28 May 2010

Short Takes: Russian Jokes

[Much Russian humor, both before and after the Communist take-over, is bleak and pessimistic. I heard many Russian jokes and humorous sayings while I was studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in the early ‘70s. My Russian teachers were all émigrés from Soviet Russia.]

* * * *

In keeping with the official atheism of the Communist state, the phrase ‘thank God’ (in Russian, slava Bogu, literally ‘glory to God’) was prohibited. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decreed that, in its place, Soviet citizens should say, slava Stalinu, or ‘thank Stalin.’

The story is told of a Red Army guard walking his post on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. An American soldier is doing guard duty on the western side of the crossing point. It's late, and their tours of duty are almost over. As they pass each other marching in opposite directions, the American mutters, "Thank God, I've only got 15 minutes to go."

As they pass again, the Russian soldier says, "Thank Stalin, I only have 10 more minutes left."

Later the young Russian remarks: "I noticed you said, 'Thank God.' What would you say if there were no God?"

After a moment, the GI replies: "I don't know. But I heard you say, 'Thank Stalin.' What would you say if there were no Stalin?"

"Thank God."

* * * *

In 1964, some may know, as many as 40 listening devices were discovered within the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. A new embassy was built decades later, but the building was abandoned before it could be occupied because security breaches made the presence of eavesdropping equipment a likelihood.

Do you know the Soviet formula for concrete?
It’s one part cement, one part sand, and one part microphones.

* * * *

This joke—really a common saying in the Communist days—plays on the fact that the titles of the two major papers, Pravda (the party organ) and Izvestia (the official government daily), mean, respectively, ‘truth’ and ‘news.’ It confirms that at least some Soviets recognized the failings of their media well before glasnost and the fall of the Soviet state.

There is no news in the Truth, and no truth in the News.

* * * *

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism—it is just the opposite.

* * * *

How's life going?

It’s just like being on a ship. You get sick, but you can't get off.

* * * *

A man in a restaurant is eating a 30-kopeck bowl of soup.

Suddenly he spoons a steel bolt out of the bowl. The angry diner demands to see the chief cook.

The cook comes out of the kitchen, none too pleased.

“What is this?” asks the man indignantly, pointing to the hardware.

“A steel bolt,” responds the cook.

“Why is there a bolt in my soup?” bristles the customer.

“What do you want for 30 kopecks,” the cook asks incredulously, “the whole damned tractor?”

* * * *

“Did you hear that the Politburo awarded the Order of Lenin to the director of our match factory?”

“No, what for?”

“A saboteur tried to set an explosives factory on fire using our matches and they wouldn’t light."

* * * *

A man goes into a Moscow restaurant and tells the waitress: “A cutlet and a kind word, miss.”

The waitress brings the food and starts to walk away.

“Wait! What about my kind word?” jokes the customer.

The waitress comes back and whispers in the man’s ear: “Don”t eat the cutlet.”

* * * *

The head of personnel called Levsky into his office.

Tovarishch Levsky, why did you lie on your personnel form?”

“Lie? Where?” said Levsky in shock.

“On the line where it asks if you have any relatives living abroad, you answered ‘No.’” You have a brother in Israel, don’t you?”

“Yes, but he’s at home. I’m the one who’s abroad.”

* * * *

An old woman has a stall in a market under a sign reading: Chernobyl Mushrooms For Sale. A man stops and asks her, "Are you nuts? Who'd buy mushrooms from Chernobyl?" The woman looks at him and says, "Oh, a lot of people. Some buy them for their bosses, others for their mothers-in-law . . . ."

* * * *

"Nurse, where are taking me?"

“The morgue."

"But I’m still alive!"

"We haven't gotten there yet."

* * * *

This anecdote isn’t so much a joke as a wry account of how life was for Russians in the days of the Soviet Union and its (mis)managed economy.

A woman was walking along a street in Moscow when she spotted a long line in front of a store. “What are they selling here today?” she asked a man on line.

“Sugar,” he replied.

“Sugar! I haven’t been able to get any for months,” said the woman as she stepped to the end of the line.

After waiting for several hours, the shopper was finally in front of the counter inside the store. “I’ll have two kilos of sugar, please,” she told the salesgirl.

A few moments later the clerk returned with the two bags of sugar, which she placed on the counter. “Here’s your sugar.”

“And here are your four truck tires,” she added, hefting the tires onto the counter, too.

"Truck tires? I don’t want any truck tires.”

“Then you can’t have the sugar.”

The shopper took the sugar. And the tires.

* * * *

A man came home and found his wife making love to a stranger. The furious husband yelled, "My God, look at you! What are you wasting your time for? They've got eggs for sale at the store down the street, and there are only three cartons left!"

* * * *

A man sees a woman carrying a bag of toilet paper down the street.

"Hey, lady,” he shouts, “where did you buy all that?"

"Buy it? Are you nuts? You can’t buy toilet paper these days! These rolls are five years old. I’m just getting them back from the cleaners."

* * * *

Joe and Bill, two American communists, decided to move to the Soviet Union. They didn't believe the American propaganda about the conditions in the USSR, but they decided to be prepared in case. Joe would go to Russia first to check things out. If he found it a good place to live and the reports about KGB persecution untrue, then he’d write Bill using black ink to signal that the letter should be taken at face value. If, on the other hand, Joe saw that the situation in the USSR was bad, but he was afraid to write the truth, he’d use red ink to show Bill that his letter wasn’t factual.

After a few months, Joe sent Bill his first report. In black ink, he wrote, "Dear Bill: I'm really happy here! It's a great place with a high living standard. I have total freedom; everything the capitalist press says is a lie. You can get anything here you want! Only one thing’s in short supply: red ink."

* * * *

A judge walks out of his courtroom, laughing loudly. A colleague asks, "What’s so damn funny?"

"I just heard a great joke!" the judge says, wiping away tears of laughter.

"A joke? Tell it to me!"

"Are you crazy! I just gave a man ten years for telling it."

* * * *

This gag always reminds me of a Monty Python sketch. You can almost see the Pythons acting it out!

A woman walks into a food store. "Do you have any meat?"

"No, fresh out."

"What about milk?"

"We only deal in meat. The dairy store across the street is where they don’t have milk."

* * * *

The occasions on which an observant Jew says a broche, a blessing, are many and varied. There are specific prayers for almost any occasion you might encounter. Leo Rosten recounts, for instance, that when S. Y. Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1966 – the only writer to receive the honor for writing in Hebrew), he was glad to hear he would have to go to Sweden to accept the award from the king. “Good,” Shai Agnon is supposed to have said, “I have never had the opportunity to say the broche one makes upon seeing a king.” There was even a proper blessing for the Czar—according to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer:

May God bless and keep the Czar . . . far away from us!

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