In a world of stifling conformity and endless fake news, even simple satirical barbs can serve as a profoundly personal assertion that ‘I joke, therefore I am.’
Stalinism. The word conjures dozens of associations, and ‘funny’ isn’t usually one of them. The ‘S-word’ is now synonymous with brutal and all-encompassing state control that left no room for laughter or any form of dissent. And yet, countless diaries, memoirs and even the state’s own archives reveal that people continued to crack jokes about the often terrible lives they were forced to live in the shadow of the Gulag.
By the 1980s, Soviet political jokes had become so widely enjoyed that even the US president Ronald Reagan loved to collect and retell them. But, 50 years earlier, under Stalin’s paranoid and brutal reign, why would ordinary Soviet people share jokes ridiculing their leaders and the Soviet system if they ran the risk of the NKVD (state security) breaking down the door to their apartment and tearing them away from their families, perhaps never to return?
We now know that not only huddled around the kitchen table, but even on the tram, surrounded by strangers and, perhaps most daringly, on the factory floor, where people were constantly exhorted to show their absolute devotion to the Soviet cause, people cracked jokes that denigrated the regime and even Stalin himself.
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