CRACKING JOKES BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

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Twenty years after communism's collapse, former members of the Soviet-bloc are celebrating. But that doesn't mean there aren't things Hungarians miss, writes a Budapest-based contributor to The Economist. Some feel nostalgia for the certainty of a one-party system, others for the jokes ...

From ECONOMIST.COM

It may take a glass or two of Unicum, Hungary’s bitter national digestif, but even the most ardent Magyar patriot will likely eventually admit that they miss one thing about life under communism: the jokes. Which is not to say that communism itself was funny, because it was not. But the ceaseless tension between rulers and ruled, the arbitrary decision-making and the fantastic claims of non-existent progress made for a rich harvest of humour.

Sometimes laughter was the only remedy for life in “Absurdistan”, as the Soviet bloc was often called. For George Orwell, political jokes were “tiny revolutions”. The fact that telling a joke might lead to arrest, and perhaps worse only added to the forbidden thrill. George Mikes, a Hungarian humour writer, claimed that the secret police actually invented jokes themselves, so as to better control popular sentiment. Some political jokes even reflected the ideological differences between communist regimes: Hungarian and Polish political leaders liked to collect jokes about themselves, where East Germans liked to collect the people who told them.

But few of the former Soviet bloc countries had better jokes than the Hungarians. After all, several of their national characteristics—quick intelligence, mordant wit and an eye for the main chance—are summarised in the now legendary humorous definition of a Hungarian: “Someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front”.

My two favourites are set in the time immediately after the 1956 revolution:

In the first, Comrade teacher announces the day’s lesson in School Number One, Budapest: Marxist criticism and self-criticism.

“Istvan, please stand up and tell us what Marxist criticism and self-criticism means,” she instructs.

The little boy stands up. “Comrade teacher, Marxist criticism is how we must view my parents, who joined the reactionary counter-revolutionary forces who sought to destroy our heroic workers’ and peasants’ state, and then fled to the imperialist, capitalist west, to continue their intrigues against the Socialist regime.”

“Excellent, Istvan. And what is your Marxist self-criticism?”

“I didn’t go with them.”

The second is set on May Day in Budapest, as the Hungarian armed forces parade past the communist leaders. There is an impressive array of tanks, missiles, armoured cars, and soldiers marching in their best uniforms.

The communist leaders stand impassively as the soldiers and their vehicles pass by. Then, right at the end comes a battered old open truck, sputtering exhaust as it carries three fat middle-aged men in badly fitting grey suits. An apparatchik turns to the defence minister and asks, “Who are they?”

“That’s our secret weapon,” says the minister. “Economists from the Ministry of Planning.”

The Hungarian communists’ chameleonic qualities have also spawned quips such as this one about Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungary’s current prime minister. Mr Gyurcsany is a former leader of the communist youth organisation who is now one of the richest businessmen in the country.

Question: “Who would be prime minister if communism had not collapsed?”

Answer: “Ferenc Gyurcsany.”

Hungary’s humorists have also adapted their jokes for the rigours of governmental austerity plans.

Ferenc Gyurcsany dies and goes to the gate of heaven, where he is met by St Peter. Peter tells Mr Gyurcsany that he cannot enter, but he can choose between two hells.

They travel down to take a look. The first is full of pretty girls, fabulous food and drink, and every comfort. The second is full of spouting fires, vats of boiling oil, and monsters.

“I’ll take the first please,” says Mr Gyurcsany. He has a wonderful time, but after a few days he is called up to St Peter.

“I’ve got bad news for you, Ferenc,” he says. “You are going to the second hell.”

“Why? What did I do wrong?” he asks plaintively.

“Nothing. But that was the electoral campaign hell. Now comes the reform package hell.”

Nor does Viktor Orban, the leader of Fidesz, the main opposition party, often criticised for opaque economic policies that seem to promise all things to all men, escape humorous censure.

Mr Orban walks into a house and sees a young boy with a litter of new born kittens.

“This one is Fidesz, this one is Fidesz, and this one is Fidesz,” the boy says, counting them carefully.

“Very good,” says Mr Orban, and pats the boy on the head.

But when he goes back the following week it’s a different picture:

“This one is Socialist, this one is Socialist and this one is Socialist,” says the little boy.

“What happened?” asks Mr Orban indignantly, “last week they were all Fidesz.”

“Yes, but now they have opened their eyes,” says the little boy.

And it seems that jokes are not the only thing Hungarians miss about Communism. Despite the Socialist party’s current dismal showing in the opinion polls, there remains a surprisingly widespread nostalgia for the certainties of life under the one-party system, when work, housing and holidays were all guaranteed by the state. A survey in May 2008 showed that 62% of Hungarians were happier before 1990—up from 53% in 2001. Just 14% said that the period since 1990 was their happiest, while 60% said it was their least happiest. Communists, it seems, get the last laugh after all.

Picture credit: currybet (via Flickr)

(This is an instalment of a week-long correspondent's diary about the anniversary of communism's collapse in Budapest, published on Economist.com.)