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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Did You Hear the One About. . .

If the first thing an American talks about with strangers is sports, a Russian, in the days of the Soviet Union, would start with an anekdot, or political joke.


For decades, these jokes were told in the crammed compartments of trains, in food lines and in the kitchens of Moscow apartments.


Yet, it seems that with the fall of the Soviet Union and all its inherent absurdities, the Russian anekdot is facing its own demise.


While some say that as Gorbachev ushered in perestroika, the anekdot as a clandestine form of humor and communication lost its appeal, others maintain that the ongoing economic upheavals in Russia have made life no laughing matter.


"Life now has become so hard that it just drained the laughter out of the people", said Marina Knyazeva, professor of Russian culture at Moscow State University.


Though new political jokes appear less frequently than they once did, the old ones live on and are perhaps one of the strongest and most vivid reminders of what life in the Soviet Union was like. With open criticism impossible, the jokes represented an underground folk culture.


There were even jokes about being prosecuted for telling jokes:


A judge comes out of the court room laughing. His friend asks him, "Why are you laughing? " to which the judge replies, "I have just heard a joke". "Can you tell it to me? " asks the friend. "I can't", the judge replies. "I just gave 10 years for it".


There were various theories about the origin of the political joke in the Soviet Union. Some people claimed they were deliberately spread by the KGB so that people could express their discontent in a quiet, peaceful way.


Like tabloid newspapers, the Soviet anekdot concentrated on the lives of the powerful. The 1970s were the peak years for these jokes, when the true classics were composed. One of the best concerns Brezhnev and Nixon during their Cold War rivalry:


When Brezhnev met Nixon in Washington, the president decided to impress his Soviet counterpart with the efficiency of the American phone network. He called the devil from his Oval Office and invited Brezhnev to come and listen. The devil really was on the line. "And it cost me just $30", Nixon said triumphantly.


An envious Brezhnev returns to Moscow and tries to reach the devil from a street phone. Surprisingly, it works and Brezhnev pays just two kopeks for the conversation. "Why did it cost Nixon $30 dollars and I just had to pay two kopeks? " a puzzled Brezhnev asks his aides. "Because Nixon had to make a long distance call, while yours was local", the aides reply.


In the anekdot, the picture of Russia contrasted sharply with the official image of the Soviet "worker's paradise". Jokes became unofficial forms of communication, fighting state propaganda by most often tackling it head on: After his death, R. was asked where he would like to go -- to hell or to paradise. Paradise looked like a dull place with angels reading papers to the bored saints. In hell, people drank vodka, smoked, played cards and watched striptease. R. chose hell and was immediately thrown on a frying pan. "But I was shown something else! " he yelled. "It was our propaganda room", the devil replied.


The anekdot has not disappeared altogether from present-day Russia. Jokes were integrated into Russian culture through numerous theater performances, films and books. and some of them not only retain their message, but seem very much up to date:


"What is the exchange rate between a Russian ruble and British pound? " queries one man to another. "One pound of rubles equals one British pound", the fellow replies.


At least it seemed funny in 1986.