The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Between August 1979 and December 1989, through the darkest years of the Ceauşescu tyranny in that benighted land of Romania, an engineer spent his time collecting and annotating jokes. His analysis, Ten Years of Black Humour in Romania, published after the fall of Communism, is one of the most significant social studies performed behind the Iron Curtain, and provides intimate details of the creation of humour, its propagation, its coverage, and the official response to it.

One usually associates an inflexible outlook towards humour with totalitarian regimes: after all, no amount of self-importance can withstand ridicule, and one thing the denizens under Communism did well was to mock their masters. Western sociologists made much of this passive-aggressive resistance to Communism, and attributed its fall to the courage of the humourists. This is a thesis fraught with problems, and the book Hammer and Tickle by Ben Lewis exhaustively covers it. The story of Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, the engineer-turned-sociologist, appears in the book, and provides for those of us  who enjoy cross-disciplinary approaches to human questions an excellent case study.

What Stefanescu did may appear suicidal to those of us who lived more or less free lives outside Communism: he took notes in public of every joke he heard, where and when he heard it, who uttered it (socioeconomic class and age). Working in Bucharest's public transport administration, he was able to travel widely, eavesdropping on conversations in Party conferences and at work and in the city, fishing out his notebook at the slightest pretext. Many times he only heard parts of the joke, and he had to reconstruct its build up or punch-line; he tried hard to maintain the tone of the narrator. He estimated that he heard a new joke every 4.71 days across his horizon of observation. In his book, he provided more than 950 jokes, catalogued by themes - the Party, the standard of living, the secret service, culture, industry, the opposition...Most jokes would survive only a few days. Some of them were truly extraordinary, he said, and he could not allow them to fade away. More importantly, he said, he wanted to be able to face his children who might one day ask him what he did during the dark days of Communism. He could justify himself if they were to demand of him why he didn't protest and take to the streets against the dictatorship. The book became his outcry.

Jokes editorialised every facet of life in Romania. Fuel price hikes? Visits by foreign dignitaries? Abortion banned? Food shortages? In just one year, the number of new jokes jumped four-fold, many caused by state sponsored propaganda that Romanians required fewer calories than other peoples, which led to the terrible food rationalisation programmes of the early 1980s.

Most jokes were told by the intelligentsia (67% of the jokes) aged between 30 and 40 (54% of jokes). Usually a joke was created and set free almost immediately after news of a particular sort reached the teller. Stefanescu was able to plot the propagation of jokes over time and determine their speed. He was able to show that the importance of themes changed over time, and the corresponding jokes themselves changed in their intensity and tenor. In the early 80s, most jokes were about the standard of living; Ceauşescu jokes remained pretty much constant in their rate of creation. Between 1986 and 1989, the population felt a change in the air, that things could possibly be improving, and the Ceauşescu jokes leapt in number, and the opposition became correspondingly important. Ben Lewis uses this fact to convince himself that Communist jokes were not the last resort of a cowed population, a distraction from the struggle. Instead, the jokes were quantitatively and qualitatively intensifying as the people's struggle grew: they were inspired and generated as part of the struggle. As Stefanescu's table shows (below), the themes important to the struggle became dominant, while others, less important, began to ease off as the glorious year of freedom, 1989, approached.

To conclude, here are some examples of Romanian humour.

Did you hear that since the spring living standards in Romania have doubled? Before we were cold and hungry - now we're only hungry.

Romanians who did not die from cold during the past winter and those who didn't die of starvation during the past summer are to be hanged soon on suspicion of membership in the Resistance movement.

What will the Palace of the People (a grandiose monstrosity built under Ceauşescu while the population starved) be called when its finished? A Mausoleum.

Photographs of Ceauşescus used to appear on the cover of every Romanian publication. This prompted: Why are there no pornographic magazines in Romania? Because the first page would be too horrible.

And lastly: Did you know why Romania will survive the end of the world? Because it is fifty years behind everyone else.

79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 Total %
Standard of Living 18 16 44 25 28 28 33 18 36 21 25 292 30.42
Ceauşescu 14 13 7 10 7 9 8 16 14 14 15 127 13.23
Opposition 10 8 7 8 4 4 8 9 17 20 22 117 12.92
Industry 8 6 8 1 7 5 2 7 11 13 15 83 8.65
Human Rights 9 15 6 8 4 6 12 4 7 4 5 80 8.33
Marxist Crit. 5 6 6 4 4 3 3 6 7 8 6 58 6.04
Culture 10 5 7 3 3 2 4 5 6 6 4 55 5.73
Secret Police 1 3 4 4 2 3 5 8 7 7 3 47 4.9
The Party 7 5 6 4 2 2 1 1 5 4 3 40 4.17
Economy 5 1 3 3 2 2 2 1 2 0 1 22 2.29
Foreign Policy 1 1 1 2 2 2 1 2 4 2 3 21 2.19
Agriculture 1 0 1 3 3 0 0 2 2 6 0 18 1.87
Stefanescu's table of Romanian Communist jokes divided according to year and theme.


Szerelem said...

what a great post! I'd like to get my hands on the book

Fëanor said...

Thanks, Szerelem. You should ask your Romanian pal what she thinks of this, or if she's heard of Stefanescu, no?

Anonymous said...

great find - I briefly studied there in Bucharest during those times (1.5 years) - but trust you to be the one to come across such splendid pieces. I wish I could connect with those classmates who were mostly fun even if outwardly loyal shouting 'placere Ceauseascu' (long live Ceaceascu).

Anonymous said...

..know nay Romanians?

Fëanor said...

Guru: I used to know one Romanian chap, but not in touch any longer. I'd like to discuss this with others originally from behind the Iron Curtain but where are they all now? Laughing all the way to the bank, no doubt, and forgotten the dismal years. :-)

Unknown said...

How does one get hold of this book? Diligently looked up Westminster library system last week but couldn't find it there.

Anonymous said...

wow. i'm studying in romania's changed beyond recognition since communist times, as far as i was great to hear from other indians who were here during that era. great post, multumesc frumos!

Fëanor said...

Veena: you can borrow the one I've got (from the City library system). Let me know when you want to pick it up.

Sheetal: thanks for stopping by, and hope you're enjoying yourself in Romania. I've never been there myself. Fun place to be?

Anonymous said...

fun if you like your history hot, i's everywhere. progress is probably on par with jodhpur, ahmedabad, trivandrum and cities like that, but it's picking up fast with the introduction of a new currency and entry into the european union and all that, especially in the bigger cities. communism is still a very very touchy topic, and there are gypsies everywhere who haven't changed a bit in the last 400 years and speak a language very similar to has its fun parts, i guess!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post (found it through Desipundit).
My husband had a barber who was Romanian - an elderly man, he was full of tales of the "good old days" under Ceaucescu, and was forever bemoaning the fall of communism there and the attendant loss of orderliness and predictability. I guess one's youth is always remembered through rose-tinted glasses!

Fëanor said...

Kamini: glad you liked the post. In my experience, the collapse of the various economies after Communism resulted in grave hardship for the commoners. So can't blame them too much for dreaming of the old days, when many were guaranteed housing and jobs, no matter of what shoddy quality.

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