Sanctioning Laughter in Stalin’s Soviet Union
I contributed a piece on humour under Stalin to a special issue of History Workshop Journal that explored the role and limits of political humour under authoritarian regimes.
In this article I go into more depth than I do in my book (It’s Only a Joke, Comrade!) about the leaders’ humour and their changing (and often contradictory) ideas about controlling it in the rest of society.
The article was originally published in History Workshop Journal, 79 (2015), and can be accessed here.
Here’s the original abstract:
Laughter and humour in Stalin’s Soviet Union have long been considered weapons, wielded most effectively by the state against its (perceived) enemies, but also by the populace in acts of resistance aimed against the repressive regime in which they lived. This article argues that both these perspectives are misleading. The Soviet state in fact had a frequently ambiguous, evolving attitude to humour and its uses. At times, the humour of state and people even overlapped – particularly when attacking the caprice and foolishness of local bureaucrats – but the article emphasizes that the function and hence meaning of this humour differed radically depending upon who told a given joke and their position of power relative to its target. Ordinary people’s humour in the USSR was frequently reflexive: it was not aimed at the Soviet system, but represented Schadenfreude at one’s own misfortunes. In contrast to Merziger’s ‘German humour’, which ‘blocked everything disturbing out’, Soviet citizens used humour to bring the disturbing in, and to diminish its power through laughter. Nevertheless, the state considered political humour to be ‘antisoviet agitation’, and punished many joke-tellers accordingly. Despite this, the article demonstrates that such punishment was inconsistently enforced; in the USSR, laughter was not simply sanctioned, but was frequently recontextualized and reinterpreted.