23 Mar 2015
This is a comparative study of socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania that looks beyond the texts of the particular jokes in an endeavor of identifying not only joking patterns but also the way jokes are connected to the social, political and economic realities of their time. Central to my analysis are the different types of targets that political jokes aim toward during three distinct periods, namely the first decades of communist rule, the last decade of socialism and the post-socialist period.
The analysis shows a strong connection between the jokes and the social, political and economic realities of their time. Although they are funny stories, political jokes discuss very serious issues and their analysis represents a quite reliable picture of the way people felt and thought about political events and people that negatively impacted their lives.
While in socialist political jokes people made fun of the whole political system and contested its legitimacy, post-socialist political jokes have not contested the values of democracy and have targeted mainly political leaders whose authority people have questioned. Moreover, while socialist political jokes could have also non-political topics like sex and money, post-socialist political jokes represent just one type of topic jokes and not even the most appreciated one. There seems that, the more aspects of the society are politicised, the more creative are the political jokes.
Although the characters and the settings of the post-socialist political jokes change more often than those of the socialist political jokes, the targets of the political jokes of these periods are more continuous and focus on enduring political issues that affect people's life like corruption, repression of freedoms and liberties, etc. It is not prominent leaders and events that generate political jokes, but rather those leaders and events that negatively impact people's lives and create social tensions and frustrations.
Generally, this research shows that political jokes, although reduced in number, have not lost their appeal, and remain a means through which people discuss social changes and the way their lives are affected by these changes.
During socialism, a large amount of political jokes was produced and circulated in Eastern Europe in a manner that seems to have been unique. While political leaders and institutions have been targets of political jokes throughout history in all societies, the jokes o socialism made fun of an entire political, social and economic system.
Although publications and shows of humour existed during socialism, they were strictly controlled by the state and party apparatus and supported the official narrative. At the same time, the jokes studied here were produced and told by the ordinary people.
Political jokes were important for the people, who risked their liberty when sharing them, as well as for the authorities who chased the people who told and listened to them. Hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for telling political jokes throughout the Socialist Bloc. There seems that the socialist leaders feared the power of the political jokes.
But socialist political jokes are even more important for another reason. They represented a counter-culture, an alternative to the official narrative of the socialist state. Jokes, and especially political jokes, can reveal the tensions in a society (Davies, 2010) and uncover a lot more to interested observer than any official data (Banc and Dundes, 1986; Cochran, 1989; Adams, 2005). Jokes can tell as much about humour as they can tell about the historical realities of the societies within which they circulate. Socialist political jokes exposed the failures of the socialist system and its lack of legitimacy better that many Western scholars' theories (Davies, 2010). Their large number was a product of the extensiveness of political control (Davies, 2007) and the change of the political control has changed the extent of the post-socialist political jokes. Moreover, post-socialist political jokes seem to remain a good indicator of the continuities and discontinuities of the socialist values and institutions (Adams, 2005; Laineste, 2008; Davies, 2009a).
While internal political police and Western intelligence services used to collect socialist political jokes to gather information about people's real views of the socialist regimes, scientific research of socialist political jokes was mainly limited to collections or focused on the jokes from the Soviet Union. Moreover, even fewer studies have been done about the post-socialist political jokes and no such study focused on Romania despite the fact that "Making fun of trouble" is a key expression that most Romanians use to describe themselves (Stan, 2011).
In the context outlined above, this thesis endeavours to answer the following research question:
Although the study of humour is an interdisciplinary enterprise, in order to answer the research question, a sociological perspective has been employed. From this perspective, political jokes represent a reflection of the social and political realities of their time. They emerge around points of social friction where a "dominant social discourse is already starting to give way to an emergent counter-discourse (Jenkins, 1992; 251).
This thesis looks at the socialist and post-socialist political jokes and analyzes them into their social context. Following the introduction, the first part of the thesis, Theoretical background, looks at previous research of political humour and jokes. After defining what jokes are, how they differ from other types of humour, the focus moves towards the theoretical approaches of political jokes with an emphasis of the sociological perspectives. The historical comparative approach to jokes and a brief account of the peculiarities of socialist and post-socialist political jokes provide then the basis for the next parts of the thesis.
The second part of the thesis, Political jokes in Romania, follows logically from the first and presents the research design that was implemented as well as the actual research of the socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania. It analyzes socialist and post-socialist jokes indicating their specific features and looking at the link between the social realities of these periods and the targets of political jokes.
The thesis ends with a series of conclusions drawn from the analysis in the previous chapter, and points out not only at the differences and similarities between the jokes of these periods, but also at the dependence of political jokes on the type of political regime and its social, political and economic realities. Moreover, the final part of the thesis provides also an outlook of possible further research.
Raskin (1985) defines a humour act as being an individual occurrence of a funny stimulus, which, more often than not, results in laughter. Although different people may not find the same things equally funny, humour and the reaction to it, laughter, are universal human traits (Raskin, 1985; Ziv, 1988).
Popular jokes represent only one form of humour that encompasses various other genres such as cabaret, revue, stand-up comedy, clowns, humorous talk shows, TV satire, sitcoms, cartoons, regular columns, tricks, masks (Kuipers, 2006). Unlike other genres and forms of humour, popular jokes are spontaneous and reflect ordinary people's views. They are not only among the few independent items of modern popular culture (Davies, 2004), but are also probably the most widespread genre, enjoyed by people all over the world (Kuipers, 2002).
The jokes performed in the mass-media tell us generally what the writers, entertainers, broadcasters and owners of media have decided that can be published, and their decisions may be influenced by censorship or self-censorship. On the other hand, the popular jokes are a product of ordinary people's imagination and are accurate indicators of their tastes and concerns (Davies, 2008). If one is interested in gaining an insight into the everyday life of two peoples, comparing their jokes is more revealing than comparing the writings of their most prominent humour writers.
