It's Only a Joke, Comrade!

It’s Only a Joke, Comrade!

Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin


In the shadow of the Gulag, Soviet citizens were still cracking jokes. They had to.

Drawing on diaries, interviews, memoirs and hundreds of previously secret documents, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! uncovers how they joked, coped, and struggled to adapt in Stalin’s brave new world. It asks what it really means to live under a dictatorship: How do people make sense of their lives? How do they talk about it? And whom can they trust to do so?

Moving beyond ideas of ‘resistance’, ‘doublethink’, ‘speaking Bolshevik’, or Stalin’s Cult of Personality to explain Soviet life, it reveals how ordinary people found their way and even found themselves in a life lived along the fault-lines between rhetoric and reality.

A stunningly original study of Stalinist society, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! explodes the sterile binaries of ‘consent’ and ‘resistance’ to show that vast swathes of the Soviet population lived in the thickets of language and ideas where official ideology mingled with popular attitudes.

Waterlow’s fresh and fluent style crackles with wit and perception as he deftly teases out the veiled assumptions, fears and aspirations that underpinned the workings of (often gallows) humour in the 1930s Soviet Union.

Essential reading for anyone interested in daily life under the Stalinist dictatorship but also for anyone interested in how human beings navigate a path through times of extraordinary upheaval, privation and danger.
— Dr Daniel Beer, Royal Holloway, University of London; author of The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars, winner of the Cundill History Prize.

‘Stunningly original’


‘A book of great humanity’

The best book on Stalinism I’ve read in a long time.

With unprecedented subtlety, Jon Waterlow explores the contradictory responses of Soviet citizens to the Stalin regime through a multi-faceted exploration of the ways in which telling jokes helped citizens cope with the pressures of living under a terroristic regime hell-bent on economic and social modernization.

The book will be required reading for those interested in the history of the Soviet Union, but also for anyone interested in understanding the manifold social and psychological functions that laughter can perform.

Waterlow integrates solid archival research with an impressive command of the theoretical literature on humour and he writes lucidly and with verve.

This is a book of great humanity and insight (with some good jokes thrown in).
— Professor Stephen Smith, FBA. Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford
This book re-vitalizes our understanding of Soviet society by demonstrating the ways in which humour served as a means of self expression for Soviet citizens, offering them agency in their attempts to cope with and adapt to the demanding tribulations of everyday life – whether in shopping queues or in the shadow of Stalin’s Great Terror.
— Professor Lynne Viola, FRSC University of Toronto



‘A must read’

An extraordinary achievement.

Jonathan Waterlow has found a unique lens into Stalinist society through this brilliant exploration of humor. Maneuvering through the dark days of the 1930s, ordinary people told jokes that belie the image of a cowed, totally repressed, atomized population. Rather than all Soviet people being divided into pro- and anti-Soviet, affirmation or dissent/resistance, they made up a ‘muddled majority’ that practiced a critical acceptance of Soviet life. Humor was at one and the same time a safety valve, a form of social communication, and a critique often founded on acceptance of socialist values and disgust at their violation in the experiences of everyday life.
— Ronald Grigor Suny, William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History, The University of Michigan; author of The Soviet Experiment.
Everyone knows that jokes mattered in the Soviet period, and that under Stalin, they could land you in prison. Jonathan Waterlow’s fascinating book is, however, a pioneering historical study of the genre, unique in its sensitivity to the social context in which jokes circulated.

Drawing on extensive unpublished material from archives, it captures the contrary functions of these small comic narratives, as instruments of social solidarity and not just of subversion.

It is also, as any book about jokes should be, lively, engaging, and at times very funny. A must read for anyone interested in Soviet or indeed Russian culture.
— Professor Catriona Kelly, FBA, New College, University of Oxford; author of Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 and Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction.




It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! is a superb book – readable, engagingly-written, original and intellectually sophisticated. Jon Waterlow shows us how ordinary Soviet citizens used jokes and humour to deal with the traumatic and often violent changes of the 1930s, and in doing so he makes a series of much broader interventions in debates over the nature of Stalinist society in the 1930s. Particularly interesting is his portrayal of the complexity of Soviet citizens’ attitudes to Stalinism, and of the nature of sociability and trust within Soviet society.

This is one of those rare books that not only has to be read by scholars in the field but is also accessible to a wide readership. Indeed it is an essential read for anybody who wants to get beyond standard views of the ‘communist joke’ and understand what humour really tells us about life under this extraordinary regime.
— Professor David Priestland, St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford; author of The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World
Humour is not an emotion usually associated with Stalin’s Soviet Union, but Jon Waterlow’s outstanding book shows how it was an integral part of the lives of Soviet citizens as they sought to make sense of the reality of life under the dictator. Enlivened by the bitter-sweet humour of Soviet men and women during the grim years of the 1930s, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! gives us a powerful insight into the way societies function at times of great stress and into the nature of humanity itself.
— Professor Peter Waldron, University of East Anglia; former President of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies.




We are told that Stalinism was no laughing matter. Waterlow disagrees, revealing how popular humour was integral to how Soviet citizens engaged with the world around them.

Stalinism, a human drama. This important and engaging book reanimates ordinary Soviet citizens, revealing how they laughed and joked, shared and despaired, connected and communicated across one of the most traumatic periods in modern history. Through the medium of popular humour, Waterlow immerses us deep into the lived experience of ordinary folk during Stalin’s 1930s.

A revelatory account of how ordinary citizens experienced Stalinism. Essential reading.
— Dr Andy Willimott, University of Reading; author of Living the Revolution: Urban Communes and Soviet Socialism, 1917-1932.
People laugh at the very darkest times as well, as Jonathan Waterlow reveals in his brilliant study of humour and trust under the Stalinist dictatorship. Uncovering the dark and often disturbing ironies of history, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! challenges our understanding of ‘Soviet subjectivity’ by telling a compelling human story of people’s ability to maintain agency in their daily encounters with the Stalinist system.

Prodigiously researched and lucidly argued, this book will make a major contribution to understanding Stalinist culture and society. It will be read with great benefit and pleasure by both lay and expert readers. Highly recommended.
— Dr Matthias Neumann, Senior Lecturer, University of East Anglia; author of The Communist Youth League and the Transformation of the Soviet Union.

‘Crackles with wit and perception’


‘Highly recommended’

To breathtaking effect, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin tapped into the relentlessly dark humour to be found in the USSR at its paranoid peak. Now, Jonathan Waterlow has picked up the baton, exploring the kind of jokes that flourished in Soviet society to help people cope with the uncertainty and despair of living under an authoritarian regime where reality could change overnight.

Tracing how traditional strands of Russian humour adapted to the new era, he discovers that the country couldn’t be neatly split into believers and dissidents. Most citizens were somewhere in between, and making sense of that grey area is what excites Waterlow, particularly when the official version and personal experience intersected and engaged with each other. Thanks to the records of a Soviet Commission on satire, he can tell us what the regime thought of the jokers too. Waterlow provides insight into a people who, more than 25 years after the collapse of the USSR, still remain an enigma.
— The Herald