Curtis Dahlgren
Hammer & Tickle: A cultural history of Communism by Ben Lewis, 2009
By Curtis Dahlgren
June 21, 2024

Q: Before the Revolution, how did the Russian people endure life under the Tsar?

A: They just thought about what life would be like afterwards, and then they could endure it a while longer.

STALIN MADE SICK JOKES about his Terror, in which, by the latest sensible estimates, 24 million Soviet citizens, 1/10 of the population, were exiled, imprisoned, or killed. He had a running gag with one of his commissars, Noshenko ("Why haven't you been arrested yet" and "I thought I had you shot" and so on). At the end of WWII, he asked Noshenko "What brought us victory? Our socialist technology, our proletarian consciousness? No, it was mainly our sense of humor, wasn't it?" Well, the citizens had their own version of humor. Hammer & Tickle chronicles thousands of those jokes. For example:

What’s the difference between life in the time of Jesus and life under Stalin? Well. In those days, one man suffered for all of us, but today all of us suffer for one man.

What’s the difference between a Soviet fairy tale and a Western fairy tale? Well, a Western fairy tale begins: “Once upon a time there was . . .”; a Soviet fairy tale begins: “Once upon a time there will be . .”

What’s the difference between Romanian hot water and cold water? The hot water is even colder.

A schoolgirl is asked to write an essay entitled “Why I love the Soviet Union.” She goes home and asks her father, “Daddy, why do you love the Soviet Union?” He says he doesn’t; he hates it. The girl asks her mother and brother the same question, and they give the same answer. She begins her essay like this:

“I love the Soviet Union because no one else does.”

STALIN’S SOLUTION to the economic backwardness of the USSR was centralization and Siberia. In 1929, under the slogan of “The Great Break,” he ended the limited free market of the New Economic Policy, and replaced it with complete collectivization, the first of many failed Five Year Plans (beware of sloganeering such as Build Back Better and “Five More Years). The “Great Break” led to a profusion of jokes about shortages.

A woman stands in line all day to buy a loaf of bread. Just as she finally reaches the door, the door is locked and a sign is put up that says “No more bread.” She starts swearing and cursing Stalin. Two men in trench coats come up to her and say, “This is your last warning.” She goes home and says to her husband:

“It’s worse than we thought. They’re out of bullets, too.”

A classic example of an “anekdoty” in the USSR:

How will the problem of queues be solved when we reach full Communism?

A: There will be nothing left to queue up for.

Where did the foundations of Communism originate? Answer: At Calvary in the first century. The soldiers told Jesus, “Please cross your feet. We only have one nail left.”

The Germans told jokes about Hitler, too. The Nazis didn't imprison as many joke tellers as the Soviets, but they could make an example out of someone. In 1943, a war widow was arrested for telling this joke: "Hitler and Goering are standing on a radio tower. Hitler says, 'I want to make Berlin happy.' Goering says, 'Well, just jump off the tower.'"

She was tried, condemned to death, and guillotined. The film star Robert Dorsay was also executed the same year for a joke (is the same attitude rising in our own Deep Swamp? A video of Biden at the G7 conference was widely circulated – a joke Biden created himself. The White House warned social media companies that it was misinformation and should be deleted from their platforms).

While the Reds arrested more joke tellers, they didn’t execute them. They used them for hard labor. More than three million people were sent to Stalin’s Gulag (why aren’t our public school told about that?). No one knows how many were sent to Siberia for joke telling, but Ben Lewis found one example. A bee-keeper wrote “comedy” on his election ballot, and was sentenced to eight years.

I guess that’s what they call Russian collusion and election interference. And a threat to democracy.


PPS: Be careful what you wish for.

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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