Thursday, September 21, 2006

National Stereotypes in the Soviet Anecdote

Author: George Nizharadze

A generalized Soviet anecdote: Brezhnev and Chapaev are lying in the same bed and both are Jews.

About anecdotes in general:

Z. Freid said that anecdotes were created around three themes: sex, toilet and politics, which is not, naturally, coincidental. Each of us has a deeply buried secret desire to overturn the existing reality, to break rules. Every society has rituals, customs, and other means enabling people to release the tension caused by such impulses. But if these customs or rituals are unable to do so, the tension mounts and might even end up in explosion.

One of the most important social functions of an anecdote is just the violation of taboos, but it does this through words rather than action. Sex and toilet are the themes that are not normally discussed in public, and the picturing of those in power as idiots or fakers, breaks the existing rules and creates the illusion of power in the people deprived of it.

Starting from the 60-s, that is Khrushchov’s period, political anecdotes began to flourish in the USSR and other East Bloc countries. Before that, during the Stalin regime, this form of folk art was a definite pre-condition for travelling to the least hot regions of Arctic and, consequently, had no suitable environment for its development. Later… They say that in KGB, which had a good understanding of the “discharging” function of anecdotes, there was a special division where political anecdotes were created. Anyway, the spiteful jokes about Stalin, Khrushchov, Brezhnev and others became wide spread, indeed, and developed into the symbol of the epoch.

About "national"anecdotes

Three wishes of a French woman: a glass of cognac before and a cigarette after.

There is another category of anecdotes, not mentioned by Freid but used by him as an example in his book “Wit and its relationship with the Unconsciuos”. These are, of course, the anecdotes about representatives of different nations. They just picture one or more national stereotypes. Such anecdotes can be encountered in every country and apart from humor, they also serve a social function – raise self-esteem, compensate the inferiority complex or the complex of guilt, discharge accumulated aggression or irritation by transferring them on imaginary representatives of some other (“not our”) nation. Such a psychotherapeutic effect of national anecdotes is small, and is almost never noticed by the person who tells the anecdote or by the listener, but in spite of this, it does exist and does its job.

The Chukchi

At a military training a tank, with a Chukchi man inside, gets out of the rank. The commanding officer becomes furious and roars into the microphone. The Chukchi man with the radio-helmet on his head – “Commander, the cap is talking!!!”

The characters of anecdotes, i.e. representatives of an individual ethnic group, are selected according to the function of the national anecdote described above. The character can be a representative of the ethnic group falling behind “the group that tells an anecdote” in terms of culture, education, living standard, etc. In this case the distribution of roles resembles the circus situation: the clown, who looks like a fool, drops everything and says only stupid things makes children roar with laughter, which soothes the spectator, his self-esteem (“I am not like him!”).

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in the USSR such a role was given to the Chukchi. For some time the Chukchi lived on their own – hunted the walrus and drove herds of deer. Other nations in the USSR only knew that such a nation did exist. From the beginning of the 70s, the Chukchi burst into every house and organization and became a part of our everyday life. Here is a Chukchi man painting a black and white TV to make it a colour TV. Another Chukchi throws an arrow to notify rescuers that he is in danger or asks for a new passport after receiving one a week ago (“I have already smoked the old passport”). In short, one day a Chukchi man held a stable position among the traditional characters of national anecdotes and placed himself next to the Jew and the Georgian, even though the function of these two was somewhat different.

A little more of theory

The English anthropologist Victor Turner described an interesting phenomenon, which he called “power of the weak”. The essence of the phenomenon is the following: it often happens that a weak and oppressed ethnic group acquires the signs of strength in the eyes of the domineering group. As if the weak group has some secret knowledge or some mystic power inaccessible to the domineering group. The Gipsy, who have the ability to foretell the future, could serve a good example here. Eventually, the domineering group forms an ambivalent attitude towards the weak group: it feels respect on the one hand, and irritation on the other, because “we” are open to “them” whereas “they” are closed to “us”. But it is possible to overcome irritation by making its source ridiculous. This is how the second category of national anecdotes is formed.

It is unquestionable that the domineering group in the USSR was Russians; besides, the most popular characters in anecdotes were the Jews and the Georgians. There were also Ukrainian anecdotes but I find it difficult to conduct their psychological analysis because of the insufficient knowledge of Russia-Ukraine relations.

The Jews

After visiting a doctor, a Jewish person says to his wife: You know, Sarah, what we thought to be passion turned out to be asthma.