A joke is a short funny story consisting of a setup and ending in a punch line (Martin, 2006). The setup includes the entire text except the last sentence, and is aimed, through an ordinary story or question, at creating in the listener a certain expectation regarding the way the situation is going to evolve. The punch line is actually the essence of the joke. It changes the meaning of the story created in the setup in an unexpected and playful way and generates an incongruity between the setup and punch line. Due to this combination of the setup and the punch line, the single text of a joke is compatible with two overlapping and opposed scripts (Raskin 1979).
Not all jokes have targets, but the jokes that are being discussed here are jokes with targets. Targets are the butt of a joke, on which the jokes attach mainly undesirable qualities. Political jokes could be targeted toward individuals and social groups whose social status is contested, toward institutions, policies and officially endorsed values and ideas, as well as toward entire political and social systems. Based on their target, there are two basic classes of political jokes: denigration jokes and exposure jokes (Raskin, 1985).
Because some political jokes tend to refer to particular events, people, slogans, etc. specific to a society or period of time, they could be unfunny for people that have not internalized the scripts to which the reference is made (Raskin, 1985). For example, the younger generations in Romania seem not to understand the jokes that circulated during socialism unless jokes are explained to them (Onut, 2006) because they lack understanding of the socialist realities.
Nevertheless, many political jokes are freely interchangeable and transmissible from one country to another and from one historical period to another. With slight variations, the following joke was collected in Romania in the late 1970s early 1980s (Banc and Dundes, 1986) and it was reported not only in other East European communist countries (Banc and Dundes, 1990), but also in Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, and Middle East (Oring, 2004). Moreover, its roots seem to be traced back to the work of a Persian poet in the 12th century (Omidsalar, 1987) or even in the 10/11th century in the Arab popular literature (Marzolph, 1998).
"A man is running down a Bucharest street. A friend stops him.
-Why are you running like this?
-Didn't you hear? They have decided to shoot all camels.
-But, for heaven's sake, you are not a camel.
-Yes, but these people shoot first, and then they realize you are not a camel."
Humour is an interdisciplinary subject that has been approached from different perspectives. Raskin (2008, 3) states that "there are no full-time humour researchers in the world", and research is done by scholars that approach this subject through the lenses of their own domain. A few of these perspectives are briefly discussed below although other disciplines have also shown interest in this topic.
Philosophers seem to have been the first to theoretically approach humour (Davies, 2009a). According to Thomas Hobbes, people feel superior to others when laughing at their weaknesses and misfortune. On the other hand, for Henry Bergson humour has a social control function because people tend to conform to the social rules of the community due to a fear of not being laughed at.
Social historians have looked at humour as part of their understanding of popular culture during different historical periods (Hart, 2007). For example, they have discussed about institutionalized opportunities for humour during the human history like the royal courts jesters and the societies of fools (Speier, 1998) or the carnivals as occasions when social hierarchy was disregarded and people could make fun of the authorities (Bakhtin, 1985; Wiese, 2010).
Linguists have extended their theories of syntactic analysis to humour research and constructed a methodology of analyzing the texts of short verbal jokes (Raskin, 1985; 2008). Moreover, they defined the one generalization that can be found in the entire literature of humour, namely that humour involves incongruity between the two or more scripts of the humorous text (Graeme 2004).
Sigmund Freud developed the first full-fledged theory of humour (Kuipers, 2008) and discussed the importance of social relationship in the analysis of humour. Nowadays, psychologists look at the perceptive and cognitive processes involved in humour in trying to describe, explain, predict and control humour behaviour (Ruch, 2008).
Anthropologists and folklorists have focused on identifying and explaining the variety of humour forms and expressions that occur across cultures and circumstances (Oring, 2008). They have been concerned with joking relations, ritual humour, jokes and joke cycles and the contexts of humour.
However, more recently, the main directions in the research of humour have been reduced to three: psychoanalytic, sociological and cognitive (Attardo 1994). In the context of this research, the sociological models have been considered in greater detail in order to create the theoretical framework within which the research has developed.
Humour is in essence a social phenomenon whose various forms of expression are shaped by social circumstances and shared in social interactions (Kuipers, 2008). It is also present throughout social conventions and cultural artefacts (Graeme, 2004). Nevertheless, sociology started to show interest in this social phenomenon only in the 1970s, when certain types of humour, especially that related to gender, ethnicity or political and social conflict, became problematic in the context created by the social and political developments of that period.
When talking about sociological approach to humour, a caveat needs to be made. Because social aspects of humour have been addressed by other scholarly disciplines too, sociologists have incorporated these views into their own understanding of the phenomenon. The three most prominent sociological theories of humour, with specific emphasis on political jokes, are addressed below in order to create the theoretical framework for the research of political jokes in Romania.
The functionalist approach analyzes the functions humour fulfils within a social group. From this perspective, humour contributes to the preservation of social order by allowing tension relief, social control and cohesion (Kuipers, 2004).
In line with the functionalist approach, political jokes tend to be considered a safety valve, a means to voice frustrations and aggressive emotions toward a political regime. Throughout history, jokes have been vents that enabled people to reduce their frustrations generated by social and political taboos, laws, and traditions (Speier, 1998).
Hillenbrand (1995) stated that political jokes provided Germans with a means of venting their grievances during the Nazi regime and had some therapeutic value for millions of people. Moreover, when analyzing socialist political jokes, Dundes (1987; 160) states that "The jokes provide a vent for emotions. Hypothetically, the more repressive the regime, the more jokes there will be about the regime."
However, not only it is difficult to measure the catharsis effect of jokes, but also recent studies have emphasized that the multiple functions humour fulfils could contribute not only to the preservation but also to the destruction of social order (Palmer, 1994). Additionally, the various forms of humour could not only have different functions, but these functions could also vary according to specific social settings. Moreover, the analysis of the jokes themselves cannot denote their effect because the emotions they produce depend on the context and the tone of the joke telling (Davies, 2008).
