Humour in the time of Stalin

Jonathan Waterlow in Aeon:

Boris Orman, who worked at a bakery, provides a typical example. In mid-1937, even as the whirlwind of Stalin’s purges surged across the country, Orman shared the following anekdot (joke) with a colleague over tea in the bakery cafeteria:

Stalin was out swimming, but he began to drown. A peasant who was passing by jumped in and pulled him safely to shore. Stalin asked the peasant what he would like as a reward. Realising whom he had saved, the peasant cried out: ‘Nothing! Just please don’t tell anyone I saved you!’

Such a joke could easily – and in Orman’s case did – lead to a 10-year spell in a forced-labour camp, where prisoners were routinely worked to death. Paradoxically, the very repressiveness of the regime only increased the urge to share jokes that helped relieve tension and cope with harsh but unchangeable realities. Even in the most desperate times, as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev later recalled: ‘The jokes always saved us.’

More here.