History of Russian Jewish Jokes, 1900-1990

By Alex Adams

Joining us from an expedition in the Caucasus, Dr. Aleksandra Arkhipova, Senior Research Fellow at the Russian State University for the Humanities and the Russian School of Economics, presented her new research to the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’s Colloquium series, “Authoritarian Laughter.” Arkhipova’s lecture explored a favorite national pastime—anekdoty (anecdotes). Her talk described the creation of Jewish humor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet through this exploration she shed light on the Jewish origins of Soviet anekdoty.

In the 19th century, “anekdot,” meant a story or joke about someone else, a historical character, or the narrator (but not the teller of said joke). However, as the 20th century started, the main butt of these jokes changed. The anekdoty stopped being a distant story and became a short, humorous tale with an unexpected ending. Most importantly, the anekdoty became more personal and impactful. Arkhipova cited Nikita Okunev’s diary in 1922, where he wrote: “[The old anecdotes] put us in a cheerful mood…now hearing these new jokes makes me feel afraid, because it is about real life.”

          The new anecdotes featured a character who always commented on unpleasant, contemporary reality. Who better to comment on suffering than the Russian Jew? As one of the punchlines goes in a famous, early 20th century joke, the Jew would punish Emperor Wilhelm for his crimes in the First World War by branding him a Jew and sending him to Russia. The Jew, as Arkhipova argued, thus became a symbolic character that represented a minority group suffering in the early 20th century.

          Another important symbolic figure within the anekdot involved the trickster: in Jewish folklore from the 17th to 19th centuries, they often appeared as main characters. After the 1917 revolution, Jews moved throughout the country. The Provisional Government abolished the Pale of Settlement in 1917, allowing Jews to become more mobile. When Jewish families moved outside the former Pale, they also brought their Yiddish jokes and folklore with them. This oral tradition, including stories of tricksters, was also written down and distributed, making it available to more and more people. In these original jokes, the trickster pushes the limits of authority, but somehow always gets away with it. Eventually, as these stories evolved, the trickster did not have to be Jewish, but the basic plot and point remained.  

Hershele Ostropoler, a Russian Jewish trickster in many anekdoty, was based on this real-life person, Gersh from Ostropol (1757-1811). Arkhipova recounted how Gersh served as a jester of the tsadik Rabbi Borukh from Tulchin.

          As the anekdoty about tricksters evolved and as Russian Jews moved within the USSR, anti-Semitic jokes followed them. In them, the main character becomes a greedy or self-righteous Jew, who believes Russians should be in a ghetto, while the Jews rule the country as the dominant ethnic group. In addition, numerous jokes appeared where Jews “hide in plain sight,” changing their names and appearances in order to sneak back into society.

Arkhipova followed the arc of these stories by tracing how new jokes responded to the anti-Semitic anecdotes. A very common category that did so reintroduced the cunning trickster who stumps authorities. As one famous joke shared by Arkhipova goes:

Rabinovich was walking down the street and swore:

– Scoundrels, idiots! Look what they have brought upon this country!

-Secret Policemen in civilian clothing come up to him and demanded clarification about who has brought the ruin.

– “What do you mean ‘who’?”  The American Imperialists, of course.

– The agents, clearly frustrated, let him go.

– Rabinovich catches up with them and asks: Excuse me, but who were you thinking of?

The life cycle of Jewish humor continued after communism’s collapse. Under Putin, freedom of speech is under threat in Russia. In recent years, there has been a return to prosecuting people for social media posts and even for telling jokes.[1] An examination of the origin Russian humor is critical when dealing with the revival of discrimination. Professor Arkhipova ended her lecture with a joke from 2016, which connects the prosecution of jokes in the distant past to the not-so-different present. In this joke, we see the connection between the past and the present in the ongoing authoritarian attempts to control speech in Russia.

Для нас создал Роскомнадзор

Меж поколений мост.

Сидел мой дед за анекдот.

Я сяду за репост.  

In one mighty stroke, Roskomnadzor

Has bridged the generational gap.

My grandpa was jailed for telling a joke.

And I for reposting it.

Arkhipova’s lecture highlighted the continued significance that “the weapons of the weak,” in this instance the use of humor, has in Russia.[2] Authoritarians are often afraid of humor because they know their grasp on power is weak and sustained by fear. Jokes, humor, and other small forms of resistance all add to the communal dissolution of a psyche of fear, violence, and strife. Jokes do more than just let off steam. They can be part of a movement, and Arkhipova showed that this movement is nothing new and that it is not disappearing anytime soon.

Alex Adams is a senior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He is an undergraduate fellow at the Havighurst Center.

[1] Astghik Grigoryan, “Government Responses to Disinformation on Social Media Platforms: Russia,” Library of Congress, September 2019, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/social-media-disinformation/russia.php.

[2] James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

This entry was posted in Colloquium Talks, Havighurst Lecturers, Lecture Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.