Thus, functionalism has not been used as an overall analysis framework since 1970s, although sociologists have used separate elements of it combined with content and context analysis (Kuipers, 2008).
Unlike functionalism, conflict theories regard humour as an expression of social conflict and consider mainly those potentially offensive forms of humour like ethnic, sexist, or political humour (Lockyer and Pickering 2005).
While some authors state that jokes are a weapon used for aggressive and defensive purposes (Speier, 1998), others (Orwell and Angus, 1969; Adams, 2005) argue that jokes are tiny revolutions able to change political conditions. Orwell (Orwell and Angus, 2000; 284) states that "A thing is funny when -- in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening -- it upsets the established order."
However, political jokes' relationship with protest is not a simple one (Davies, 2007) and, while they may support confrontation, political jokes could also have opposite effects in different contexts (Lockyer and Pickering, 2005). Besides, not all conflict situations are reflected in humour and not all humour is related to conflict situations (Davies (1990, 1993, and 2002).
Moreover, during history, political jokes have had no revolutionary effects and have produced no political or social changes (Oring, 2004; Davies, 2011) because they are weak forces. The high number of political jokes in socialist Eastern Europe did not result in the collapse of the regimes (Davies, 2011), and neither were the whispered jokes of the Nazi regime correlated to a protest movement (Merziger, 2007).
While they are messages of opposition, political jokes are also a tacit recognition of defeat (Cochran, 1989). Although many people were telling political jokes during the Nazi regime, only few actually engaged in active resistance to Hitler (Hillenbrand, 1995). Also, the political jokes that circulated in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi Protectorate suggest ambiguity and uncertainty rather than political resistance and did not affect the regime in any way (Bryant, 2006).
The historical-comparative approach to humour tries to comprehend the social role of humour through comparisons in time and place. Despite the fact that this approach does not have a central theoretical model, and comparative studies of humour have been done in various fields, most sociological work on humour done in the last two decades is captured by this relatively vague umbrella (Kuipers, 2008).
Jokes can only be properly studied through comparisons and in relation to the social context where they are told (Davies, 2008). From these comparisons, one can learn as much about humour as about the social entities that are being compared (Davies, 1990b, 2010 and 2011). At the same time, in comparative studies, it is difficult and dangerous to make deductions from the analysis of one joke and, thus, joke cycles, consisting of a sizeable number of jokes with a common theme, need to be considered (Davies, 2011).
Comparisons across cultures have shown that, despite cultural and local variations, people all over the world tend to break the rules of permitted forms of speech and joke about social taboos like sex, ethnicity and politics. Besides the incongruity of the joke scripts, it is the breaking of these social prohibitions that makes humour possible (Lockyer and Pickering, 2005).
"Jokes play with the forbidden. The fabric of the unmentionables is briefly revealed. Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ Jokes are a brief time off from the everyday inhibitions and restrictions that bind the ways we speak." (Davies, 2011; 3).
It is the relationship between the jokers and the targets of their jokes that is revealed through comparison, but for the comparative sociologists this relationship is not interpreted in terms of conflict but rather social status (Kuipers, 2008). Also, although people could use jokes under certain conditions to produce certain effects, most joke telling do not have purposes but are simply performances (Davies, 2008).
Although in some cases a related stereotype may exist, jokes cannot create stereotypes but most probably both, the jokes and the stereotypes, have a common root into particular social contexts (Davies, 2011). Moreover, jokes do not shape people's behaviour in the way other communication forms like rhetoric or lies do. Jokes are social thermometers (Davies, 2011) or indicators of social toxicity (Onut, 2006).
Within the comparative approach, political jokes are considered a way of speaking about things that are otherwise unspeakable. When free expression of political opinions is suppressed, political jokes emerge as a means of criticism of political leadership (Dundes, 1987; Shehata, 1992). Political jokes may also flourish in periods of significant social changes characterized by popular lack of adjustment (Draitser, 2001). Moreover, the more areas of the society are dominated by a political regime, the more political jokes exist, because everything tends to be controlled and politicized (Davies; 2009).
There seem to be differences between the targets of political jokes in democratic and authoritarian regimes (Rose, 2001). Thus, political jokes in democracies tend to focus on individual politicians' faults and peculiarities, whereas in authoritarian regimes jokes tend to focus on the whole political system and its representatives. While the first type of jokes does not question the legitimacy of the political system, the second does.
The longest, largest and most widespread and creative corpus of political jokes circulated in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe (Davies, 2007). They were so present that people in a trusting relationship used to greet each other with the formula "Have you heard the latest joke" (Yurchak, 1997).
Political jokes have been shared by the people as early as the 1920s in the Soviet Union (Fitzpatrick, 2000), and from the mid 1940s could be found throughout all its satellites in the region. Socialist political jokes thrived better during milder repression than during terror when people feared being arrested, and flourished with similar energy in the 1970s and 1980s in countries with very repressive regimes like Romania and in more relaxed countries like Poland (Davies, 2011), which contradicts the theories of political jokes as safety valves and weapons.
Political jokes were important for the people, who risked their liberty when sharing them, as well as for the authorities who chased those who told and listened to them. Stalin alone seems to have imprisoned about 200,000 people for telling political jokes (Lewis, 2006). Moreover, numerous dossiers of people arrested for telling jokes have been found in the archives of the Hungarian secret police too (Lewis, 2006). In 1980s, the Balkan desk of the American Central Intelligence Agency collected about 15,000 communist jokes.
Although official approved humour existed in Eastern Europe during socialism, it tended to be in line with the regime's narrative and did not touch the really important problems of the people. Official jokes tended to mock the little bureaucrats, shop keepers, etc., but never questioned the legitimacy of those powerful (Davies, 2009).
