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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Sunday Cultural Supplement: Dark Humor Returns in Neo-Soviet Russia

Paul Goble reports:

A rising tide of black humor spreading from Russian websites to that country’s mass media, a wave that is frightening many parents and politicians there, underscores that all is not well with Russian society, according to a leading Moscow specialist on the media. In an article posted online last week, Marine Voskanyan, chief editor of the information technology site CRN/RE, argues that this growth of cynical and nihilistic humor suggests that for most Russians, “none of the ideological alternatives on offer in politics, culture, or social life [is] convincing or morally justified.” Instead, she continues, the rise of black humor in Russia today suggests just as its earlier rise in other countries at times past that for an increasing number of people there, “everything around them appears to be completely false” and unworthy of their support.

And while black humor has always existed in every society, its dramatic rise in the Russian Federation now and in some other countries as well represents an understandable if not entirely happy “reaction to the absurdity and cruelty of the contemporary world in which much that used to be unacceptable is now seen as normal.” By making fun of this, she continues, individuals and groups win “a kind of victory over the absurdity of existence, however illusory such a triumph may be.” But when such humor dominates the situation, it should set off alarm bells because “the destruction of any social system or ideology begins when people start to laugh at it.” The power of such laughter, of course, is well know to public relations specialists and political tacticians. If you can make people to laugh at your opponent, she notes, “you have seriously weakened his position.” But when people are engaging in black humor about the system as a whole, that can be more serious, she continues. In such cases, black humor become more often than not a means of compensating for the lack of freedom, the lack of choices, and the inability of having an impact on life that many people feel especially in times of stress. And the more people feel that way, she says, the more likely they are to tell this kind of joke. In order to bolster her argument, Voskanyan draws attention to what makes black humor to work as well as to new research carried out in Moscow concerning how Russians have employed such jokes in reaction to terrorist attacks and disasters both natural and man-made.

According to the Moscow media specialist, black humor generally works only if there is a certain temporal or territorial distance from the events that are its nominal subject. Thus, in the 1970s, jokes about fascist concentration camps were relatively common in the USSR, because for many, the war had become something distant. But now, no one she knows tells such jokes because, she says, unfortunately in the cities of today’s Russia, “the chance of falling victim to skinhead Nazis wearing SS regalia is not equal to zero.” Consequently, telling jokes there about Nazi concentration camps could in fact prove dangerous. If black humor requires a certain distance to work, it may also help people distance themselves from the tragic and dangerous such as plane crashes, terrorist acts or wars, Voskanyan says, or alternatively to help them cope with any situation over which they have no control. Thus, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, many Russians told black jokes about the consequences of that conflict. One that Voskanyan cites, goes as follows: “Oh, Watson!” Sherlock Holmes says. “I see you’ve just come from Afghanistan.” “Yes,” Watson answers, “but how did you guess?” “Elementary, Watson! You’re in a casket.”
Voskanyan is not alone in focusing on this phenomenon.

A group of scholars at Moscow State University recently published research on the kind of jokes and anecdotes that have appeared on the .ru Net in the wake of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. In the week following the September 11th attacks on the United States, the investigators found, the number of ordinary anecdotes fell dramatically, but black humor jokes began to appear already that evening. Within 48 hours, their number peaked and then rapidly fell off, with traditional jokes returning. The Moscow State specialists concluded, in Voskanyan’s words, that “terrorist acts frighten people strongly but not for long, whereas for jokes about air catastrophes, potentially the audience is always ready, new tragedies only ‘enliven’ its fears and reaction to them.” Given that some people will always turn to black humor, protests against “the absurdist cruelty” of such jokes while perhaps understandable are in and of themselves “to a certain degree absurd,” Voskanyan suggests. But when such jokes overwhelm other kinds of humor, then there is real reason to worry. And she points to another problem as well. The rise of black humor in Russia threatens to push that country into precisely the same trap that Heinrich Boll has suggested his fellow Germans have long been in, one in which people tell jokes less to make fun of the great than “to deny greatness in anyone.”


Anonymous said...

If such reseaches have some meaning, such 'popularized' reports on them (in the way of Soviet propagandist genre 'Their Attitudes') are quite laughable themselves.

Anonymous said...

let's hear some of these jokes!