February 01, 2019

All Camels are to be Castrated

It's Friday evening. Time for some fun!

I've been writing a paper about the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and its informers. While the operations of the Soviet KGB undercover informer network were completely secret, and the identities of the informers were closely guarded, their presence in Soviet society was an open secret -- everyone knew they existed, they just didn't know who they were.

That's what I recall from personal experience, anyway. But personal experience isn't everything, so I wondered what evidence there might be to support what I remembered. I thought of jokes: if ordinary Soviet citizens didn't know about informers, how could there be jokes? I turned to the excellent compilation of 5,852 Soviet jokes by Misha Mel'nichenko (Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014). I quickly found a joke about inforners -- in fact, I found 39 jokes listed in the index, a number that I will use in my paper as evidence that knowledge of the existence of informers was widespread. For the weekend, here's joke no. 1617, somewhat abbreviated:

A husband decides to hold a party for his wife. He takes the guest list to the local security police and explains that, to avoid suspicion, he's happy to include the officer and any of his colleagues. The officer glances at the list and replies: "There's no need for that. You've already invited eight of our people."

You might wonder what's the truth in the joke. One point was a simple one: nobody knew whether some friend might be an informer. An objection to the joke might be that the officer's reply was unrepresentative: on average, the true density of informers in Soviet society was far below what the joke might be taken to imply. But, conditional on a person being already under investigation, the reply was actually quite realistic: once the KGB had you in its cross-hairs, it was no more than good practice to set several informants on you in order to cross-tally their reports. Anyway, it was still an important point that nobody knew and nobody could know.

More on this when I finish writing my paper.

For now, jokes about informers are to be found in a section of the book headed "The staff of the organs of state security." Inevitably, I've spent some time browsing. Here are some that I could understand and I think could work across the divides of space, time, language and culture. (This seems an appropriate moment, by the way, for me to offer a confession. Confession -- ha ha!! By their nature, jokes are informal. And my informal Russian is not that fluent. My Bolshevik Russian, in contrast, is excellent, and that's what you need to study the Soviet period. But what this means is that a lot of Russian jokes go straight over my head. As for translation, quite a number also rely on word plays that are funny in the original but can't work in English without laborious explanation.)

Soviet jokes came in many varieties. Here are a few, in a mix of free translation and paraphrase.

Nationalistic (#1595). "In France crimes are cleared in four weeks. In England, two weeks. But the Soviet Union has the best police in the world: every crime is cleared two weeks before it happens."

Philosophical (#1609, a rare case of a wordplay (бытие/битье) that translates directly). Marx's law that being determines consciousness, rendered for Soviet conditions: "Beating determines consciousness."

Harsh (#1612). Interrogator: "How old are you?" Prisoner: "I'll be fifty next month." Interrogator: "No, you won't."

Legalistic (#1602). Prosecutor's motto: "Give me the man, I'll find the law."

Anthropomorphic (#1603). Two hares run through a field and into each other. "Why are you rushing?" "Haven't you heard? They've announced that all camels are to be castrated!" "But you're not a camel." "Well, they catch you and castrate you and then you have to prove you're not a camel."

Downright nasty (#1644). Every Soviet organization had a personnel section the first task of which was to report to the KGB on the political loyalty of the workforce. A worker rushes into the chief's office. "The personnel officer has hanged himself in the warehouse!" "Have they cut him down?" "Not yet, he's still alive."

Not funny? You need to enter the frame of mind of a society where any of these would have given rise to a knowing smile and a shake of the head.

Enjoy the weekend.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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