There have been political jokes in every political regime, but nowhere else they form such a consistent picture as under socialism where jokes about virtually any feature of life were jokes about socialism (Lewis, 2006). By knowing the jokes, one could know everything important during that period (Cochran, 1989), the values of the people who told them (Onut, 2006) and their political views (Davies, 1990).
Socialist political jokes were ridiculing not just the political leaders but the entire social and political system as well as its ideology, rituals and myths (Davies, 2008, 2009b, 2011). Jokes about the stupidity of political leaders were not only about them but about the stupidity of the entire system. Jokes about any facet of life and society, like sex, mothers-in-law, bureaucrats or ethnicity, were jokes about the socialism. These jokes could start with scripts that had nothing to do with politics and have the punch line scripts portray absurdities of socialism (Davies, 2009). Thus, jokes with different targets tended to cohere thematically (Cochran, 1989) and to aggregate into a single genre of political jokes (Davies, 2011).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christie Davies (1990) stated that because people in Eastern Europe gained their freedom of speech, political jokes as those told during socialism tended to vanish. He predicted that, while people continue to struggle for freedom, there would be little need for jokes. At the same time, if political jokes surfaced again, this could be a sign of failure.
While some studies of socialist jokes have been done during the last 20 years, there is limited research on post-socialist political jokes. The scope of current studies on jokes tends to be wider encompassing different types of jokes that circulate in post-socialist countries. Moreover, research tends to be restricted to those countries that gained their freedom of speech and made considerable developments toward democracy. Except Russia, and the Baltic States, there is virtually no research regarding the post-socialist political jokes in the other members of the former Soviet Union.
The different ways East European countries have transformed in the last two decades seems to be reflected by the post-socialist jokes. Success in transition toward democracy has been reflected in a reduced number of political jokes as well as a change in their targets from the overall political system towards political leaders (Laineste, 2009; Brzozowska, 2009)
Davies (2009) suggests that in post-socialist countries where freedom of expression persists or is re-imposed, political jokes thrive. The old socialist jokes may inspire new ones or could be re-cycled, especially where the new oligarchy's members were already powerful during socialism. Moreover, the way the consequences of socialism affect the post-socialist developments of Eastern European countries is reflected in post-socialist jokes. They seem to remain a good indicator of the continuities and discontinuities of the socialist values and institutions (Adams, 2005; Laineste, 2008; Davies, 2009a).
Draitser (2001) discusses a specific type of jokes that have circulated in Russia since the collapse of the socialist regime, namely the jokes about the New Russians, the nouveaux riches who became rich quickly through questionable methods in a period of lack of rule of law and tended to show off their wealth in an offensive way.
Another type of joke resulting from problems left over from socialism is the jokes that emerged in Germany after the re-unification and contrasts East Germans (Ossi) and West Germans (Wessi). While the Ossis are represented as gauche and useless, the Wessis are depicted as arrogant.
After the fall of socialism, not all events seem to be inspiring political jokes, but only those that are "attractive, prominent, short and simple, yet striking, pointing at typical shortcomings, "greater" than just one event" (Laineste, 2008; 58).
Following from the review of the previous research on political jokes discussed above, this part describes the design of the current research.
Targets of political jokes are the people, groups of people and specific situations that are the butt of jokes, to which the joke ascribe an undesirable quality.
In order to identify the targets of socialist and post-socialist, I used Raskin's (1985) typology of political jokes targets detailed below:
Denigrating a political figure
Incompetent and ignorant
Corrupt and immoral
Too humane, too soft, too liberal
Viewed in sexual terms
Being wished dead
Denigrating a political group or institution
Denigrating of a political idea or slogan
Exposure of national traits
Exposure of political expression
Exposure of shortages
Exposure of specific political situations
In direct connection with the targets of political jokes, another dependent variable is defined, namely the creativity of political jokes. Creativity of political jokes is defined as the difference between the topics of the two scripts of a political joke. Jokes whose first script describes a non-political topic while the punch line reveals a political one are considered more creative than jokes whose both scripts depict political topics or whose first script is political and the punch line is not.
This research looks at the dependent variables defined above during three separate periods of time: first decades of socialism, last decade of socialism and the period since the fall of the socialist regime in Romania.
Besides, for the post socialist period an independent variable has been employed, namely freedom of expression.
For the purpose of this research freedom of expression is defined as the freedom of press and is measured using the rating of Independent Media index of the Freedom House Nations in Transit index  .
H1. Socialist political jokes target the whole political order, while post-socialist political jokes target mainly the political leadership.
H2. Socialist political jokes had various topics, while post-socialist political jokes represent only one category of topic jokes.
H3. The targets of socialist political jokes had more continuity in time, while post-socialist political jokes change their targets more frequently.
H4. The political jokes of the first decades of socialism were less creative than those of the last period of socialism.
H5. The less freedom of expression, the more political jokes circulate (for the post-socialist jokes).
In order to verify my hypotheses and to answer the research question, both quantitative and qualitative analysis methods of the jokes have been employed. Firstly, I employed content analysis to identify the targets of socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania.
Secondly, using the typology of targets of political jokes described above, I used basic statistics to identify the relative focus of jokes on different types of targets. Finally, I analyzed the most relevant joke cycles with different targets within their political, social and economic context to determine whether or not and in what way there was a relation between the jokes and their context.
The jokes analyzed in this thesis came from three different sources, covering three different time periods:
Jokes that circulated in Romania between 1948 and 1975 and were collected by Banc and Dundes (1986).
Jokes that circulated in Romania between 1979 and 1989 and were collected by Stefanescu (1991).
Jokes that circulated in Romania in the 2000 and early 2010s and were collected by the author from internet.
Political joking seems to have been an important part of the Romanian popular culture for centuries with Pacala (The Trickster), a peasant who shows disrespect and makes fun of village's authorities, being probably the best known character (Popa, 1973; Alexe, 2011).
