So, Nikita Khrushchev walks into a bar and says...
What he says doesn’t matter; what matters is that ordinary Soviet citizens accommodated themselves to the deprivations and difficulties of ordinary life by telling jokes. British TV documentarian Lewis has a million of them. What’s colder in Romania than the cold water? The hot water. A Jew joins the Party just before dying, saying to his shocked friends, “It’s better that one of them dies than one of us.” How do you quadruple the value of a Trabant? Put a banana on the back seat. Officialdom doesn’t usually smile at such things—“One more like that and I’ll smack you one,” says an East German guard to Lewis about the Trabant crack. But, writes the author, communist regimes have tended to be more tolerant of humorous criticism than have other totalitarian stripes—there are very few Nazi or Falangist joke books out there. In the end, humor is what helped bring down communist walls and regimes. So runs Lewis’s compelling thesis, which he had heard repeated for years through the former communist world, wondering, sensibly, whether it might be true. He answers that question to his and readers’ satisfaction, but not before spinning out hundreds of groaners and knee-slappers that speak to hard times under authoritarian eyes. Those authoritarians, Lewis writes, made a tacit deal with the people under their rule: Make fun of us, but remain apathetic and certainly don’t protest against your lot. So effective was the deal, he adds, that it was the unfunny Mikhail Gorbachev who broke things up by making apathy impossible—to say nothing of hiding all the vodka.
A slightly goofy book at first glance, but full of sharp aperçus about the communist era and its discontents.