- "Laughter Is a Serious Matter"
Making jokes was fatally dangerous in the USSR. Any expressions of free spirit—humor, satire, and even poetry—were taken deadly seriously by the Bolsheviks and Communists. The regime, with its distrust of the population and inherent tendency to politicize even innocent things, saw humor as a "weapon of class struggle." Respectively, "official" humor was directed against the revolution's enemies while popular political anecdotes were equated by the regime with anti-Soviet agitation: thousands were arrested under article 58-10 of the Criminal Code targeting anti-Soviet agitation, and Osip Mandel´shtam was killed for an epigram. The three books under review perfectly cover all these kinds of Soviet humor—both state-sanctioned and spontaneous laughter on the grassroots level—encompassing the 1920s, the Stalin era, and the decade beyond. The noteworthy trend here is the authors' fascination with perceptions: public perception of the regime's policies, as reflected in the jokes, as well as the regime's perspective on the jokes—as revealed when it directed official satire and persecuted unofficial discourse of rumors and anecdotes. The emphasis of the three authors, however, varies. [End Page 904]
Waterlow's book with its focus on 1930s society is an outstanding addition to the body of literature that has flourished since the 1991 archival revolution—studies of how Soviet people understood the world around them, either in terms of their opinions and mindset or society's perceptions of Soviet policies; that is, the mental patterns, values, and political culture of the population. The successful marriage of the cultural turn in historiography with advances in source studies (istochnikovedenie), which benefited from the debate over the reliability of the new sources, is what makes the field of Soviet popular opinion studies so productive and fascinating.
Scholars studying the Soviet popular mindset always try to diversify their sources in order to verify and triangulate their conclusions about perceptions of policies at the grassroots and patterns of thinking among the population. They commonly use the reports (svodki) of various state agencies about moods and political circumstances, as well as folklore, foreign intelligence, interviews conducted by the Harvard Project, and personal documents like diaries, letters, autobiographies, and memoirs. Jonathan Waterlow took a different approach, delving into the depths of one specific manifestation of the popular psyche—Soviet humor, which he collected from all possible records—originating from the state, foreign observers, and both Soviet elite and common people.1 He has a sharp eye for distinguishing humor verbalized in both the peasant and the party elite milieus (89). He introduces anecdotes, chastushki, proverbs, and even some cases of performance: for example, when a worker chained himself to a machine to protest the Labor Law of 1940. Despite stereotypical descriptions by foreign observers of gloomy crowds and infrequent laughter on the streets of Soviet cities, we now know that people laughed a lot about their everyday experiences and political events: the cult of Stalin, state loans, elections, Kirov's death, the Five–Year Plans, and—of course, with their unrelenting proclivity to personify policies—about party leaders, but not so much about the system (208). Mocking the "grandeur of the bright future" and the promised arrival of communism gradually gained steam through the long postwar period. Waterlow gives special consideration to dark and "gallows" humor in which people burlesqued tragedies such as collectivization, [End Page 905] the Great Terror, and hunger, as well as to obscene, bodily, scatological, and sexual mockery—all elegantly interpreted and deconstructed in the book.
The author's analytical prowess is a strength of this monograph, which grew out of a dissertation defended at the University...