During socialism, political jokes seem to have been very popular in Romania, even more than in other members of the Socialist Bloc (Onut, 2006). A popular saying in Romania stated that "The Hungarians, they make revolutions. The Poles, they make strikes. The Romanians, they make jokes."(Cochran, 1989).
Marius Oprea, the author of "Banality of evil. A history of Security in documents" (Jurnalul National, 2004) said that those 400,000 informants of the Romanian secret police, Securitate, were launching and collecting political jokes. During the same period, Bula, a more modern fictitious hero of popular jokes, became popular and disappeared together with the fall of the socialist regime on whose existence depended (Volkan, 1995). However, although only a fictitious character, Bula was voted as the 59th among the greatest 100 Romanians of all times in a survey of more than 300,000 people in 2006  .
The first jokes that have been analyzed are 301 political jokes that circulated in Romanian between 1948 and 1975 (Banc and Dundes, 1986). Figure 1 shows the different targets of those political. Despite the fact that some of the jokes could be clearly linked with historical events and characters, it is not obvious when exactly they circulated during this almost 30-year period. However, it seems that virtually anything that had to do with communism/ socialism from its values and ideas to its institutions and their members as well as its leaders were the butt of people's jokes.
Figure 1 - Targets of political jokes between 1948 and 1975
Besides, an important feature of the political jokes that circulated in Romania during the first decades of communist rule is the fact that about 30 percent of them have their story happening in the Soviet Union or featuring Soviet leaders. The people were not only discussing the failure of Soviet communism, but also features of Russian culture and Russians' character, as well as the Soviet Union and Russians' attitudes toward Romania and Romanians.
"- What do the Soviet Union and the Garden of Eden have in common?
- On getting out of the Soviet Union, every couple is like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden: naked and knowing?"
These jokes reveal the important role played by the Soviet Union in the transformation of Romania in a communist country that was certainly identified and experienced by the ordinary people. Unlike in some other East European countries, in Romania, the role played by the Soviet Union and the Red Army in the establishment of the totalitarian communist regime was "absolutely central" especially through pressure of the government and violence against non-communist opposition (Gibianskii and Naimark, 2004).
People seem to have detested communism/ socialism and denigrated it in their jokes. While communist leaders and the Communist Party were the also the butt of political jokes, people tended to denigrate and make fun with predilection of the communist values, ideas and slogans presented in their doctrine, economy and propaganda (28 percent).
"At school a teacher questions Bula, a student.
- Which road to socialism is the best?
- The one which takes longest, comrade teacher."
"- Father, is it true that those who invented communism were scientists?
-Yes, son, it's true.
- Why, then, didn't they try it first on laboratory animals?"
These jokes denigrating communism/ socialism circulated in a certain political context that favoured their creation and reflected the political tensions of their period. Although in a very small number at the end of World War II and lacking popular support (Pop-Eleches and Tucker, 2009), in 1947 and early 1948, the communists succeeded to establish a Soviet-type totalitarian system in Romania (Deletant, 2004). A period of Stalinism and repression started and continued until 1965 when, for less than a decade until early 1970s, Romania experienced a period of relative reforms and limited social and political openness.
The jokes denigrating the Communist Party, its members and cadre as well as the socialist state institutions and bureaucracy represent 19 percent of the political jokes analyzed. People denigrated and laughed at the stupidity of communists and the futility of their regime's institutions.
"- Is it true that half of the members of the Central Committee are idiots?
- Wrong. Half of the members of the Central Committee are not idiots."
"- Hi, Ion, I've heard you got into the party.
Ion, startled, raises his foot and looks in alarm at his heel.
- What did you say I got into?"
While the attribution of stupidity to political leadership in political jokes is not something out of ordinary, common even to political jokes in democracies, the political jokes analyzed here seem to describe a deeper social reality. Before the war, Romania had and elite class composed of intellectuals, civil servants and professionals that occupied important political positions and were able to exert significant influence within the power structures (Chirot, 1978). In comparison, the communist apparatchiks were not well educated and at the same time were very tough bureaucrats, characteristics well depicted in the political jokes.
Although not in a significant number, there are some jokes that discuss the way the Communist Party membership grew after the war. In funny statements people pointed out to a very serious reality.
"- What is the difference between a tomato and a member of the Communist Party?
- There isn't any. They both turn red after having been green first."
This joke has probably circulated during the first years of the communist rule in Romania and could be explained by the fact that a high number of the former members of the Romanian fascist movement, called the "green shirts", had been granted membership in the Communist Party immediately after the war because of their popular support (Deletant, 2004).
Communist leaders, Romanian and Soviet, were the target of 11 percent of all jokes analyzed. Of those, half were denigrating Soviet leaders, especially Stalin and Khrushchev.
When joking about Soviet Union leaders, Romanians were not pointing out to their personal physical features, but rather to their moral fibre and their lack of intellectual abilities and leadership qualities.
"Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin meet in heaven, and they start discussing their relative importance.
- I was the most important, says Churchill, since I was the master of the waters which God created at the beginning og the world.
- I was more important, says Roosevelt, since I was the master of the air (heaven) which existed before the waters.
- You're both wrong, says Stalin. According to the Creation, in the beginning there was chaos. And I was the master of chaos."
"Khrushchev once made a trip to England. Before going to Buckingham Palace to see the queen, he was told that protocol demanded that he kiss the queen's hand. This humiliation before the monarch was more than he as a communist chief of state could bear. Not knowing how to get out of this difficulty, he conjured up Lenin's ghost and asked for advice.
- Oh, stop making all that fuss about kissing a lady's hand, came Lenin's answer, you who for thirty years have done nothing but kiss Stalin's ass!"
Only one joke targets the communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, although was the General Secretary of the Romanian Workers' Party from 1947 until 1965, for most of the period analyzed here. The absence of jokes targeting Gheorghiu-Dej could also be explained by the fact that at the time of the collection of the jokes, in early 1980s, many of those jokes had been forgotten. However, this explanation does not really stand because many jokes targeting Stalin have been collected although Stalin died more than ten years before Gheorghiu-Dej. At the same time, a more plausible explanation could be the fact that the fear generated by the regime of repression that existed in Romania during Gheorghiu-Dej's rule inhibited joke telling, especially of those jokes targeting specifically the top leader.
