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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Laughter Through Tears Still In Vogue




In Russia, humor is rarely without its tragic side, and even the darkest tragedy can serve as grounds for a wry sort of humor. Nikolai Gogol called it "laughter through tears" well over 100 years ago, but the tradition continues, most recently in a book of anecdotes by Benedikt Sarnov called "Perestan'te udivlyatsya!" ("No Cause for Amazement").


Sarnov is now in his 70s and is well known as a literary critic, essayist and historian of Russian literature. He is also an extremely witty person and a great storyteller.


This summer he published a voluminous collection of tragicomic mini-stories about famous and not so famous Soviet writers, mostly from the 1930s to the 1960s. It comes from Agraf and sells for 35 rubles ($5.58).


Sarnov's tales provide wonderfully vivid and psychologically illuminating sketches of life during the Stalin era and Khruschev's thaw:


...The father of popular author Natan Eidelman spent 10 years in a labor camp after being sentenced during the Great Purges of the 1930s. He used to love giving the following explanation of the principal difference between Josef Stalin and his former colleague in the Politburo and later arch-enemy Leon Trotsky: "We were allowed two letters a year at the camp," he would say. "But if the much more intelligent and Westernized Trotsky had been our ruler instead of Stalin, we would have been allowed three letters a year, or maybe even four."


...The famous children's writer Kornei Chukovsky had a dream of making an adaptation of the Old Testament for children, in spite of the obvious and rather large obstacle that the Holy Bible was absolutely banned by the authorities for everybody, young and old alike. Finally the author got permission from the publishers "to make an attempt," with only two conditions: never to use the words "God" and "Jew."


The wily Chukovsky found a way around these restrictions by renaming the main character of the book "The Magician Yahweh." But even that did not help. The manuscript was paid for and promptly shelved. It was finally published only in the late 1980s.


...Inside Lubyanka, poet Naum Korzhavin met the son of a first-wave Russian emigre, arrested by the Red Army shortly after World War II somewhere in Yugoslavia. The young man was a lawyer who had graduated from the Sorbonne and was sentenced to 10 years in the camps for treason. He was furiously trying to explain to the court that he could not be a traitor to the USSR as he never had been a citizen of the country. It took some time for the Soviet jurists to understand the reason for his outburst of emotion. "Oh, now we understand. So, you don't like that article of the criminal code?" they said. "No problem, we'll find another one for you!"