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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Anecdotes An Insight To History

The anecdote, a form of short satirical or humorous mini-story, is a traditional form of popular entertainment in Russia that in some cases reaches the level of high art.

Alexander Pushkin did not disdain the medium: In the early 19th century, he loved to collect "table-talk stories," many of which were a bit on the scatological side.

In Imperial Russia, compilations of historical anecdotes about famous people were quite fashionable. But during the Stalin era a citizen could easily be sentenced to eight years in labor camp for telling his friend an irreverent political joke about the Kremlin rulers. It was considered a criminal offense known as "dissemination of anti-Soviet propaganda."

This may have dampened enthusiasm for anecdotes, but nothing could eradicate it altogether. Political humor flourished during the looser stagnation years, with ailing Kremlin ruler Leonid Brezhnev providing rich fodder for jokes. While such gems still could not be published officially, people were more relaxed when whispering them to each other in their kitchens.

With perestroika and glasnost, the vast treasury of formerly underground anecdotes were collected and categorized, and innumerable anthologies have found their way onto Russian bestseller lists.

In Dom Knigi, one can find several paperbacks containing thematic collections of modern anecdotes devoted to sex, family, New Russians, the army, emigration, various nationalities, and so on.

Sometimes publishers introduce special "author" collections of anecdotes, all attributed to one or another famous figure, such as the late Yury Nikulin, beloved Soviet actor and circus clown, or Ilya Ilf, co-author of the classic "The Twelve Chairs." Another popular volume gathers jokes, anecdotes, and bon mots by and about a popular tragicomic actress of the Soviet years, Faina Ranyevskaya. It has sold over 50,000 copies in just over four months.

In July, the Pressa publishing house published in hardcover a two-volume set called "Istoricheskiye anekdoty iz zhizni russkikh gosudarei, gosudarstvennykh i obshchestvennykh deyatelei" ("Historical Anecdotes From the Lives of Russian Monarchs, State And Public Figures") which sells for the ruble equivalent of $3-$5.

It gathers stories about Russians who lived in 18th and 19th centuries, from Peter the Great to Pyotr Stolypin, and from Alexander Pushkin to Leo Tolstoy. Here are some anecdotes, maybe not the best, but the shortest: General Alexei Yermolov was an extreme Russian nationalist at the cosmopolitan court of Nicholas I. When asked by the emperor to choose an award for his service, the general said: "Please make me a German."

A girl asked great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein to listen to her playing.

-- What is your advice, Maestro?

-- Get married.