I had the enormous pleasure of reviewing Jonathan Waterlow’s brilliant book It’s Only a Joke Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (Oxford: CreateSpace, 2018), for Soviet and Post-Soviet Review.
This is a pre-print of a Book Review which was published in The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review Vol. 37, No. 2(June, 2020): 242–45. The published version can be accessed at: https://brill.com/view/journals/spsr/47/2/article-p242_14.xml
Jonathan Waterlow, It’s Only a Joke Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (Oxford: CreateSpace, 2018), xxi + 285 pp. £14.99 (pb), ISBN 978-1-985-63582-1.
Stalinism is not usually associated with laughter. The debates provoked by the withdrawal of a Russian screening licence for Armando Iannucci’s black comedy The Death of Stalin in January 2018, for example, testify to the complexities of playing Stalin’s murderous regime for laughs. Yet as Jonathan Waterlow’s perceptive book reminds us, ordinary Soviet citizens frequently laughed and joked about the darkest moments of the 1930s. Humour provided a coping mechanism and a means of creating community in the bleakest of times. Far from a frivolous subject, this study breaks new ground in examining how Stalinist citizens made sense of the world around them, and the psychological mechanisms required to live under an authoritarian regime. “Studying their jokes,” as Waterlow notes, “brings their experiences back to life and contradicts many long-held views of the period as one of fearful atomisation or gullible belief in Stalin.” (2) Through humour, and the social and psychological bonds it engendered, many people found ways to deal with the privations, pressures and uncertainties of Stalinism. Jokes (anekdoty), humorous ditties (chastushki), wordplay, graffiti, visual humour, and other forms of mockery are central to this study, but its contributions stretch beyond immediate exploration of what was funny to wider discussions of social structures, psychological mechanisms, Stalinist subjectivities, and the reach of Soviet ideology. Humour was frequently more than a joke! Subsumed within the vibrant joke telling culture of the 1930s was a complex web of social meanings, practices and relations.
One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the richness and variety of its primary research. Its evidence has been diligently pieced together from across the archival record; the tone and inflection of past language read with great care and sensitive. Material relating to humour is often fleeting and fragmentary, but this research offsets weaknesses in specifics sources by triangulating between a wide range of documents. Waterlow eschews late-Soviet published collections of recycled and decontextualized anekdoty, which reveal little about how they were told. Svodki, summaries of popular mood and opinion, and the review files for anti-Soviet agitation cases conducted by the USSR procuracy provide more vivid insights into Stalin-era humour and its social functions. They are supplemented by the undervalued interviews of the Harvard Interview Project, the diaries of Stalinist citizens, and the accounts of western visitors to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. These personal sources introduce a cast of characters whose stories are woven throughout the book.
The six chapters of It’s Only a Joke Comrade! are structured in three parts, which in the author’s own words flow, “from a focus on the content and character of jokes themselves, to the repercussions of telling them, and on to the psychological and social motivations and effects of sharing them.” (10). Chapter 1 examines the multiple ways in which Soviet citizens mocked their leaders, thereby asserting a “quiet power” and superiority over them. These humorous acts included concealed graffiti, creative misspellings, moving portraits and banners to send sardonic messages. These relatively minor subversions, provided an opportunity to place untouchable leaders in ridiculous situations, poke fun and pick holes in official rhetoric. Far from being protected by his widespread personality cult, Stalin was routinely and roundly mocked. Furthermore, the murder of the Leningrad party boss in Sergei Kirov in December 1934 was met by, “a deluge of carnivalesque, absurd, sexualised, violent and dirty humour.” (32) These waves of scatological and sexual mockery were aimed at individuals and institutions, rather than the wider Soviet project. Chapter 2 examines the critical responses to key Stalinist policies, including state loan subscription campaigns, the Five-Year Plans, collectivisation, the ‘Great Terror’, the 1940 Labour Law and the Nazi-Soviet pact. It provides a clear exploration of the content of popular humour, as well as the range of creative responses to widespread hardships and traumas. Far from being paralysed by fear, joke tellers harnessed gallows humour to deflate propaganda. As we are reminded, “terrible experiences could be reconfigured to provoke pleasurable laughter, or at least to mitigate outright, resignation and despair.” (77). Chapter 3 introduces the important conceptual innovation of crosshatching. In humour we can see a wealth of perspectives and attitudes about gender, religion, history, antisemitism, and much beside, that conflicted with official ideology. In Waterlow’s analysis these older cultural assumptions were crosshatched with the new Soviet worldview and values, in a complicated process of hybridization. This notion offers an important refinement to Stephen Kotkin’s influential work, by demonstrating that many people through their jokes were, “often gleefully speaking more than Bolshevik.” (107). Through Waterlow’s research the mechanisms by which, “elements of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ appear to have coexisted within everyone,” becomes clearer. Hidden in humour were a variety of “shadow languages” (130) and “contraband meanings” (132) that enable people to mediate official ideology, created sense out of remarkable times, whilst blend criticism and acceptance of the regime.
