Monday, May 08, 2006

Have you heard the one about ... ?

What did Soviet strongman Josef Stalin and Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu have in common? They both loved a good joke! Well, not exactly, but Ben Lewis has written an enthralling essay on the role of political jokes behind the Iron Curtain. Besides the analysis of the role of jokes inside repressive political systems, some of the jokes are actually pretty good. My favorite thus far is this gem rumored to be told by Stalin himself:

"Stalin himself cracked [jokes], including this one about a visit from a Georgian delegation: They come, they talk to Stalin, and then they go, heading off down the Kremlin's corridors. Stalin starts looking for his pipe. He can't find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded head of his secret police. "Go after the delegation, and find out which one took my pipe," he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria--"Look, I've found my pipe." "It's too late," Beria says, "half the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."

Oh sure, today's politicians are handy with self-deprecation, but it's almost impossible to imagine the fear that must have seized anyone hearing Stalin joke about himself. Would you dare laugh? Would you dare stay silent? More than any joke,the paralyzing fear of someone unable to know how to react was exactly the sort of thing Stalin found hilarious.