There were more jokes targeting Nicolae Ceausescu and emphasizing his stupidity and lack of leadership skills.
"Ceausescu's speeches, like those of all communist heads of state, are long and boring. A friend once advised him that making his speeches shorter would increase the chances of getting their message across. Ceausescu took the advice and asked his secretary to prepare a twenty-minute speech for his next public appearance. Bu as he read it, he went on and on for a whole hour. After the meeting, Ceausescu scolded his secretary for not having obeyed his orders.
- But, comrade First Secretary, came the answer, the speech I wrote was for only twenty minutes, but as is customary, I handed you three copies."
However, not all the jokes featuring Ceausescu were denigrating him. Some seem to have had positive connotations, while others had an ambiguous script.
"Two friends talk over a drink in a restaurant.
- What do you think of Ceausescu?
- Not here, with so many people around.
- O.K., let's go outside.
In the street, the same question is asked.
- Are you crazy? In a crowded street where anybody could overhear us?
- Well, let's go to an empty park.
Finally, with nobody around, the man asks his friend again:
- Now tell me what you think of Ceausescu.
- Well, frankly, believe or not, I like him."
Out of the ordinary pattern of denigrating jokes that attach negative features to their target, these jokes with positive connotations could be understood only by putting them into their social and political context. Thus, the reforms that Ceausescu introduced after taking leadership in 1965 and especially his defiance of the Soviet Union following the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 seem to have been positive experiences for Romanians whose acceptance of Ceausescu's regime increased (Bachman, 1990).
Besides denigrating communism/ socialism, as an important characteristic of the political jokes of the first decades of communist rule in Romania, a significant number of jokes exposed a regime of terror and revealed an atmosphere of virtually omnipresent fear.
"During the Stalinist years.
Ilie is lying in bed, fast asleep. At four o'clock in the morning, a loud knock on his door wakes him up. He stares at the door, paralyzed with fear.
- It's all right, Ilie, shouts his neighbour, don't worry, it's only me. All I wanted to tell you is that your house is on fire."
This joke seems to indicate that a constant political terror was well implanted in people's minds. Every knock at the door in the middle of the night could mean a visit from the Securitate and an arrest. Compared to that, one's own house on fire appeared to be trivial.
Among the jokes exposing the repressive regime, some coagulate in a joke cycle discussing the system of informants of the internal security services and reflecting people's concerns with the virtual omnipresence of these informants and their actions.
"- Should we abolish the entire informer system?
- In principle, yes, but how would we deal with all the millions of unemployed?"
"Two Romanian policemen were standing on guard together. One asked the other:
- What do you think of our regime?
- The same as you.
- In that case, it is my duty to arrest you."
The social context of these jokes exposing a repressive regime has been created through the establishment by the communists, in 1948, of a new security police, the Securitate to ensure their maintenance in power by eliminating their opponents and ensuring compliance to their rule (Deletant, 2001). This marked the beginning of an era of terror under the leadership of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej Despite the fact that after the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Romania in 1958 the government in Bucharest started to distance itself from Moscow and to take a more nationalist stance, until the death of Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965 "terror embraced the whole Romanian society in a search for actual and potential opponents, and imparted to many throughout the population the sense that they were being haunted" (Deletant, 1999; x). There were more than 130 detention centres and prisons, including concentration and forced labour camps, where hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have been incarcerated (CPADCR, 2006). The fact that orders for the destruction of the old elite and the elimination of all possible sources of opposition were coming from Moscow rather than local communist elites (Chirot, 1978), at least in the first decade after 1948, could further explain why the Soviet Union and its leaders were so present in the Romanian political jokes as described before.
Opposition of any kind, the jokes suggest, was repressed by the regime. People could not even tell jokes because they were considered dangerous by the regime.
"- Do you know who built the left bank of the Danube Canal?
- The people who told this joke.
- And do you know who built the right bank?
- The people who listened to this joke and didn't report it."
This joke seem to have been created to reflect a tragic reality as most of the convictions for propaganda against the communist regime identified by Oprea (Jurnalul National, 2004) within the archives were based on accusations for political jokes.
The widespread shortages of nearly everything from basic foods to housing and access to basic services were another domain that affected people's everyday life, especially in the urban areas, and that were sanctioned by them through 16 percent of the jokes analyzed.
"A young girl, on the point of drowning, cries for help. A man jumps into the water and brings her safely to shore. The girl wants to show her gratitude.
- You have saved my life. You may ask of me anything you want.
- May I ask you for a night of yours?
- I didn't mean it that way, but I've promised, so now I have no choice. Granted.
He takes her to a restaurant, then to a theatre. They get out of the theatre towards midnight. They stroll down two blocks. The he stops near a small group of people forming a line.
- Now, since you promised, would you be so kind as to take a place in this line to get me tomorrow morning my potato ration for the coming winter. "
More evident than with the jokes presented before, this joke's first script has nothing to do with politics. It could make listeners think probably to a love affair. Yet, the punch line changes the script and makes the joke a political one.
Although the following joke may seem clear, talking to people who did not live in socialist Romania, I realized that its actual meaning may be misunderstood.
"- What do you think of Scanteia?
- It's an excellent newspaper.
- And Romania Libera?
- Very good, too.
- What about Lumea?
- Oh, this one isn't any good. Its paper is too thick. It clogs the toilet."
This joke's punch line is not a metaphor about the quality of the articles published in Lumea compared to the other two newspapers as one may be tempted to think. This joke actually exposes the shortage of toilet paper which people replaced with newspaper. Lumea used to be a magazine with a thicker paper and, obviously, not soft enough to replace toilet paper.