Chapter 4 examines how the Stalinist regime perceived the joke-telling population, and its attempts to contain unofficial humour. Although the Bolshevik party-state wasn’t humourless and deployed laughter as a didactic weapon to discredit its enemies, over the course of the 1930s the state’s attitudes towards humour hardened. By 1935 jokes were seen as dangerous agents of viral infection. Keeping up with shifting official attitudes, combined with retrospective prosecution, made it hard for individuals to evaluate the risks they were taking whilst joking. Surprisingly, who the joke teller was often mattered more than what they said when it came to prosecutions for anti-Soviet agitation. Women, the young, un-educated and blue-collar workers were considered a lower political threat than others. Nevertheless, telling jokes was a risky and unpredictable business, but one that was worth it because of the important social functions humour fulfilled.
The final two chapters examine how telling jokes operated as a coping mechanism. Far from representing an oppositional act, as the controlling regime feared, joke telling, as chapter 5 argues, could be understood as an exercise in adapting to and normalising extreme circumstances. Even mildly transgressive humour offered an opportunity to demonstrate personal agency and was empowering. Many jokes were underpinned by a desire that the regime should live up to its own rhetoric, rather than anti-Soviet sentiment. Indeed, it was in the cross-hatched spaces of humour that many people resolved the confusing dissonance between official and unofficial discourses. “Humour did not just pick holes in the fabric of the official world and its claims,” (217) it represented an attempt to accommodate oneself to the regime through a momentary act of self-deception. It also offered an opportunity to forge new social bonds and networks and build communities of trust and mutual support. In chapter 6 Waterlow challenges the totalitarian argument that Stalinism atomised society, destroying public interactions. In contrast the culture of joke telling reveals the persistence of unofficial forms of sociability, and the durability of trust groups. Sharing humour in the circumstances of the 1930s was a process of intimating trust, of discovering whether others held similar views, but with the possibility of back-tracking should the risk seem to great. Jokes were also, “active, performative processes of identity affirmation” (245), which contributed to wider processes of self-fashioning.
Writing about humour without killing the joke takes great skill. Many of the jokes retold in this book will prompt a chuckle, others belly laughs. Since each culture’s humour has its own specificities, Waterlow sometimes needs to provide historical context to explain precisely what Stalinist citizens found so amusing. Yet, great care is taken to avoid over-analysing the sources. Indeed, the author succeeds in preserving the humour through their own dry wit, and a lively turn of phrase. This is a beautifully written and designed volume, which deserves a wide readershi It offers original perspectives on how ordinary citizens experienced Stalinism, and the mechanisms by which they managed life in a highly authoritarian society. By virtue of its accessible pricing it has every opportunity to reach far beyond the academy. Historians of Stalinism whether their interests are political, social or cultural, will learn a much from this fantastic book, but it also has much to offer students and general readers keen to explore the vibrant world of 1930s popular humour.
 Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1995), 228.