By Donella Meadows
–September 18, 1986–
“What’s the latest joke?” I always ask when I arrive in East Europe.
That’s a way of asking, “What do you think of Chernobyl? Is Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol policy working? How are things, really, in your country?” Political questions make people edgy east of the Iron Curtain, and public opinion surveys do not exist. But if you want to know what people are thinking, you can always ask for jokes.
For example, here is one of Hungary’s favorite stories these days:
Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Janos Kadar (the leader of Hungary) all appear simultaneously at the pearly gates. Saint Peter tells them that they each will be granted one last wish before entering heaven.
Ronald Reagan says without hesitation, “I would like the Soviet Union to disappear from the face of the earth.” They look down, and sure enough, the USSR vanishes.
Gorbachev said, “Well, then, I would like the same to happen to the USA.” The United States disappears instantly.
Kadar looks down with a blissful smile. “Now that’s done, I guess all I need is one last cup of coffee!”
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl near the city of Kiev inspired some very black humor.
What’s the newest Russian X-ray machine? A citizen from Moscow walking in between two citizens from Kiev.
How do you make chicken Kiev? Well, first you heat the city to 400 degrees….
At the May Day parade in Kiev marching in the first row were all the Party activists. In the second row were all the labor union activists. In the third row were all the radioactivists.
During the confusing time when the western newspapers were claiming thousands of Chernobyl casualties while the Russians were insisting there had only been two deaths, the East Europeans were no more convinced by Pravda than were the people of the west:
The day after the Chernobyl accident a great crowd suddenly appeared asking Saint Peter for admission to heaven. “Where did you all come from?” he asked. “From Chernobyl,” they answered. Saint Peter pulled out his copy of Pravda and said, “I’m sorry, I see I am only authorized to admit two of you.”
The anti-alcohol policy is an irresistable target for jokes. Here’s one that includes another favorite target — the long lines one has to stand in to buy anything in Moscow.
One of Gorbachev’s alcohol-policy enforcers boarded a crowded bus in Moscow to check out how well the policy was working. The bus stopped right beside a liquor store and not a single person got out. “Wonderful! No drinkers on this bus,” the official thought. The bus went on three blocks and stopped again. The busdriver announced, “All out here for the end of the queue to the liquor store!”
A Hungarian told me this story about the difference between eastern and western levels of bureaucracy.
A Hungarian diplomat was stationed in the embassy in Washington for three years. During that time he saved money so he could buy an American car. Finally he walked into an automobile salesroom.
“I would like the papers to apply for permission to buy a car,” he said. “No papers are necessary. You don’t have to ask permission!” said the surprised salesman.
“No permission? Well, then, here are my income and savings records for the last three years, to prove that I have saved the money from my own earnings.”
“I don’t need those,” said the salesman. “I don’t care where you got the money.”
“You don’t?” said the Hungarian. “Well, OK, then I guess there’s nothing left to do but put in an order for the car.”
“What do you mean, order?” asked the salesman. “You can choose any car you want here and drive it away.”
Ten minutes later, as the Hungarian pulled out in his new car, he shook his head in disapproval, “These capitalists,” he muttered. “It’s a wonder they can keep track of anything in this anarchy!”
Women’s lib has been slow to come to the East Bloc. Nearly all women work there, many of them in positions of great reponsibility and low pay. At home women do virtually all the housework. Only recently is there a dawning resentment, followed by the first feminist jokes.
As a social experiment, two men and one woman from several different nations are left on isolated islands. After several months the investigators visit the islands to see what is happening.
On the first island, where three Spaniards have been left, the researchers discover only the woman, working in her garden. “Where are the men?” they ask. “They fought over me and killed each other,” the woman replies.
On the island where the French are, only one man is found, working peacefully in his garden. “Where are the other two?” “Oh, they’re in bed. This week it’s his turn, and next week it’s my turn.”
On the third island all three English people are found, two men and one woman, each working in a separate garden. “What has been going on here?” “Nothing much, really. We haven’t been introduced.”
The fourth island is where the Russians have been left. The investigator finds both men lying in the shade under a tree. “Where is the woman?” they ask. “Oh, you mean the masses? She’s out back working in the garden, of course.”
A lot of humor, a little bitterness, a twisting of the truth until it can be said out loud in a society where truthtelling can be a punishable offence. It takes a special kind of grace to make jokes at all. In the East it also takes a special kind of courage.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011