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Robert Cochran - Review of Anastasiya Astapova, Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State

Robert Cochran - Review of Anastasiya Astapova, Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State

Soviet-style apartment buildings

A more accurate title might offer “a Post-Soviet Authoritarian State” since Anastasiya Astapova’s study is firmly centered in Belarus. Her impressive fieldwork sample—“140 jokes in a variety of forms” (48) representing “sixty-seven Belarusian joke types” (51)—is presented within a detailed and clearly articulated account of the former SSR’s social and political context. Belarus, Astapova tells her readers, remains the “most Russified of all the Post-Soviet republics” (3), an opening general statement backed up by statistical references threaded through her narrative. Belarus is “the only country in the former Soviet Union that retained” (26) the KGB name for its security apparatus; in 2013 Belarus had 7.6 men per 1000 citizens in military service compared to Russia’s 7.2 (compared to Latvia’s 2.6); in 2010 “Belarus was the country with the highest alcohol consumption in the world” (61); 2.2 million Belarusians died in World War II, “the highest proportion of any Soviet republic” (95).

Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State is ably written, with only a few glitches in idiom. The author writes, “I restrain from using ‘dictatorship’ in the title” (8) when “refrain” would be expected; Foucault is said to have “loaned” (20) instead of “borrowed” the notion of the panopticon from the Bentham brothers; and “political metajokes” are described nonsensically as referencing “the culture of joking in fear in general” (74). There seems also to be a mislabeling error: “Out of the sixty-seven Belarusian joke types I recorded, at least fifty-three—the majority—have versions in other countries, as shown in table 2.1” (51). But then the “table,” printed six pages later, is in no way a table, but a brief listing of three regime types entirely lacking numbers and references to specific Belarusian joke types.

Astapova organizes her material into six chapters, four of them explicitly focused upon Alexander Lukashenko, the nation’s long-time (since 1994) ruler, while the other two center on omnipresent surveillance (“Why Does the Jelly Tremble: Surveillance Rumors and the Vernacular Panopticon”) and on the dangers of joking itself (“Joking About the Fear of Joking”). In each of these the discussion of the Belarusian jokes is enriched (thus justifying the more sweeping title) by including both Soviet versions going back to the Stalin era and later variants from other former Soviet bloc countries. The resulting analysis, richly textured and at times subtly nuanced, makes for engrossing reading. Of particular note is her acute awareness of positive elements in a genre often taken as wholly subversive and critical, her ear for the initially surprising appeal of propaganda “targeting the values of a nostalgic post-Soviet audience” (118).

At the other end of the spectrum is the no less interesting notice given to the most bitterly pessimistic jokes, where the joke for all its brevity emerges as a deft specimen of verbal art. More than thirty years ago I celebrated a Romanian “three dogs” tale as the saddest joke I encountered in my year there—a Polish dog, a Czech dog, and a Romanian dog meet to hash out plans for celebrating the New Year. “We could meet at my place,” says the Czech dog. “I have some meat, but we can’t bark.” “Maybe we should consider my place,” replies the Polish dog. I don’t have meat, but it’s ok to bark.” Then the Romanian dog speaks up. “I have two questions,” he says. “What’s meat? What’s barking?”

Plenty bleak, right? But now there’s at least a tie. Here’s Astapova on her “second most popular joke.” “So there is a war with the Germans. Everything is being burnt. The Germans hang a Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Belarusian. After some time, the occupation ends, and our soldiers come to rescue them. They see that the Russian died immediately, the Ukrainian suffered for a while and then died too. They take off the Belarusian and then see that he is alive even after three months of being hanged. They ask, ‘How is this possible?’ He replies, ‘At first, it was not very comfortable, but then I thought maybe it should be this way [a mozha tak i treba]’” (59-60).

There are some slack spaces in Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State—the pages devoted to belaboring questions of motive (why people tell political jokes despite the risks) and the role (generally judged to range between negligible and nonexistent) played by jokes in generating or fomenting actual revolutions seem lame by comparison with the jokes themselves and the rich contextual frame Astapova builds to aid in their comprehension. At their best the jokes, Romanian and Belarusian alike, are mordant gems of dystopian aphorism, and Astapova successfully delivers their dark heart to a wider public.


[Review length: 778 words • Review posted on January 20, 2024]