Anecdotes about Jews have quite a long history in Russia. In the second half of the previous century the Jews managed to hold an important position in Russian social life (especially in the field of commerce) despite the existing discriminating rules. The rich are not favoured in Russia, which shortly showed itself. There appeared a lot of foolish stories about the worldwide conspiracy of Jewish people (power of the weak!), but, in parallel, anecdotes about Jews also appeared. The plots were built around common topics – adultery, mother in law, school, etc. But at the same time clearly formed a dominant feature ascribed to the Jews – greed. It is interesting to note that in German speaking countries, where the Jews are not favoured either, to the character of like anecdotes ascribe a different trait - so to say, attachment of little value to personal hygiene (Two Jewish people meet each other in the baths. One of them sighs bitterly: “One more year has elapsed”). This is a good example of how culture emphasizes the values, which it considers most important.

But let’s go back to Russia. In the Soviet period, for quite understandable reasons, Rabinovich was no longer able to run legal private business. But he followed his mission and started to work in an institution where money was made. (A voice with the Jewish accent: Hallo, is that the base? (meaning supply base) – Yes. - Who am I talking to? – To Ivanov. – Sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number. This must be a military base…)

But in the 60s Rabinovich acquires a new role, which becomes leading in the Soviet anecdote: a Jewish person becomes someone who opposes the Soviet regime in a passive, but, nevertheless, sarcastic way and is at the same time a victim of discrimination because of his ethnic origin. (Khrushchov receives a list of candidates for the post of the chief rabbi of Moscow. Suddenly he starts shouting as he looks at the list: Have you gone mad? Here are only Jews on the list!)

In this series of anecdotes, rather than being the object of humiliating sarcasm, a Jewish person is someone who makes fun of political or social reality, that is he is pictured in anecdote as a positive character. This shows that like anecdotes were born in the circle of Jewish intelligentsia. So, the Jewish political anecdote is something different. In particular, it is a reaction aimed against “power of the strong” (in this case against the political regime, rather than an individual nation).

The Georgians

A Georgian person stands on Arbat and counts money. A passer-by: Tovarish, (Comrade), how can I get to the Mausoleum? – (With an awful Georgian accent) Go, go, get down to business.

Anecdotes about Georgians also appear in the 60s, which is the period of important developments in the Soviet life. The most important thing was that the “bodies” at the top of the social pyramid were replaced with party nomenclature. As we know one has to pay for everything and the nomenclature had to pay for being in power with certain liberalization of social life. Among other points, the authorities had to close their eyes at the commercial activity prohibited by the official legislation. It seemed as if the regime made an unwritten agreement with its subordinates: Do whatever you want, make money, but mind some limits and what is most important never get involved into ideology or politics.

In Georgia people learned the rules of the new game quite fast and efficiently. Many of our compatriots got to a steady process of money making, and, what is extremely important, differently from the Jews, readily demonstrated their wealth to the public. This was the fact that irritated “the wide circles of Soviet public” most. Georgian characters, Givi or Gogi, that appeared in that period, did not suffer from too much intellect and spoke Russian with an awful accent (a frequent reason of ludicrous incidents), but their main features were a craving for women (a Georgian man can endure hunger for one week and thirst for one day, but he cannot stay without a woman for more than two hours) and a pocket full of money. Anecdotes about Georgians often emphasized that Georgia, in general, had its own living style, different from the Soviet one. It does not mean that anti-Soviet attitude was ascribed to Georgians. Georgians were just considered people with other interests, who did not know many of the things a Soviet person was supposed to know, for instance, the authors of the Marxist ideology or the names of politbureau members. (Who is Brezhnev? The one who plays in “Vremia”?).

It is worth mentioning here that starting from the 90s, that is the dissolution of the communist system, the number of Georgian anecdotes in Russia considerably declined and the “free ecological niche” was occupied by “new Russians”. “The new Russian” in the anecdote resembles the Georgian character in many respects – easily made money, uneconomical spending of money and vulgarness (Two new Russians talking with each other: Look, what a tie I bought for two thousand bucks! – What a fool you are! They sell the ties like this for three thousand bucks round the corner”). Craving for women and accent are differentiating features, of course. Otherwise, these two characters can mostly replace each other, especially, if an anecdote involves the theme of money. Such a derision of richness, pointing to an extremely negative attitude, is something to think about: will Russian culture allow the establishment of market economy and democratic institutions in its own country? Is it possible that October 1917, described by the historian Iakovenko as a global reaction of Russian culture aimed at the restoration of the collapsing basic value – the value that can be called a general equality in poverty, repeats itself in the future?

A Jew is an occupation, a Georgian is a life style, a Chukchi is a diagnosis and a Russian is a destiny…

Note: The anecdotes in the article might be lacking their genuine sparkle due to translation, but hopefully, they are understandable enough to enable the reader to get their gist.

Source: ICCN Journal "An Alternative to Conflict"


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