English-Russian

One of the strangest stereotypes about Russians in the West is that they are humorless. I can't imagine where this comes from, since a more joke-loving nation is hard to imagine. Russians have a rich culture of humor, going way back to the skomorokhi (wandering bawdy minstrels) and the lubok (a folk drawing with comic texts and verse), through satirical writing, plays and then films in the pre- and post-Revolutionary periods, to the underground culture of jokes - anekdoty - in the Soviet era.

There are many kinds of jokes in Russian. Shutka is a joke in the sense of "I'm just kidding." Baika is a tall tale, purportedly true ("My best friend's brother told me this...). Prikol is a gag and also teen-talk for anything cool and funny. Zagadka is a riddle. Chastushka is a four-line comic rhyming ditty that is often quite bawdy. But the grandfather of all Russian jokes is the anekdot: a story - either short or long - with a punch line.

Although just about everything was and is fodder for anekdoty, the most biting jokes are about politics and politicians. In the Soviet era, these political jokes were whispered at work and savored around the dinner table, where a good joke teller (rasskazchik) could keep his friends and family laughing for hours. The jokes poked fun at leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev, and the injustices and absurdities of Soviet society. One old joke asked: What's the shortest joke in the world? The answer: Communism.

Today many people complain that without the edge of dissent and forbidden pleasure of the Soviet era, political anekdoty just aren't the same. Maybe so - but there are still some pretty good political jokes making the rounds (these days they come by email). Here's one on the disparity between rich and poor: "Putin's Reform Plan: Make people rich and happy. List of people attached."

I'm always astonished that jokes appear so quickly after an event. Who are the comic geniuses who dream them up overnight? Here's a joke that started making the rounds right after President Putin agreed to head the United Russia party ticket. It's based on the old saying that the poet Alexander Pushkin is nashe vse (our everything) and the great number of sculptures by Zurab Tsereteli in Moscow: "Now it's clear: Pushkin is our everything, Tsereteli is our everywhere, and Putin is our always."

Well, I think it's funny.

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