The main idea of this book is to use history of humor in Stalin’s Soviet Union to analyze human need for agency in live, which is so important that people still were telling all kind of jokes unacceptable for soviet authorities even when there was real and present danger of being imprisoned or even shot as a consequence. Author also analyses what kinds of jokes were told and psychological reasons for each of them. Finally an important part is rejection of dualism when historians look for support / resistance for regime. Author believes that people mainly supported regime, but had to resolve to humor when contrast between official propaganda and personal experience was too big and people needed some reconciliation between these two.
Here author briefly describes the story and reasons he become so interested in jokes telling in totalitarian society. He describes political and economic situation of Soviet Union in 1930s and response of extremely suppressed people expressed via all kind of humor. Author also introduces notion of Crosshatching, which he applies to situation, trying to demonstrate how intersection of the dominant official and suppressed, but not eliminated unofficial discourses, values, and assumption created complex mix of soviet live.
PART 1: TAKING LIBERTIES
Chapter 1: Kirov’s Carnival, Stalin’s Cult
This chapter “explores the myriad ways Soviet people dethroned their leaders and brought them down to earthy reality, from the quietly subversive to the raucously sexualised and scatological, focusing on the irrepressibly carnivalesque responses to the murder of Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934. “
Author characterizes is as kind of counterculture that provided people with some space to at least partially get away from official craziness.
Chapter 2: Plans and Punchlines: ‘The anecdotes always saved us’
Here is how author characterizes function of humor of the time: “At first glance, humour might seem anathema in such dark days, but, as Chapter 2 shows, in fact this was precisely when it was needed the most. From the Five-Year Plans to the bloody collectivization campaign, an endless slew of mandatory state loan subscriptions, and the growing suspicion that their blood, sweat and tears might all be for nothing (exacerbated by a truce with Nazi Germany), people’s everyday realities clashed painfully with regime promises. Just as contemporaries used anekdoty to read the regime’s often bloody policies through the incongruous lens of their everyday experiences, they used the blackest humour to cope with the fear of denunciation and the dreaded 3 am knock of the NKVD at their apartment door. People were not struck mute by terror during these years; in humour they found ways to deal with the hardships and uncertainties, rather than standing frozen and isolated in the headlights of the NKVD’s paddy wagons. If humour could not save them from the secret police, it could always save them from despair. “
Chapter 3:Speaking More than Bolshevik: Crosshatching and Codebreaking
This chapter is about specifics of soviet speak – the new language that was strongly promoted by soviet officials in order to wipe out history and even language that existed before communists came to power. However it was not only imposed from above, but also actively supported from below by majority of population who were seeking way to survive in attempt to become truly new soviet person. It proved to be impossible and old (real) way of thinking and talking proved to be quite resilient, creating mix of old and new.
PART 2: JOKING DANBEROUSLY
Chapter 4: Who’s Laughing Now? Persecution and Prosecution
This is about price of humor that people sometimes paid: “Chapter 4 shifts our focus from how joke-tellers perceived the regime to how the regime perceived the joke-tellers. It reconstructs for the first time how the Bolsheviks struggled to control and contain all unofficial humour, and reveals how its perception of humour changed from considering it a blunt instrument to a mind virus, which could infect all but the most ardent ideologues. This was a twisted evolution that was largely opaque to the general population, but even if some people managed to keep up with policy, it might already have been too late. If historians have long known that the Soviet legal system was capricious and unpredictable, the criminal case-files of those convicted for humour reveal that it also practiced retroactive ‘justice’. A joke that seemed acceptable at the time it was told could be reinterpreted months or years later as evidence of counterrevolutionary intent and could land even devoted Party members in jail. In such a climate of uncertainty and unpredictability, even though joke-tellers might know they were taking a risk, they had little chance of judging the true danger of their actions. Even so, the content of what they actually said frequently turns out to have been less important than who they were.”
PART 3: ALONE TOGETHER
Chapter 5: Beyond Resistance: The Psychology of Joke-Telling
This is probably the most interesting and important chapter: what were psychological reasons to say jokes and laugh in the face of death or at least prison term. Here is how author describes it:” Studying an extreme case can highlight elements of the ordinary. Everything exceptional, if it endures for long enough, becomes ordinary – that is, at some level accepted and understood as ‘how things are’. People seek to normalize and adapt to their circumstances – so they can find a degree of stability and predictability as they go about their daily lives – but this is not the same as blindly accepting them. Joke telling could even become a statement of your own existence in this climate of smothering conformity: ‘I joke, therefore I am’. This could be quite practical as well as psychological. Wit and anekdoty did not just pick holes in the fabric of the official world and its claims, but actually began to create new ways of looking at it – unofficial rules, which could help people, get by just a little more comfortably and successfully. These were ways to solve problems and get by within the system, rather than attempts to destabilize or to confront it. In-jokes became a secret language between those in the know, and, while pointing out what didn’t work in the Soviet system, many jokes simultaneously conveyed a kind of clandestine ‘ know-how ’ – hints and tips people shared which explained how to get by to their minimum disadvantage. Barbed as they might be, they were often simultaneously affectionate, expressing a desire that things should work as they were supposed to, rather than writing the system off at large. In this way, they were actively trying to find patterns within the confluence – the crosshatching – of both their own perspectives and official ideology.”
Chapter 6:In On the Joke: Humor, Trust and Sociability
The final chapter is about trust. Author rejects idea of Hanna Arendt that totalitarian system destroys private life. On contrary, author’s research demonstrates that private life become even more important because it was the one area where individual could be save – there were no data found showing family members denouncing each other to authorities. Moreover strong friendships also provided shelter where individuals could express opinions with little fear and doing so satisfy his/her need for at least some semblance of agency.
In conclusion author points out that his research demonstrated that society was not really “atomized” into bunch if individuals trembling with fear. It rather turned into some king of mix of intersecting multiple realities in one of which Soviet Union made huge progress and build superior socialist society, in another reality it was all for show and Soviet Union was the place of massive incompetence, corruption, and suppression in which individuals were telling jokes not that much to undermine regime as to save self-respect and some semblance of control over their lives.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This is a great research on human psychology under totalitarian regime in which ideology, while being generally supported by vast majority, nevertheless was so far away from reality that it was necessary to find some way to diminish cognitive dissonance that was done by using humor and jokes. Far from being method of resistance the humor was method to maintain sanity and reaffirm one’s agency by demonstrating to self and few trusted others ability to see ridiculousness of socialist environment and official propaganda. There is also another point that I’d like to make, which is the use of notion “real”. For soviet people telling jokes there was no contradiction between believing in ideas of communism and laughing over real live implementation of these ideas. The duality is kind of simple: “real communist” was incorruptible, but local party boss was highly corrupt. “Real” socialist plant was super-efficient, but the plant one worked at was super-wasteful. This tolerance of inconsistency was the great achievement of totalitarism, which by suppressing real information and supplying huge amounts of propaganda successfully pushed handling of cognitive dissonance into area of underground humor, consequently preventing population from facing real problem of failing system and extending existence of the socialist system for decades after its economic and ideological bankruptcy become obvious to anybody in possession of real and truthful information.