- If things go on like this in our socialist economy, we will all be reduced to begging.
- Who from?"
These jokes were produced in a context of very rapid industrialization that created great social problems. While the urban population increased to satisfy the industrialization demand, virtually no housing was built as the investment money went into the industry. At the same time, the food production remained at the pre-war levels until the 1960s (Chirot, 1978). With short interludes, this was a constant situation over the entire period analyzed with an improvement registered only in late 1960s.
Looking at Figure 1 with the different political jokes targets collected between 1948 and 1975 seems that people did not have much to complain about the lack of political and civil liberties and freedom of speech. This is not to say that people were happy with the situation of their rights and liberties, but it could be explained by the fact that more vital aspects of their lives, like their physical survival, were threatened by terror and shortages.
Overall, the political jokes that circulated between 1948 and 1975 were covering a wide range of social, political and economic realities of this period and targeted aspects that were relevant for ordinary people's everyday life. The political jokes were not reactions to significant political events, but responses to significant political facts that affected ordinary people's lives. It showed what mattered for them and how they felt and thought about these issues. Beside local aspects of socialism and local targets, the jokes were also oriented towards the Soviet Union and its leaders as well as other socialist countries and their leaders, although to a much lower extent. Political jokes of the first decades of socialism in Romania targeted the entire political system and, besides featuring different leaders, did not seem to vary much in their topics throughout the period. At the same time, it is worth mentioning the rather low creativity of these jokes for which the two scripts were mainly political in nature, with only a small number of jokes having the first script featuring a non-political topic while the punch line bringing to light a political issue.
Stefanescu (1991) collected 803 political jokes that circulated in Romania between 1979 and 1989. From them, only 733 were included in this analysis, while the rest did not fit into the definition of jokes earlier presented and were rather riddles or slogans. Figure 2 depicts the evolution of the number of jokes collected throughout period and shows three peaks in 1981, 1985 and 1987 that would be discussed below in the context of the different joke cycles.
Figure 2 - Number of political jokes between 1979 and 1989
To allow for a better understanding of the socialist political jokes, Figure 3 shows a comparison of the different targets of the jokes that circulated between 1948 and 1975 and those of the jokes that circulated between 1979 and 1989, expressed in percentage from the total number of jokes of the specific period.
Figure 3 - Comparison of the targets of political jokes (%)
In several areas the differences are very significant and the analysis that follows aims at understanding where these differences come from.
The most significant difference is registered in the jokes exposing shortages that represent 35 percent of the total political jokes and seem to have been with 20 percent more numerous in the last decade of communism than in the first period analyzed. Moreover, Figure 4 shows two high and one relatively smaller increase in the number of jokes exposing shortages in 1981, 1985 and 1987.
Figure 4 - Evolution of political jokes' targets between 1979 and 1989
There were jokes about shortages of virtually any kind of product or service. People's jokes talked about the lack of food, clothing and basic consumers' goods.
"A woman comes into a shop and asks:
- Do you have panties?
- The seller answers kindly:
- Of course!
- Please, give me a pair, says happily the woman.
- Do you have a certificate, asks the seller?
- You know, we can only sell panties to women working on scaffoldings at heightÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ "
"Bula publishes an ad in the newspaper: I exchange toothpick used at one end with toilet paper used on one side."
"On Aug. 23 (socialist national holiday) indications have been given that people must parade naked, so that we can show the world that we have plenty of meat, milk and eggs."
These jokes reflected the exact situation of the Romanian economy and the way it affected the ordinary people. During the late 1970s, after decades of growth, the Romanian economy started to decline (Bahman, 1990). On top of this, a devastating earthquake, drought and higher world interest rates pushed Romania at the beginning of the 1980s into the situation of not being able to repay its foreign debt. Although he could have renegotiated the credit burden (Reinhart and Rogoff, 2009), Ceausescu insisted in repaying it only in a few years by 1990 (Jeffries, 1993). What followed was a series of austerity measures unparalleled in the history of the East European communism (Deletant, 2004) and the most drastic "ever seen in any country in peacetime" (Strategic Analysis, 1985). Food and other commodities rationing increased in 1981 and monthly personal rations were reduced continuously and reached in 1989, in some regions of the country, one kilo of sugar, one kilo of flour, 500 grams margarine and five eggs (Deletant, 2004). Besides, there were significant exports of food and agricultural products which further affected people lives (Verdery, 1996).
There were also jokes about shortages of electricity and transportation, while during winters, jokes about shortages of heating and hot water proliferated.
"It was decided that every citizen should donate 200 ml. of blood, which will be replaced with antifreeze liquid."
"Question: What is colder than cold water?
Answer: The warm water?"
"The latest tip to attract women:
Hey! I have warm water!"
To allow heavy industry to contribute to the export drive required by the foreign debt repayment, energy-saving measures were introduced, including petrol rations. Children were dying in hospitals because of unexpected power cuts. Two harsh winters in 1984 - 1985 and 1985 - 1986 aggravated even more the energy supply problems and even more restrictions on electricity and gas use were imposed on households (Jeffries, 1993), situation very well reflected by the political jokes as shown in Figure 4.
The queues for any product were a daily reality well reflected by people's jokes.
"- What is the queue?
- The queue is the alignment of the working class to the smart policy of the Party."
Due to the austerity, the Romanian television was reduced to only two hours of program during the work days and four hours during weekends, and it was a synonym of "Ceausescu's omnipresence" (Preda, 2009).
"During this period, the TV runs the series "Darkness".
Beside these jokes featuring different types of shortages, a new cycle of jokes appeared during this period and exposes the overall degradation of life conditions in Romania. In some of the jokes, Romania was also called Ceauswitz (a combination of Ceausescu and Auschwitz).
"What is the current existential question of the Romanians?
Is there life before death?"
"Why aren't Romanians afraid of hell?
Because they became used to it."
