Humor and the Cold War: Ben Lewis' "Hammer and Tickle"


The use of satire and humor as forms of political critique is nothing new. In fact, they’re very much key means by which points are made right here in the Blogland, but they have a history that goes well beyond and before yours truly decided to curse the internet with his ramblings.

The book Satire TV, which was recently reviewed on this blogsite, followed the history of political satire on American television. Another good study of the use of political humor to critique and challenge political power can be found in “Hammer and Tickle: The story of Communism, a political system almost laughed out of existence”, by Ben Lewis, a writer for Prospect magazine in London.

Lewis’ book was based upon research conducted for a BBC documentary directed by Lewis in which he traveled the nations of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, studying how private citizens used humor to mock the communist system and challenge the power and competence of ruling Communist figures from the early days of the Soviet Union until the communism imploded in the late 1980s. In this book, he argues that Communism was "the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy".

If you’re like many Blogland readers who want to skip to the good stuff and move on to the next 3-4 paragraph blog article on the web, we’ll tell you this book was a great read. For those who want to learn a little more, keep reading.


Lewis’ study is broken into chapters which assess several different stages of the evolution of this form of humor, criminalized under Soviet rule as “anekdoty”: its birth under Lenin, its maturation and crackdowns by Stalin, its use to rally patriotic sentiment during WWII, how it was used in Soviet-occupied nations, the post-Stalin “Golden Age”, and its decline in the 1980s as communism entered its endgame stage. Lewis works to put the jokes in their historical context, helping readers understand how the joke-tellers were able to connect humor with action, by prompting official responses such as judicial action and even pushing Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, to undertake policy reforms to avoid continual public ridicule of the Soviet system of government.

The book presents numerous examples of jokes which Lewis gleaned from both published accounts and interviews with those who lived in those nations, during those times, including both private citizens who told and heard such jokes, as well public officials and even some with police organizations who were responsible for tracking and cracking down on such critical and unsanctioned humor. Here is a selection of a few of the many jokes presented in the book:

A teacher asks his class: “Who is your mother and who is your father?”
A pupil replies: “My mother is Russia and my father is Stalin.”
“Very good”, says the teacher. “And what would you like to be when you grow up?”
Student: “An orphan”.

In a joke that may be appreciated in South Carolina, an artist is commissioned by the Soviet leadership to paint a realist-style portrait of “Lenin in Poland”, with the joke concluding:

Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal a picture of a man in bed with a woman who looked like Lenin’s wife.
Brezhnev asked, horrified, “Who is that man?”
“That’s Trotsky,” said the artist.
“And who,” Brezhnev enquired, “is that woman?”
“That’s Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.”
“But where is Lenin?”
“He’s in Poland,” the artist explained.

And one more:

How is that Brezhnev became First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union?
According to the constitution of the Party, any member can hold the office.

Anekdoty also captured the attention of the West, which disseminated these jokes to forward their own political agenda of critiquing and challenging the Soviet Union. Lewis found numerous instances of this as early as 1949, when the New York Times began gathering and publishing jokes, as well as President Ronald Reagan, who directed his staff to collect these jokes for use in speeches and media appearances. Reagan even shared these jokes with Gorbachev, who occasionally corrected Reagan on those jokes which he’d gotten wrong.

The Cold War was a very serious time for much of humanity, and Lewis doesn’t attempt to take away from that or make light of the serious geopolitical issues of the time with his work. But by sharing the jokes and explaining the mindsets behind them, he shows how those subjected to communist rule were able to express their views of their leaders. By showing how leaders responded to these jokes, by cracking down, ignoring them, and eventually introducing policy reforms, he show the jokes became a form of popular resistance, vindicating George Orwell’s belief that “all jokes are a tiny revolution”.

We now know how the story ended: as popular resistance undermined the communist authorities, the oppressed masses staged revolutions of their own. Thus, the final joke of the communist era was upon the subjects of their humor.

Humor is one of the most commonly-used forms of human communication, and has long been used as a means by which it can challenge political power. Lewis’ book presents a deep and thoughtful look at informal political humor provided an avenue by which private citizens at the grassroots level could bypass officially-controlled media challenges and deliver humorous and insightful critiques of the integrity and competence of communist leaders in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. Those interested in seeing how others challenge power through humor should find Lewis’ book good reading.

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