Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The New Russians' Jokelore: Genesis and Sociological Interpretations

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The New Russians' Jokelore: Genesis and Sociological Interpretations

Article excerpt

In his perceptive study of Soviet society, A. Akhiezer treats the widespread proliferation of political jokes, gossip, and rumors, which he nicknames "whisper," as a phenomenon worthy of sociological attention. (1) He rightly points out that these forms of social interaction not only serve as popular entertainment but also represent a noteworthy sociopolitical phenomenon that he terms popular "discomfort" with the existing system.

Whisper may take place in times of total suppression of free expression in a stable social system, or it could begin spreading at a period of popular maladjustment to dramatic social changes. From this vantage point, it is interesting to look at the phenomenon of current Russian "jokelore."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most conspicuous and popular kinds of jokes circulating in Russia have been jokes that about the New Russians. (2) The adjective "new" aims to differentiate them from the "old" Russians, as history witnessed them: Despite dramatic political and social change, the "Old Russians" sustained perception of themselves as a group--as a nonmaterialistic people, much more concerned with cultural and spiritual values than with profitmaking. The Soviet system of national wealth distribution, in which the vast majority of people were equally poor, fit with this self-image. The following joke from the post-Soviet period can be viewed as both self-deprecatory, from the point of view of the materialistic West, and self-congratulatory, from the Old Russians' vantage point, in that it shows their refusal to bend their beliefs and habits in the face of sweeping political and social changes:

   What's business Russian style?

   To steal a case of vodka, sell it off cheap on the streets, and drink up
   the money.

The New Russians are depicted as bulky men who look like weight lifters or wrestlers. In this respect current Russian humor continues the folkloric tradition of treating corpulence as a signifier of wealth. In many jokes, the New Russian is characterized as a "burly lad with a bull's neck" (detina s bych'ei sheei).

   A young lady says to a New Russian, "You know, I've seen you before
   somewhere ... I've got it: on a can of Spam." (3)

Although real "New Russians" tend to surround themselves with long-legged slim, attractive females, in jokelore the wives of these nuouveaux riches are also portrayed as heavy.

   A grossly fat wife of a New Russian asks a furniture salesman:

   "Are you sure that beds made by this company are truly reliable?"

   "Oh yes, lady, this is a very solid firm. They test every new model of
   their beds by borrowing a hippo from a zoo. However, in your case, I'd
   recommend proceeding with care." (4)

In jokelore, the New Russians are uniformly dressed in crimson jackets (sometimes they are called krasnopidzhachniki); they sport mirror sunglasses and heavy golden chains around their necks and carry cellular phones wherever they go, even, as one item has it, while scuba diving. (5) They have a peculiar way of keeping their fingers spread out like a fan (veerom). (6) With their limited and primitive vocabulary and the predictability of their reactions, they are presented as mechanical dolls filled with modern technology.

   Three New Russians get together. Suddenly something begins squeaking in one
   of the men's hands. He brings his pinkie to his eyes and studies it.

   "What's that?"

   "I have a micropager sewn in my finger."

   At this moment, something buzzes in the other's ear.

   "What's with you, brother?"

   "It's my internal radiotelephone turning itself on."

   After a short while, something begins rumbling in the third one's stomach.

   "What's with you?"

   The third one grabs his stomach: "Oh, my God, a fax is coming." (7)

The social origin of this type of satire is not quite clear. The New Russian is thought of as coming from the provinces (in one item, he's visiting his grandmother in a village), (8) but he himself is not aware of the simple facts of rural life:

   A New Russian visits a village for the first time in his life. … 
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