Soviet Humor

USSR Humor. Compiled by Charles Winick. Illustrated by Grisha Dotzenko. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1964, 62pp.

In his concise and helpful Introduction to “USSR Humor”, compiler Charles Winick (1922-2015), points out that the Soviets had a bi-weekly satirical magazine called “Krokodil” (this was news to me). Winick remarks that Krokodil mainly directed its “ironic barbs at bureaucrats and the behavior of the average Russian . . . . Its contents are very contemporary but do not satirize leaders.” Needless to say!

Winick continues: “Russians take pride in telling anekdoty [funny stories]. And their pride is justified, because such stories and jokes in the USSR represent a uniquely sensitive and truly folk form of humor. They provide a continuingly available source of informal comment on events, institutions and personalities of the Soviet Union. They also furnish an escape valve for the expression of feelings that may have difficulty in finding other outlets.”

Although Winick doesn’t reveal the sources of any of the funny stories within the covers of USSR Humor, it’s unlikely that many of these came from Krokodil. Too many of them, directly or indirectly, are comments on Soviet leaders and leadership.

In 1963, Winick compiled another little book of humor for Peter Pauper Press. That one was titled Outer Space Humor. I’m assuming that the anekdoty on p. 33 may have been contenders for inclusion in that volume!

I spent an hour reading through this book afresh, as I tried to limit my selection of excerpts to one or two pages. It was a nearly impossible task! There are so many great anekdoty within. None of these are side-splittingly funny, mind you. They are the sort that make you chuckle ruefully with our Russian ‘comrades’ who endured the fools who governed them and the bureaucrats who applied the ‘rules’.

I’m particularly fond of the St. Peter/Krushchev anekdot on p. 39.

I’ve done an online hunt through British Columbia’s public libraries, and cannot find a trace of USSR Humour in any of them! The only Canadian library I could find that still has this book is the library at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Perhaps the people staffing the de-accession committees of Canadian libraries assumed that this volume, like the USSR, is no longer relevant to us! I would argue that if my guess is accurate, our libraries have done us a disservice. The bureaucratic mentality continues to exist everywhere there is sizeable government — and that certainly includes Canada and its provinces at both civil service and political levels!

Not all of the anekdoty in USSR Humor are completely accessible to us in 2019. Some, as with the one at the bottom of p. 61, don’t have enough context for me to ‘get it’. Such examples are, however, in the minority.

Do your inner Russian a favour. Beg, borrow, or otherwise lay hands on this book. It will do your heart good. To say nothing of your anekdoty-bone!

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