The Death Of Stalin
Photo: IFC Films

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“Why is Stalin always pictured in boots, while Lenin wore shoes?”

“Because in Lenin’s time, we were only ankle-deep in shit.”

Jokes were the oral tradition of the Soviet Union, remaining in circulation for so long that even after the collapse of the USSR, one could still hear kids reciting punch lines about Joseph Stalin, purges, temporary shortages (“a permanent feature of the socialist economy”), and forced labor that dated to the 1940s or earlier. “Thank you Comrade Stalin for my happy childhood” remains one of the all-time-great Russian-language one-liners, as does the old Soviet credo that today, though worse than yesterday, is at least better than tomorrow. This stuff is its own subfield of academic study. Books and countless papers have been devoted to it. Though similar phenomena existed under other regimes (e.g. East German “whisper jokes,” or flüsterwitze), Stalinist underground humor was unique in its popularity, cultural currency, and insight. It gets meta, too—jokes about people telling political jokes and so on.

An old man has been waiting in line for three hours. Fed up, he mutters, “I fought for the Revolution, and this shit still hasn’t changed!”

A younger man turns to him. “Look there, old man,” he says. “A few years ago you could’ve been shot for saying something like that!”

The old man goes home empty-handed. “Are they out of meat again?” asks his wife. “Worse,” says the old man. “They’re out of bullets.”

It’s basically impossible to grasp that era of Soviet history—or totalitarianism in general—without the jokes. Which to say that the humor of Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin is historically not much of a taboo. (However, one should never underestimate the Putin government’s readiness to dive at every offense in the hope of getting a free kick; for now, the film is banned in Russia.) But why?

Genocide makes for an easy control sample, because it’s our go-to when it comes to subjects that shouldn’t taken lightly. There’s little that’s innately funny about the Holocaust, for instance. Its execution involved few inherent contradictions or ironies; the motto that hung over the entrances to Auschwitz and Dachau, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”), is the only one that immediately comes to mind. But a totalitarian government that perpetuates a genocide is a different matter.

Authoritarian, single-party police states seem monolithic on the outside, but every one of them is unstable and characterized by constant infighting and backstabbing. They promulgate conspiracy theories while engaging in mass cover-ups, proclaim master plans while ruling in desperation. They are, in other words, parodies of government and authority, just as all dictators are inherently parodies of leadership and insecure ego. That seems to be Iannucci’s interest—the funhouse mirror aspect of it all, the exaggerated rivalries and political theater.

“Who built the left bank of the White Sea Canal?”

“The ones who told the jokes.”

“And who built the right bank?”

“The ones who laughed.”

But as someone who grew up with its wiseass cynicism, I’ve never completely bought the prevailing Western academic notion of Soviet humor as a subversive element, an act of resistance, a survival mechanism, etc. Because totalitarianism, a state of absurdity and terror, has a way of co-opting its own ridicule. One learns an essential truth about the totalitarian state in recognizing its grotesque comedy—and another in recognizing the fact that the gallows humor may be part of the state itself. That’s the thing that I’m still wrestling with: the Stalin joke as an inbuilt element of Stalinism. Because when you’re laughing in the face of death, isn’t death still laughing, too?

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