The good-humoured Mr Brezhnev, 1970s

Soviet Jokes

Jokes are one of the swiftest ways into a society.  Each one is a little burst of illumination, for an outsider: revealing moods, attitudes, anxieties, the characteristic relationships of things, the way that public figures are understood, the solemnities that people greet with private raspberries and those they don’t, the location of the line between the forbidden and the permitted, the amount of give people think there is in that line. All of my jokes in Red Plenty come from Seth Benedict Graham’s excellent study A Cultural Analysis of the Russo-Soviet ‘Anekdot’ (2003), available online here.  Some date from the half-hopeful age of Khrushchev, who was a joker himself; some from the comfortably cynical age which followed under Brezhnev, who was himself a... General Secretary.

Khruschev is joking around with some collective-farm workers.

‘Hey, how’s life?’ he jokes.

‘Life’s great!’ they joke back.


Khrushchev is denouncing the cult of personality. 

‘Atrocious crimes took place under Comrade Stalin,’ he says.  ‘Many innocent people suffered.  There were terrible breaches of socialist legality.’

‘And where were you when this was going on?’ comes a voice from the back.

‘Who said that?’ snaps Khrushchev.  Dead silence.  You could hear a pin drop.

Khrushchev nods.  ‘That’s where I was,’ he says.


Q: What do you call a queue?

A: The socialist approach to a till.


Khrushchev asks a friend to look over the text of one of his speeches.  ‘I can’t deny, Nikita Sergeyevich, that I did find some errors.  “Up yours” should be two separate words, and “shit-ass” is hyphenated.’


Q: What do you call Khrushchev’s hairdo?

A: Harvest of 1963.


Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone.  ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says.  ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock.  But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’


A flying saucer swoops down over the earth and grabs a Russian, a German, and a Frenchman.  The aliens give all three abductees a pair of shining steel spheres, and lock them in tiny compartments aboard the spaceship.  They’ll release the one who can think of the most amazing thing to do with the spheres, they say.  The German juggles with his spheres: not bad.  But the Frenchmen juggles with them while standing on his head and singing a beautiful love song.  Surely he must be the winner – ‘but we’ll just check what the Russian can do’, say the aliens.  In a moment, they’re back.  ‘Sorry, but the Russian wins.’  ‘In God’s name, how?’ says the Frenchman.  ‘What else could he possibly have come up with?’  ‘Well,’ say the aliens in awe, ‘he broke one, and lost the other…’


Brezhnev is entering the third hour of his speech to the Party Congress, when the comrades from the organs of security suddenly swoop and arrest a group of American spies in the audience.  ‘Brilliant work!’ says Brezhnev.  ‘But how did you pick them out?’  ‘Well,’ say the KGB men modestly, ‘as you yourself have observed, Comrade General Secretary, the enemy never sleeps...’


Did you hear about the crocodile that ate Brezhnev?  Yes, the poor thing has been shitting medals for a fortnight.


Q: What do you call a question-mark?

A: An exclamation-mark in middle age.


German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, French President Giscard D’Estaing, and Brezhnev are showing off their favourite trinkets.  Schmidt shows off a snuff box with an inscription reading ‘To dear Helmut, from your loving wife.’  Giscard D’Estaing has a pipe that reads, ‘To dear Giscard, from a patriotic Frenchwoman.’  Brezhnev pulls out a gold cigarette box encrusted with diamonds, which says ‘To Count Uvarov from Grand Prince Sergei Aleksandrovich’.


Brezhnev is showing his mother how well he’s done.  He shows her his suite in the Kremlin, his dacha in the country, his Black Sea villa, his Zil limousine. 

‘All very nice, dear,’ she says.  ‘But what will you do if the Bolsheviks come back?’

Khrushchev’s hairdo.  The harvest of 1963 was on the thin side, too.