Stay Where You Are: Russia Will Come to You
An old joke has resurfaced in connection with Ukraine's Crimean crisis. I saw it first in a column by my co-author Paul Gregory:
You want to live in France? Go to France. You want to live in Britain? Go to Britain. You want to live in Russia? Stay where you are: Russia will come to you.
It's generally hard to work out when and where such jokes originated, but this one has real-life foundation.
Before the war Menachem Begin, who was later Israel's prime minister, was a Jewish activist in Poland. When Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in 1939 he fled to Lithuania, where Soviet troops arrived in 1940. With thousands of others, Begin was arrested. He was accused of being a British agent under Article 58 of the RSFSR (Russian republic) criminal code, which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. In a later memoir Begin recalled a prison conversation (Weiner and Rahi-Tamm 2012, p. 14):
When Begin inquired how article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code (counter revolutionary activity, treason, and diversion) could be applied to activities that were considered legal in then sovereign Poland, his interrogator did not hesitate: “Ah, you are a strange fellow [chudak], Menachem Wolfovich. Article 58 applies to everyone in the world. Do you hear? In the whole world. The only question is when he will get to us or we to him.”
This raises an interesting question: If the jokes are the same, is the system the same? In other words, is Putin's Russia the same as Stalin's Soviet Union? In most aspects of everyday life the answer is: Clearly not. In Russia today there is far more freedom of speech, assocation, and enterprise than there ever was in the Soviet Union. But there is also much less of these things than there should be. And there are disturbing continuities with the Soviet past in Putin's KGB background and loyalty, his nostalgia for the Soviet empire, and the identification of national power with his personal regime.
Directly linked to these things is continuity in Russia's menacing approach to its neighbours. The people of what was once eastern Poland (now western Ukraine and western Belarus), and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are being reminded today that they live in territories to which "Russia came" in 1939 and 1940. These occupations were followed by unanimous parliamentary votes and rigged referenda, the registration of the population and issuing of "passports" (ID cards), and mass arrests and deportations.
If we are returning to the past, one may hope for a new era of Russian jokes. Unfortunately, it may turn out that the best jokes have already been told.
Weiner, Amir, and Aigi Rahi-Tamm. 2012. Getting to Know You: The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939-1957. Kritika 3:1, pp. 5-45.