Intimating Trust: Popular Humour in Stalin's 1930s
This article was the first fruit of the 10-year odyssey which would lead to my book, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! Many of the ideas made the final cut, but others inevitably fell by the wayside.
The article was originally published in Cultural and Social History, 10.2 (2013), and can be accessed here.
Here’s the original abstract:
It has often been proposed that popular humour under Stalin functioned as a ‘weapon of the weak’: the only defence mechanism of a disenfranchised, repressed population. This view is a consequence of both problematic source materials and of a Cold War influence which has led to analyses which repeatedly cast the Soviet population as victims of either total state coercion or total state conversion. This article examines how citizens' humour in fact demonstrates complex processes of engagement, assessment and eventual adaptation by Soviet citizens to the circumstances of the 1930s, rather than providing evidence of some kind of ‘resistance’. Four functions of humour are highlighted: (1) gallows humour, (2) trust group creation, (3) identity affirmation, (4) proverbial savoir-faire. By sharing humour (a dangerous pursuit at this time) unofficial social bonds and common viewpoints were formed among the Soviet population – bonds which were based upon trust. These exchanges of trust tokens and savoir-faire led not to a population opposed to the regime, but to a population which retained a space in which to exercise its critical and interpretational faculties, an exercise which was then to enable acceptance of and adaptation to the regime. From these analyses a more accurate model of state–citizen relations is proposed: not that of a weapon, but of a shield composed of paradigms both new and old.