political humour has been lamented as being a symptom of westernisation. New features of post-communist Russian society, such as semi-criminal businessmen, instead led to the emergence of other stereotypes for satirical jokes. Generally Russian humour gains much of its wit from the great flexibility and richness of the Russian language, allowing for plays on words and unexpected associations.

Table of contents
1 Stereotypes
2 Political jokes
3 Religion
4 Other forms of humour
5 External links

Stereotypes

Fixed characters

The most popular form of Russian humour consists of jokes (анекдо́ты — anekdoty), which are short stories with a punchline. A typical characteristic of Russian joke culture is that it features a series of categories with fixed and highly familiar settings and characters. Surprising effects are achieved by an endless variety of plots. Some of the most popular characters and settings are:

Standartenführer Stirlitz

Standartenführer Stirlitz, alias Colonel Isayev is a character from a Soviet TV series starred by the popular actor Vyacheslav Tikhonov about a Soviet spy infiltrated into Nazi Germany. Stirlitz interacts with Nazi officials Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Martin Bormann and Heinrich Müller. Usually two-liners told in parody of the stern and solemn announcement style of the background voice in the original series, the plot is resolved in grotesque plays on words or in dumb parodies of over-smart narrow escapes and superlogical trains of thought of the "original" Stirlitz.

Political Postscript: It is reported that Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev admired Stirlitz very much, apparently without realising that it was a TV character. Eventually he awarded Tikhonov, the actor who played Stirlitz in the series, the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his skilful espionage. See political humour, Brezhnev, below.

Poruchik Rzhevski

Poruchik (lieutenant) Rzhevski is a fictional cavalry officer interacting with characters from the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. In the aristocratic setting of ball dances and 19th century social sophistication, Rzhevski, brisk, but not very smart, keeps ridiculing the decorum with his rude vulgarities. As it was fashinonable among the Russian nobility at the time to speak French, Rzhevski occasionally uses French expressions, of course with a heavy Russian accent.

Rabinovich

Rabinovich, an archetypal Russian Jew, often an otkaznik, who is refused permission to emigrate to Israel.

Vovochka

Vovochka is a Russian cousin of Little Johnny. He interacts with his school teacher, Ms Mar'ya Ivanovna.

Chapayev

Vassili Ivanovich Chapayev, a Red Army officer, was a hero of the Russian Civil War and lead character of a popular movie. Together with his aide Petka (Peter), Anka the machine-gunner (girl), and commissar Furmanov he is extremely popular in Russian anecdotes. Most common topics are about their fight with the royalist White Army and Chapayev's futile attempts to enroll into a military academy.

New Russians

New Russians, newly-rich, arrogant and poorly educated post-perestroika businessmen and gangsters, are a new and most popular category of characters in contemporary Russian jokes. A common plot is the interaction of a New Russian in his Mercedes with a regular Russian in his modest Soviet-era Zaporozhets after having had a car accident. A New Russian is often a bandit or at least speaks criminal argot, with a number of neologisms typical for New Russians. In a way, these anecdotes are a continuation of the Soviet-era series about Georgians, who were then depicted as extremely wealthy.

Animals

Jokes set in the animal kingdom also feature stereotypes, such as the violent wolf, the sneaky fox, the cocky rabbit and the bear who features a lot of ethnic Russian characteristics.

Drunkards

Policemen

Army sergeants

Ethnic stereotypes

Russia and the former Soviet Union have always been multinational, and throughout their history, several stereotypes for ethnicities have developed, often shared with other ethnicities (with the understandable exception of the ethnicity in question, but not always).

Chukchi, the native people of Chukotka in far-east Siberia, are the classical sort of minority of which every nation has one to make fun of. In jokes they are depicted as generally primitive and dim-witted.

Chukchi do not miss their chance to retaliate.

Ukrainians are depicted as rustic, greedy and fond of bacon, and their accent, which is imitated in jokes, is perceived as funny.

In addition, Ukrainians are perceived to bear a grudge against Russians.

Georgians are depicted as masculine, hot-blooded. The very loud and theatrical Georgian accent, including its grammatical mistakes, is funny to imitate in Russian and often becomes a joke in itself.

In Soviet times they were also perceived as running a black market business. It should however be noted that at that time Russians often applied the name "Georgians" (gruziny) to all people from the Caucasus, irrespective of their actual nationality. There is a joke, probably based on a real event, that in some police reports they are termed as "persons of Caucasus nationality". In Russia itself, most people saw "persons of Caucasus nationality" mostly at marketplaces selling fruits and flowers.

Note: On the Russian desire to leave the Soviet Union see Political Humour, below.

Armenians are depicted as similarly hot-blooded as the Georgians, sometimes with a tendency to homosexuality. Their most famous national feature is the fictitious Armenian Radio telling political jokes, see below.

Estonians, allegedly rustic and mean, are depicted as having no sense of humour and being stubborn and taciturn. The Estonian accent, especially its sing-song tune and the lack of genders in grammar, forms part of the humour.

Jews. Jewish humour is a highly developed culture in Russia, created within Jewish mentality about Jews themselves. These Jewish anecdotes are not the same as anti-Semitic jokes. Instead, whether told by Jews or non-Jewish Russians, these jokes show cynicism, self-irony and wise wit that is characteristic about Jewish sense of humour as present most prominently in Russia and the Ukraine.

