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Resonant Dissonance

The Russian Joke in Cultural Context

Graham, Seth

Publication Year: 2009

In his original new study, Seth Graham analyzes a rich and forgotten vein of humor in an otherwise bleak environment. The late Soviet period (1961–1986) hardly seems fertile ground for humor, but Russian jokes (anekdoty) about life in the Soviet Union were ubiquitous. The cultural and political relaxation in the decade following Stalin’s death produced considerable optimism among Soviet citizens. The anekdot exploited and exposed what Graham calls "Soviet diglossia" (official Sovietese vs. Russian everyday language) and emphasized the distance between official myths and quotidian reality. Jokes engaged a range of official and popular culture genres and also worked meta textually, referring to the political consequences of jokes. While the dissidents of this period, who stressed the heroic and opposed everything Soviet, have been much written about, Graham’s work on the anekdoty—written in the third person, ironic, and engaged with everything Soviet—fills a hole that has been overlooked in cultural history.

Published by: Northwestern University Press

Series: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory


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pp. ix-

Research for this book was carried out primarily between 1998 and 2004 and was supported in part by a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Information Agency. Support was also provided in the form of a grant from ...

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pp. 3-19

THE RUSSIANS borrowed the word “anekdot” from the French (l’anecdote) in the mid- eighteenth century and never gave it back. Since the early twentieth century, the Russian word has had a primary connotation similar to that of the word “joke” in the Anglophone West: an exceptionally productive form of oral culture consisting of a brief, terminally humorous narrative...

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1. Generic Provenance

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pp. 20-43

THIS CHAPTER TRACES the historical arc of the word “anekdot” through its various associations in European (and eventually Russian) culture, up to the emergence of its twentieth- century meaning. A variety of text types (humorous, rhetorical, historiographic, didactic) contributed generic DNA to...

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2. Tradition and Contemporaneity

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pp. 44-62

BY THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, the anekdot had evolved into a form of popular expression well suited to the sociocultural and even the physical environment of the city, with its demographic density, staccato rhythms, and dynamic sensory and cognitive stimuli. The genre was an increasingly...

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3. The Anekdot and Stagnation

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pp. 63-82

JOURNALIST Dmitrii Makarov repeated an apocryphal account in 1999 that the KGB had conducted an experiment in the 1970s to determine the speed at which anekdoty circulated. It reportedly found that a joke could discursively saturate a city the size of Moscow within six to eight hours...

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4. Discursive Reflexivity in the Anekdot

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pp. 83-94

ANDREI SINIAVSKII (writing as Abram Terts) observed in 1978 that the anekdot is a rare example of reflexive—or, in his words, “self conscious”—folklore...

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5. Ethnic Reflexivity

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pp. 95-120

RUSSIANS ARE sometimes the butt of their own jokes, as the second epigraph for this chapter testifies.1 Although Russia is certainly not the only cultural space with such a tradition, self- inflicted ethnic satire is far from universal or even widespread among the peoples ...

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6. Post-Stagnation Deflation, or the Afterlife of the Soviet Anekdot

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pp. 121-140

ALTHOUGH THE PREDICTION in this epigraph proved to be hyperbolic, the end of Soviet censorship (and of Soviet power itself a few years later), as expected, dealt a severe blow to the cultural currency of the...


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pp. 141-180


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pp. 181-208


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pp. 209-210


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pp. 211-221

E-ISBN-13: 9780810163980
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810126237

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1
Series Title: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory