The sad case of humour in Russia
Updated: Jul 13
Throughout the existence of the USSR, humour was a fine instrument in people’s arsenal for expressing discontent with the state. Of course, a wrong word could get one into a GULAG, nevertheless, sometimes state sensors allowed a bit of steam out so that the lid covering social pressure would not blow up.
As long as you are not laughing at us
Humour was in the movies but also on the streets and in the kitchens in the form of anecdotes. The very word “anecdote” has a special meaning in the Russian language as it is not about being “an amusing story based on real incidents” anymore, in fact, it does not have to be real at all. Rather, it is a short story that is supposed to be funny. Ironically, most of the Soviet anecdotes are far from humour and some should get you in jail in any healthy society where hate speech/homophobia/antisemitism/racism/sexism and so on are not embraced. Yet in the USSR the main concern was with political humour. Making fun of anyone but Russians was otherwise very welcome. Some beloved themes are: “stingy Jews”, “dumb Chukchi”, “backwards Churki”, etc., etc.
Some examples of political anecdotes of Brezhnev era:
Someone asked Brezhnev:
Do you have a hobby?
- Well, yes I do. I like to collect jokes about myself.
Oh, fascinating! And how many have you collected?
- Let's see. About two-and-a-half labour camps worth.
**I will not spread racist jokes by sharing them here, a simple Google search can reveal some in English for you.
Humour as a political protest
In the late 1980s, humour in the USSR became openly critical of the state. The so-called “humourists” or “satirists” and “parodists” (essentially stand-up comedians in modern terms) were superstars of the time. They narrated what the masses have experienced on the daily bases – the ridiculousness and dysfunctionality of the system, disenchantment with bureaucracy and overall idiotism around. At the time, the state was already weak enough and the pandora’s box of “perestroika” reforms was too wide open for the KGB to react. People laughed while the artists acknowledged that “the king is naked”.
When the USSR ceased to exist, these very people continued laughing at the surrounding reality of inequality and the emergence of a new class of people – “the new Russians”. Humour was everywhere. In addition to the endless concerts or “meetings with the readers” of famous humourists/satirists/parodists there emerged and re-emerged some of the entertainment programmes regularly aired on TV: Obana, Maski Show, Kalambur, Gentlemen Show, etc., etc. Again, some were highly vulgar, others straight-up dumb, others both dumb and vulgar, yet some were clever and political. At this time, the infamous “club of the fun and clever” (known as KVN) gained momentum. In modern Russian realities, KVN was basically revolutionary.
With time, especially when Putin came to power, critical voices either became significantly less critical or reoriented their focus. Some (such as the famous Mikhail Zadornov) found a new ideological niche and started advocating for the unique Russian soul, language, race, and political purpose.
KVN gradually evolved into a humour machine that supports the official agenda of the Kremlin, discredits the West, and stresses the strong and clever position of Putin. All while playing the game of the imaginary “friendship of the people” – basically a shit show playing out sketches that show all other nations as either inferior to Russia or looking up to it. Boring.
Stand-up: the new rap!
Yet even after all the knots were tied up and all the bolts were screwed in, humour remained popular. While the Soviet-era dinosaurs either died out or went total bunkers, new superstars and new programmes emerged. By the mid-2010s stand-up culture became an analogy of rap in Russia and beyond. Humour once again offered an opportunity for people to let some steam out in realities that started to resemble the not-so-distant past.
24 February 2022 became a sort of test for these “new rappers”. Some could not imagine themselves in these realities and left the country. They now resemble the Soviet-era dissent humour but the state is much stronger this time. The KGB agent on the throne learned the lessons well.
There are those standuppers who pretend that nothing is happening (perhaps the vast majority), they are happy and joyful in current realities. There are those who produce “patriotic” content and actively use the current opportunity to serve up to the state and lick certain bodily openings so well and thoroughly that they don’t notice how their face gets smothered in excrements. There are even those dinosaur humourists who re-emerged, the very same people who used to be critical of the USSR and are now cracking jokes about the “evil NATO”, “freezing gay Europe” and the “almighty Russia’s resilience to sanctions”.
Not a funny matter
Why does all this matter? Humour can be a powerful tool of resistance to oppression. What we see now in Russia is that even this domain gave in big time. Tragically, like all other Russian products, the garbage Kremlin-endorsing humour is also overspilling to Central Asia. The recent video of former KVN players of Kyrgyzstan's team "Asia Mix" (essentially representing the region) is a vivid example of this tragedy. In a short Instagram video, two former members are literally rapping about the Western plot against traditional values in Kyrgyzstan. What a joke!