Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow: A blast of humour from Cyberspace is the only way to start the day sane

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IN SAMOTECHNY Lane, as in many homes across the country, the day begins with a perusal of the latest the Internet has to offer. Still in our dressing gowns, coffee cups in our hands, we turn first not to the electronic pages of the Moscow and international press, but to the anecdote site to read the fresh Russian jokes.

Such as: "Three criminals are preparing to go to prison for life. The first decides to take a mouth organ with him. `Life's a long time. I'll become a first-class musician.' The second decides to take some paints and brushes. `Life's a long time. I'll become a great painter.' The third announces he will take a box of tampons. `What?' say the others. `Well, it says here on the packet that with these, you can go swimming, do skiing, play sports'."

This is one of a series of new jokes about the television commercials. To most Russians, the advertisements are worse than the Communist-era slogans about following the path of Lenin, because poor people cannot afford to buy any of the things that are promoted. Instant coffee, hair spray, yoghurt, all are beyond their means. Even the super-healthy yoghurt that is advertised with the catchphrase: "Not all yoghurts are equally good for you."

Here is another advert joke: "A man is weeping and laying flowers at his wife's grave. The inscription on the headstone reads, `Not all yoghurts are equally good for you'."

Humour it is that keeps us sane in this country that day after day produces such a disproportionate amount of grim news. Go into any office in Moscow and you will find a serious-looking bureaucrat, far too busy with what he is doing on the computer to help you. However, if you peek over his shoulder, you will probably find he has surfed no further than, the anecdote page, and he is having a quiet chuckle to himself while he makes you wait.

Despite the new patriotic mood connected with the war in Chechnya, you can find good jokes about the awfulness and absurdity of life in the Russian army. "A mental patient is sitting in the yard of a psychiatric hospital, slowly poking holes in the bottom of a metal bucket. Then he pours water in and watches it trickle through. `What the devil do you think you are doing?' demands the doctor. `I'm playing with my trickalator,' says the patient. `What nonsense,' says the doctor and throws the bucket over the hospital wall. On the other side is an army base. The bucket lands on the parade ground. `Private!' bawls the general. `At the double! Didn't you see? A brand new trickalator just landed over there'."

Not all Russians have personal computers and some rely on word of mouth to pass on the latest jokes. A retired KGB agent, one of a dozen former spies for whom I ghost-wrote a book, rings me regularly and keeps me supplied with hilarious jokes too filthy to print.

You would be surprised, however, at the number of Russian homes that lack basic comforts such as hot water all year round but which are connected to the world wide web. And you can be sure that the inhabitants will be not only reading the anecdote page but also contributing and voting for the best joke of the day, week, month and so on. Humour is a serious matter in Russia.