Book Review: Hammer and Tickle

Hammer and Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes
Ben Lewis
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009

First off, this is the book version of a 2006 documentary about political humor in the Soviet Union. The nominal idea is to show the tightrope dance of those who dared criticize the regime through jokes. Just how much would you be allowed to get away with? Lewis interviews historians, archivists, and even some of those who actually made laughter at Communism’s expense. He even considers the possibility that some of it was allowed in order to defuse tensions amongst the people. If they are chuckling, they aren’t massing in the streets in protest. It’s a nice idea, but Lewis can’t seem to decide whether he’s writing a history or a joke book.

Lewis rather clumsily includes stories about his girlfriend, which detract from his narrative and weaken the overall work.

Oh well. At least there are the jokes:

From the Lenin era:

“How did people manage to survive life under the Tsars? They thought about what things would be like afterwards, and then it didn’t seem so bad…”

Stalin:

A flock of sheep come up to a border crossing. “We wish to emigrate from the Soviet Union”, says the leader to a guard. “Why is that?” asks the guard. The sheep replies, “Because the NKVD have ordered the arrest of all elephants.” “But you’re sheep, not elephants!” says the guard. “You have nothing to worry about!” “Tell that to the NKVD….”

Krushchev:

Three men are digging a ditch in the gulag when the conversation turns to the crimes that got them there.

The first one says, “I always showed up early for work at the factory. You’d think that would show initiative and eagerness to work! But no, I was arrested for spying!”

The second man responds, “That’s funny. I could never manage to get to work on time. Something always held me up. I was always late – even if it were just a minute or two. So I was arrested for sabotage.”

The thrid man chimes in. “You know what’s really funny? I always managed to make it to my shift on time. Never early, never late. So I was arrested for having a western watch….”

Brezhnev:

Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, and Brezhnev are all riding together in a train compartment when the train suddenly shudders to a halt.

Lenin gets up. “Comrades! We must go find out what has happend, and in the spirit of Communism, give what help we can, even if it means pushing the train!”

Stalin responds, “No, we are the cheif administrators of the State. We do not need to do such labor, especially when this is not our fault. We should round up the train crew, and have them shot!”

“No, no, that’s too drastic,” says Krushchev. “We don’t shoot people anymore. Instead, send them off to a work camp to be re-educated!”

“I have a better idea,” says Brezhnev. “Let’s draw the blinds over the windows, then rock back and forth and pretend we are still moving…”

Gorbachev:

Piotr and Ivan are standing in a line in Moscow. It doesn’t matter what for; just that the line is very long and barely creeps along. Everyone in line is getting restless.

“I can’t take this anymore!” cries Piotr. “We were promised that things would be different now! Honesty and openness in our government, and no more of these silly shortages!”

Ivan says, “Hey, don’t make a fuss! Calm down!”

“No, I’m not going to! I’ve had it!” says Piotr. “I’m going to go to the Kremlin, find Gorbachev, and give him a piece of my mind!”

With that, Piotr storms off.

An hour later, he comes back. The line has moved forward only a couple of yards.

“What happened?” asks Ivan. “Did you get to see Gorbachev?”

Piotr sighs. “The line there was longer….”

Even the satellite states had their own jokes:

“Why, despite all the shortages, was toilet paper in East Germany always two-ply? Because no matter what, a copy of all paperwork had to be sent to Moscow…”

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