Russians are a stereotype in Russian jokes themselves when set next to other stereotyped ethnicities. Thus, the Russian appearing in a triple joke with two other Westerners, like a German, French, American or Englishman, will provide for a self-ironic punch line depicting him as simple-minded and negligently careless but physically robust, which ensures he retains the upper hand over his naive Western counterparts.

Also when set against own minorities, Russians make fun of themselves.

Political jokes

Every nation is fond of this category, but in the Soviet Union telling political jokes was a thrill similar to that of alpinism: according to Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code) "anti-Soviet propaganda" was a capital offense.

Communism

According to Marxist-Leninist theory, communism in the strict sense is the final stage of a society's evolution after passing the stage of socialism. The Soviet Union thus was a socialist country trying to build communism, the utopian classless society.

Everyone has a job, but no one actually does any work.
No one actually does any work, but production targets are always reached.
Production targets are always reached, but the shops are always empty.
The shops are always empty, but everyone has all they need.
Everyone has all they need, but no one is happy.
No one is happy, but they always vote the Communists back in.

Political figures

Politicians form no stereotype as such in Russian culture. Instead, historical and contemporary Russian leaders feature their very own and personal characteristics. At the same time, quite a few jokes about them are remakes of jokes about earlier generations of leaders.

Lenin

A popular joke set-up is Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution of 1917, interacting with the head of the secret police, Dzerzhinsky in the Smolny Institute, seat of the revolutionary communist government in Petrograd.

Stalin

Jokes about Stalin are of morose, dark humour, Stalin's words told with a heavy Georgian accent.

Khrushchev

Jokes about Khrushchev are often related to his attempts to reform the economy, especially to introduce maize (corn). He was even called kukuruznik (maizeman)). Other jokes address crop failures due to mismanagement of the agriculture, his innovations in urban architecture, his confrontation with the US while importing US consumer goods, his promise to build communism in 20 years, or just his baldness, rude talk and womanising ambitions. Unlike other Soviet leaders, in jokes he is always harmless.

Brezhnev

Brezhnev was depicted as a dim-witted, geriatric, with delusion of grandeur.

Geriatric intermezzo

Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. His successor, Yuri Andropov, died in 1984. His successor in turn, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985. Russians took great interest in watching the new sport at the Kremlin: coffin carriage racing. Rabinovich (see above) said he did not have to buy tickets to the funerals as he had a subscription to these events.

Gorbachev

Gorbachev was occasionally made fun of for his poor grammar, but perestroika-era jokes usually addressed actual absurd domestic policy measures as well as Soviet-American relations.

The Yeltsin-era saw the revival of some old Brezhnev jokes, but again the focus was put on actual policies.

Political jokes under Vladimir Putin are also rather issue-based than personality-based.

KGB

Telling jokes about KGB was like pulling the tail of a tiger, but...

Next morning this guy wakes up, alone in the room. Surprised, he asks the maid where the neighbors are. -- "They've already... checked out", answers she. "...And by the way, Comrade Major was rolling on the floor off your joke with the tea."

Everyday Soviet life

A great share of Soviet-era political humour, particularly from the post-war period, are reliant upon puns.

Questions and answers on the fictitious "Armenian Radio" or "Radio Yerevan" are known even outside Russia.

Satirical verses and parodies made fun of official Soviet propaganda slogans.

A man is showing his friends his new apartment. One of them asks: "How come you don't have any clock?" The man responds: "But I do have one. I have a talking clock." — "But where?". He takes a hammer and strikes a wall. From behind the wall comes a yell: "It's 2AM, you bastard!"

"My wife has been going to cooking school for three years."
"She must really cook well by now!"
"No, they've only reached the part about the Great October Socialist Revolution so far."

"Dad, can I have the car keys?"
"Ok, but don't lose them. We get the car in just seven years!"

Some jokes refer to realia long forgotten. Survived, they are still funny, but may look strange.

Q: Will there be KGB (originally it said: "Cheka") in communism?
A: No. People will know how to self-arrest themselves.
To fully appreciate this joke, a person must know that during the Cheka times, in addition to standard taxation of peasants, they were often forced to do "samooblozhenie" ("self-taxation"): after delivering a regular amount of agricultural products, prosperous peasants, especially those declared to be kulaks were expected to "voluntarily" deliver the same amount again; sometimes even "double samooblozhenie" was applied.

Religion

A notable distinction of the Soviet humor is virtual lack of jokes on religious topics. Clearly, this is not because Russians are so pious. Those few are told in supposedly Church Slavonic language: archaic words are used and unstressed "o" is clearly pronounced as "o" (in modern Russian "Muscovite" speech it is reduced to "a") and rare names of distinctively Greek origin are used. Priests are supposed to speak in basso profondo.

Other forms of humour

Apart from jokes, Russian humour is expressed in plays on words and short poems including black humour verses. Drinking toasts can take the form of anecdotes or not-so-short stories, concluded with "So here's to..." with a witty punchline referring to the initial story.

There is also a Chernobyl joke:

External links