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."

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