The percentage of jokes denigrating the political leadership seem to have increased with 13 percent from the previous period, thus reaching 24 percent of the total jokes that have been collected from the last decade of socialism in Romania. Moreover, while in the previous period Romanian leaders were the target of political jokes as much as the leaders of the Soviet Union, during the last decade of communism, the jokes denigrating political leadership featured almost entirely the Ceausescu family. Nicolae Ceausescu was the main target, although his wife Elena, his younger son Nicusor and their extended families were also targeted by people's jokes although in a much lower extent. In some of the jokes, people didn't have to name their target because it was easily deduced from the context. As shown in Figure 4, towards the end of 1980s, the number of jokes denigrating Ceausescu increased which could signify a decrease of its already limited acceptance among the population. People laughed at Ceausescu's incompetence, immorality, stupidity, inability to speak properly and eve his sexuality. Many jokes featured Ceausescu dead, or were wishes of people to see him dead.
"Question: Why porn magazines are not published in Romania?
Answer: For the first pages would be ridiculous."
To understand this joke one must be aware that in almost any publication in socialist Romania, Ceausescu or Ceausescu and his wife were presented on the first pages.
"What is the difference between Nicolae (Ceausescu) and Nicusor (his son)?
The first is a madman who was born from two drunks while the second is a drunk born from two madmen."
"The Pope received a visit of a group of Romanian believers who requested the sanctification of Ceausescu.
- Ok, but he does not fulfil the conditions!
- He does, Your Holiness! He was born stable, the cow whispers in his ear and 22 million of Romanians pray for his ascension to heaven."
The joke refers to Ceausescu's poor origins to hint at his lack of education, calls his wife a cow and emphasizes the fact that Romanians want to see him dead.
These jokes were created and circulated in a context where, step by step, Ceausescu and his family accumulated entire political power in their hands. When Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965, a triumvirate succeeded him with Ceausescu as the Communist Party's First Secretary, Chivu Stoica as the State Council President and Ion Gheorghe Maurer as the Premier. After rapidly eliminating Chivu Stoica, his main rival to the leadership of the party, Ceausescu began accumulating different leadership positions within the party and state, and by the end of 1960s he controlled the country's power structures and placed loyal people in key positions (Bachman, 1990). Moreover, he started to blend state and party positions and appointed loyal individuals in dual-hated positions. By mid 1970s Ceausescu placed members of his family, his wife, three brothers, a son and a brother-in-law in control of defence, internal affairs, planning, youth, science and technology and party cadre. He built a dynastic socialist system that "carried to an extreme the feudal-autocratic features of Stalinism" (Tismaneanu, 1989; 48), and where all powers were concentrated in his and his wife's hands. Nicusor, Ceausescu's son, was even nominated his heir to be.
This accumulation of power in the hands of Ceausescu's family was accompanied by a strengthening of the ideological rigor, marked especially by the continuous increase of Communist Party's presence in all the domains of social life (CPADCR, 2006). The domination of the party and Ceausescu family over the society was almost total and stronger than during the Stalinist period as well as the other socialist countries in Eastern Europe.
This domination was ensured through a series of organizations like the unique party, youth organizations, pioneers, unique labour union, and popular councils. The party membership considerably increased during Ceausescu's reign and, reported to the total population was double than the membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the role of the party activists increased too during this period.
In this context, beside Ceausescu and his family, anything related to the Communist Party, its members and activists, its congresses and hierarchy has been the target of political jokes. Although less than in the previous period, people continued to expressed their disapproval and dissatisfaction with the party and state institutions dominated by the party. The reduction of the percentage of jokes denigrating socialist institutions and groups compared to the previous period could be explained by the increase of jokes denigrating Ceausescu who, in people's view, became more relevant for their lives than the party itself.
"In our country, there are two categories of intellectuals: those who do not read anymore and those that are no longer party members."
"Since the party took over all the culture and entertainment institutions, the circus also changed its name. Now it is called "The Party and State Circus."
Getting closer to the fall of communism, there seem to have been less and less jokes about communists and this could be because a majority of the population was, in a way or another, associated with the party or the numerous organizations under party's control. The fact that during the first free elections in 1990, the National Salvation Front, actually a continuation of the Communist Party, gathered about 70 percent of the votes (Roper, 2005) could be an indication that people were not against communists but rather Ceausescu and Socialism.
Thus, jokes denigrating communism/ socialism were more numerous not only than jokes about communists, but also than jokes denigrating communism/ socialism during the previous period. During the last decade of socialism, all ideological and educational activities were officially directed toward the creation of the "new socialist man" (Verdery, 1996) and the building of the "multilaterally developed socialist society (Tismaneanu, 1989). This was Ceausescu's own version of socialism, and he maintained that, once these concepts would be fully implemented, they would be better in all aspects than a capitalist society (CPADCR, 2006). Yet, the road toward these goals appeared to be harder than he thought. People could see the huge gap between the official narrative and the social reality, were affected by the failures of these projects and sanctioned them and their promoter, Ceausescu.
"Why do we build socialism?
Because it is easier than working."
"When will the building of socialism finish?
Three-four more Chernobyls, and it is done."
"What is the name of the path followed by Romania towards the building of the multilateral developed socialist society?
The path toward the Third World."
"Is there any difference between a crocodile and a lizard?
None. Only that the lizard chose the socialist way of development."
The failures of several modernization projects were also exposed by the political jokes. For example, Ceausescu initiated a project to modernize the capital city Bucharest after the earthquake in 1977 (CPADCR, 2006), which transformed the capital into a permanent building site and this attracted him a series of names that denote the failure of his systematization projects. In jokes, Ceausescu was called "Daramaru"(the Destroyer), or Bucharest was called Ceausima (a combination of Ceausescu and Hiroshima). Other projects of Ceausescu's modernization like the nuclear power plant from Cernavoda, the Bucharest metro and the car Lastun have also been the targets of political jokes.
A significant red
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