Eastern Europe: laughing all the way to economic meltdown

WHAT'S the difference between a Russian optimist, a Russian pessimist and a Russian realist? The optimist is learning German, the pessimist is learning Chinese and the realist is learning how to shoot a Kalashnikov.

As freedom and out-of-control market economics replace dictatorships in Russia and its east European neighbours, a new bitter- sweet humour has appeared. Instead of being about five-year-plans and shortages, jokes poke fun at rampant capitalism, organised crime and economic meltdown, with all its attendant social chaos.

Among Russia mafiosi, ostentation is the order of the day. Two of them are sitting in a bar, showing off their clothes. "How much did you pay for that tie?" asks one. "It's pure Italian silk. It cost me $300," his friend says proudly. "Is that all?" says the other. "You were ripped off, my friend. This cost me $800!"

The political systems may have changed, but wit remains a vital safety valve in turbulent times, according to Dr Laszlo Petrovics-Ofner, a psychologist in Budapest. "Humour is very important," he said. "It's a means for people to hit back at authority, especially when they feel that they are powerless with regard to all the momentous changes in society that they see around them."

George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about totalitarian regimes, referred to political jokes as "tiny revolutions", which helps to explain their long pedigree in the former Soviet bloc. Under communism, a system that did not allow for independent opinions, political jokes were often the only way to hit back at a succession of authoritarian, frightening regimes. For many they almost acted as the only substitute for participation in a democratic political system.

The more liberal Marxist regimes even tolerated anti-government jokes as a means of defusing social tension. Such as the following: a Polish housewife goes shopping in Warsaw's main department store. "I want to buy some caviar," she says to the shop assistant. "I'm sorry, Madam," says the assistant, "this is the department where they have no meat. The department with no caviar is over there." Policemen jokes were also always popular. Q: "Why do eastern European policeman go around in threes?" A: "One to read, one to write and one to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals."

Hungary is one of the region's economic success stories, but a third of the population lives on or below the poverty line, with an income of less than pounds 55 a month. "Rather than blow up a government building, they tell a joke to assuage their sense of powerlessness," said Dr Petrovics- Ofner.

One of the biggest issues is how to rescue the Russian economy. Boris Yeltsin's secretary tells him he has two visitors: the Pope and the head of the International Monetary Fund, who wishes to discuss Russia's debt crisis. "Who shall I show in first, Mr President?" she asks.

"The Pope," her boss replies. "I only have to kiss his hand."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there