In an environment as repressive as the Soviet Union or, to a considerably lesser degree, Putin’s Russia, anekdoty are a medium by which regular people can comment on the world they observe with their own eyes. During the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agents collected anekdoty—partly because the jokes were funny, and partly because they were, as a former CIA official once told Quartz, “reflective of the public mood.” In the years since, doctoral dissertations and journal papers have mined them as a source of intellectual folklore.
Anekdoty are the only thing I miss about Soviet totalitarian socialism. They spat on the boot on our faces. They asserted dignity among the daily insults of lawlessness; they salvaged truth and sanity in the dizzying spin of propaganda absurdities. The anekdoty I remember best deployed sarcasm and humor against brutality, hypocrisy, and poverty. For example:
How do we know that Adam and Eve were Soviet citizens? They had one apple between the two of them, they had no clothes, and they believed they were living in paradise.
Why do the KGB thugs always walk around in threes? One can read, one can write, and the third keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.
Beyond offering powerless citizens a measure of catharsis and the ability to exact a certain kind of revenge, Soviet-era anekdoty bared the entrails of the regime, chronicled its evolution, and offered portents of its future. In the late 1970s, the perspicacity and the nastiness of jokes about semi-comatose leaders such as Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev presaged the radical change that later arrived with Mikhail Gorbachev.
On a sunny morning, begins one late-Soviet-era joke now memorialized online, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony of his apartment, looks to the east, and says, “Hello, sun!” The sun replies, “Good morning, dear Leonid Ilyich, the beloved leader of our glorious socialist motherland, the hope of all progressive humanity, and the guardian of peace on Earth!” In the evening, Brezhnev admires the beautiful sunset and fishes for a compliment: “Hello again, sun!” The sun answers, “Poshyol na khuy—go fuck yourself—I am in the West now.”
Jokes like these spread most widely when the level of oppression is significant but not overwhelming. Under Joseph Stalin, state terror was ubiquitous and savage. Anekdoty about him did not circulate widely while he was alive, just as there are almost certainly no equivalent jokes about the Kims in North Korea today. In a liberal democracy, meanwhile, political jokes are rendered superfluous by the castigation of top leaders in parliaments and the media, and by citizens’ power to change what the government does.
When Putin became acting president on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and was elected president of a fearless and hopeful Russia three months later, anekdoty about him were in short supply. But soon enough, the new leader was an object of fear. Putin opens the refrigerator and sees a plate of quivering gelatin, one joke went. “Stop shaking!” Putin says. “I am only getting the milk.”