Let me tell you something very clear! Communism for those who actually experienced it is very different from the one you may read about in some articles or books. This story is about how humor was a way of opposing the communist regime. It’s written with the perspective of today’s adult, yet having in mind the memories of those days.
Opposing Communism with Humor
I was almost 15 years old when Ceausescu’s dictatorship ended. “Just a kid” some may think! True, but that kid did not forget either the suffering or the laughter. Today that kid has a true story to tell, so people will not forget.
During communism kids were expected to become responsible citizens and defenders of a communist system they couldn’t understand… A terrifying system that sent our grandfathers in prison and took them everything… the land, the houses, everything they ever owned; a system which sent them to the grave one way or they other; some lost their lives in prison or work camps because of the torture they had to go through; those who survived died on what you call “bad heart”. They died because they remained true to themselves no matter what, for not giving up their principles, for not betraying their families or friends. They died for freedom. That was their way of opposing communism…. Yet, Romanians also found a different way of opposing the system. Humor was their weapon.
“Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy.” Ben Lewis
Humor as an act of rebellion
Humor was a way of rebellion and survival at the same time; an escape of the mind and soul, a way of coping with all those absurd and restrictions imposed by a communist regime who did not care about its own people.
Humor was a way of standing up or fighting back, a form of active resistance against a criminal regime; at that time the political jokes served as a catalyzer of the constant state of discontent Romanians felt towards the things they did not agree or even hated… towards what was happening with our country.
It came with a price… in some cases, you could even go to jail, if the wrong person heard you saying a political joke. People went to prison. Their families had to endure all forms of oppression. Phones were tapped. People were constantly spied on. Despite all these, political jokes were part of our daily lives. I remember I was hearing or telling them during the breaks in the courtyard of the school, although our parents had us promise not to share them publicly as it was dangerous. I also remember my dad covering the fixed line phone with pillows, so he and his friends can talk about the things you were not supposed to.
To anyone living in Western countries, enjoying a decent good life, learning about the so-called socialism from the books, such a joke may not make them laugh. If you are one of them, it would be difficult to image that hot water was scheduled. Hot water would ran on our taps few hours per week; sometimes, not at all. For those who lived it, it’s very different.
The informational oxygen
I once read that the nature of Ceausescu’s dictatorship forced Romanian society to create it own zone of informational oxygen. It still feels a correct and truthful insight of those days. Rumors and political jokes built that zone we so much needed it. All these political jokes came anonymously and contemporaneously, from the mouth of ordinary people.
Communist jokes encompassed almost every aspect of our lives, from the queues of people waiting to get some milk, meat and bananas (only in December), to Ceausescu and his family, communists leaders, to all sorts of events.
As Ben Lewis so well pointed out,
“the rulers of Communism were wicked and they hated many things – the bourgeois, the liberals, imperialists, free elections, wealthy farmers and Capitalists, but there was one thing they hated more than anything else and that was Communist jokes”.
Despite of the communist propaganda, secret control state agencies, these political jokes could not be controlled. They were told by ordinary people, whether drivers, professors or engineers, but what drove them nuts was that even Communist Party members or protégées of the regime told them. Just by telling them, they all kept the laughter going and the rebellion spirit alive.
“Slowly but surely the jokes eroded the strength of the leaders of Communism. Then, one day, people had enough of joke-telling and they rose-up against their cruel rulers. Then leaders quickly admitted the jokers had been right all along and Communism ended”.
10 years & 950 Romanian communist jokes
In august 1979, Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, a former member of the Communist Party endowed with all the skills of a statistician, decided to keep a very personal kind of journal or better said an accurate inventory of the communist jokes Romanian were creating each day. As Stefanescu later confessed, his initiative was driven by a strong and personal motivation: “I started to perceive my collection of jokes as a way to justify myself in front of my children. I started to imagine my children asking me, ‘Dad, what did you do under Communism? Why didn’t you get out in the streets, why didn’t you do something?'”
After the fall of communism, Stefanescu published his collection of jokes in a book called “Ten Years of Black Humour in Romania.” What stands out it’s not the impressive number of jokes his collected, 950 to be very specific, but also the conclusions he reached by applying various complex statistical analysis:
- a new joke was added to his collection every 4.71 days;
- 81% of the joke-tellers were intellectuals, white-collar workers and bureaucrats;
- only 7% of the pensioners and 13% of those under the age 30 were telling jokes;
Just like a meticulous archeologist taking down as many details as possible about the relics found on a site, Stefanescu calculated the velocity of a communist joke, making a clear connection between a social or political event and the number of jokes appearing afterwards.
For Stefanescu, the quantity and and content of the jokes changed in significant ways as the Revolution (1989) approached; they became bitter and bitter. “What used to be grey was gradually becoming black”.
By calculating each year the number of jokes, theme, Stefanescu proved that jokes were not a form of avoiding the reality or a distraction from the struggle as communist supporters tried to suggest, but a real form of resistance and rebellion. As shown in the table below, as the forces of resistance gathered strength, the jokes increased in both terms of quantity and quality.
According to Lewis, in all communist countries where censorship and propaganda mechanism tried to control even what people thought, “a culture of the spoken joke would develop, a collective satirical work produced by the whole population”.
Conclusion on communism & humor
The state, the secret police and not even the various forms of oppression put upon Romanians could not stop them making jokes and laughing at the expense of communism. The system could not engineer how people laughed or what they laughed at. And I guess that type of attitude worked as well as for other communist countries.
If you would ask Romanians who actually lived here, for sure they would tell you that the best jokes they ever heard were during those bleak, sad and with nothing much to do outside work days. To see for yourself how that humor sounded like, I welcome you to read 21 Romanian Communist Jokes.