Behind poker faces

I first ran into the problem of explaining Russian humor to Americans while in graduate school. When I would tell family and friends that my master’s thesis was about laughter in Russian literature, they would laugh at me. Typically, in the American collective imagination, Russians are somber people, who live in cold places, dress in gray or brown, drink vodka in shots without mixers and rarely smile, much less laugh. I’ve found that much of this image is easy to dispel as an outdated Cold War stereotype. (Granted, Moscow has long winters. And Russians do drink a lot of vodka. In shots, even. But on the issue of clothes, at least…) Yet the idea of an innate Russian deficiency in the humor department seems to stick.

Perhaps this is an effect of the one Russian novel Americans may have read in school, the spectacularly unfunny Crime and Punishment. (In defense of Dostoevsky, Nabokov described his novels as “wastelands of literary platitudes” punctuated by “flashes of excellent humor.” Somehow, I missed the funny bits. The wastelands, too, actually.) The image problem is exacerbated by the Russian habit of maintaining a gloomy poker face in public and a tendency toward, let us say, a brusque manner of service.

The irony is that Russians are actually very funny people. They also have a great sense of humor. Being a specialist, I can write this in absolute, 100 percent seriousness. (In fact, I just attended a Princeton University conference on the topic of “Totalitarian Laughter.” No laughs there, though.) The same guy who sits frowning in the Moscow subway is likely an irrepressible gadfly and cutup when you get him alone for a drink.

Anyone who has anything to do with Russia has encountered the immense store of classic Soviet-era jokes that are retold to the present day:

A Red Commander addressing his troops: “Men, the Whites have been defeated and the victory of the Revolution is secure. In the past, man exploited man. Now, it will be the other way around.”

Indeed, communism and its absurdities produced some of the best jokes of all:

Will there be money under communism? Yugoslav revisionists say yes, while Chinese dogmatics insist there won’t be. We take a dialectic approach: There will be, but not for everyone.

In my informal poll of Americans who know Russia well, the most common characterization of Russian humor is “dark.” This response says as much about Americans as about Russians. Americans love to laugh, but they are extraordinarily careful about what they laugh about. Maybe it’s a deficit of irony. I suspect that the United States leads the world in serious scandals derived from overheard jokes. Or perhaps the problem is that Americans try so hard both to be happy and not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Hurt, however, is often at the crux of humor, as Russians seem to know best. A Russian proverb (loosely translated) runs: “Where a man feels pain, that’s what he’ll explain.” Russian humor is, most often, a self-deprecating and effective weapon against iniquity, injustice and pain, of which Russians have had extra helpings — especially in the last century or so. Which brings me to a last Russian joke:

A man is walking down the street with a spear through his chest. His friend runs up: “Wow! Does it hurt?” “Only when I laugh.”

Kevin M. F. Platt is an Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Graduate Chair of the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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