Remember Monty Python's skit about "the world's funniest joke?" Anyone who heard it died laughing.
Well, the Soviet Union was finished off by not one, but tens of thousands of jokes. Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak said 21 years ago, Soviet television aired the biggest one of all.
"I was watching it live in St Petersburg. It was May 17, 1991."
Yurchak had settled in to watch one of his favorite TV shows, "The Fifth Wheel."
"It was a very popular program for several years," Yurchak said. "It had a huge audience, and they did weekly an investigative story into Soviet history."
It was sort of like a Soviet version of "60 Minutes."
Surrounded by mountains of books and papers, the host of the program introduced his guest: a handsome, young entertainer named Sergey Kuryokhin.
"Kuryokhin set up the program by saying it will be an investigation into the history of the Bolshevik Revolution and that he has some new facts about that history which remain unknown until this day," said Yurchak.
It had to do with mushrooms. According to Kuryokhin, Lenin and the other the Bolshevik leaders really liked mushrooms. Not just ordinary mushrooms; the hallucinogenic kind.
"Basically his point was that they ate so many mushrooms that mushrooms started affecting their personality," Yurchak said. "And when you eat very powerful, hallucinogenic mushrooms, he claimed – which is completely fake— they have the power to take over your personality completely and you become a mushroom. In short, I want to say that Lenin was a mushroom."
For the next hour, Kuryokhin presented historic photographs and other documentary evidence to make his case. Neither he, nor the program's host, ever let on it was a joke.
"So people didn't know what to make of it, and many people believed it," Yurchak said.
Even the station managers didn't know it was a prank. Alexei Yurchak said this show is still talked about in Russia to this day.
It was also a political watershed.
"It was really the last indication that the Soviet Union was imploding," Yurchak said, "that the whole ideological system and the system of truth of communism had no foundation behind it."
Because a little-known actor had reduced Lenin – the Soviet deity – to a joke. Not in the kitchen, but on state television.
Alexei Yurchak, who is now a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and the award-winning author of "Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation," illustrates the ways humor helped undermine the communist system.
"The Lenin Mushroom hoax was an example of a whole genre of irony which developed in the late Soviet period, in the 1970s and 80s. We call that genre 'stiob'. It's directed at some person or statement, but it imitates it."
It's a lot like the Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart brand of humor, Yurchak said.
Another type of humor that was even more prevalent during the Brezhnev era was Soviet jokes, or "anekdoty."
Man on Red Square shouts, 'Brezhnev is an idiot!' He gets sentenced to 15 years: five years for insulting the Soviet leader, and 10 years for betraying a state secret.
Yurchak said, "You couldn't go through life on a daily basis without hearing constant jokes everywhere."
Brezhnev rehearses his speech for the opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980:
"Oooooohhhh.. Ooooooohhh.. Ooooooooohhhh.. Oooooooooohhh. Ooooooohhh.."
His assistant said, Comrade Brezhnev, these are the Olympic circles! You don't have to read them!
Yurchak said people would gather in the hallways at work, during cigarette breaks at the university, even on the playground, and start telling jokes.
"We even had this slang expression in Russian, 'traveet,' which meant reel out, so people would just take turns one after another telling those jokes, and it could take an hour. That ritual was really pleasant and everyone loved it."
Armenian Radio jokes were a perennial favorite:
This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: What shall we do if suddenly we feel a desire to work?" We're answering: "Just rest for a while on a sofa. It will pass.
This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: Why is our government not in a hurry to land men on the moon? We're answering: What if they refuse to return?
There were even jokes about Chernobyl.
A grandson asks his grandfather: "Grandpa, is it true that in 1986 there was an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant?" "Yes, there was," answered the Grandpa, and patted the grandson's head. "Grandpa, is it true that it had absolutely no consequences?" "Yes, absolutely," answered the Grandpa, and patted the grandson's second head.
President Ronald Reagan was also big fan of anekdoty.
"I've been collecting stories that are told in the Soviet Union, by their people, among themselves, which reveals they've got a great sense of humor, but they also have a pretty cynical attitude toward their system," Reagan said.
A member of Reagan's staff collected some 15,000 of them, which the president used to spice up his speeches.
"It's very easy to make a claim that these jokes really show that the people were resisting the party," Yurchak said, "and it's a very triumphalist point of view."
But Yurchak said anekdoty weren't just a form of political dissent. Soviet citizens were also laughing at themselves because everyone had to participate in the system, whether they believed in it or not.
"During the Brezhnev period, life became really quite absurd in many ways, and people were involved in reproducing that absurdity in many ways, and making it meaningful, making it livable. So the jokes were a way of dealing with it."
Still, Yurchak said, Soviet anekdoty unwittingly set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"They really emptied out the system from inside." He said they didn't do it by resisting it directly, but by constantly drawing attention to the huge, and sometimes hilarious, disconnect between the official rhetoric and reality.
This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: When the final phase of socialism, namely communism, is built, will there still be thefts and pilfering? We're answering: No, because everything will be already pilfered during socialism.
Soviet Anekdoty disappeared when the Soviet Union did.
But guess what? Russians have rediscovered the power of humor.
Citizens in several cities recently got around the Kremlin's ban on unsanctioned public gatherings by staging toy protests – with legos and teddy bears holding tiny signs like "I'm for clean elections."
Authorities responded by banning this form of protest, saying "toys are not citizens of Russia."
And another joke, this one from Russia today:
The Chairman of the Election Commission comes to Putin after the election: I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?
The bad news.
Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, got 75% of the votes.
Holy crap! — cried Putin. What's the good news?
You got 76%.
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