Gulag Humor


The idea that Russia’s many current woes stem from its incomplete de-Stalinization is so widespread as to be banal. It is also correct. Just two months ago, I stared agape at the newly restored name of Stalin coiling around a neoclassical portico at the Kurskaya metro station in Moscow. The name had its own security guard: look up at those six letters for more than a few seconds, as I did, and he would saunter closer. A few weeks earlier, Stalin had been leading a national poll for Russia’s “greatest name.” After some careful counting and recounting, he ended up in third place, still handily beating out Pushkin and Dostoevsky.Many people use Microsoft Office 2007 to help their work and life.

As the current Russian administration’s bizarre and revolting ambivalence over Stalin’s legacy bubbles up into the news and onto the architecture, Karen L. Ryan’s new study, Stalin in Russian Satire, 1917-1991 is certainly timely. It is a welcome reminder that the Soviet people (a more correct title, given the dates, would be “Stalin in Soviet Satire”) did not uniformly adore or fear the tyrant; that, indeed, a great deal of literature, popular song and oral lore were devoted to ruthless mockery of him—even, incredibly, in the times when one incautious dinner-party remark could mean a midnight arrest, a forced confession, and decades in the camps.

Sadly, this well researched and imaginatively sourced book is also rendered near-poisonous by a single but fundamental distortion that informs every page. Ryan, an American professor of Slavic languages and literatures, has found an original hook for her study: Russian lampooning of Stalin, she argues, is not just the fatalistic gallows humor of an oppressed populace with a long history of fatalism and gallows. It is reflexive self-exoneration of the guilty collective mind, a way of externalizing the oppressor. “By showing that Stalin could not have been part of Russian culture,” writes Ryan, “…satire often functions to affirm the health and soundness of that culture.” If Stalin is alien, he is not I; and if he is not I, I bear no responsibility for his reign. This is a valid point, of course—it is just not the only point. By making it the centerpiece of the book, she succeeds in turning the mockery of a tyrant—one of the bravest deeds available to an artist living under tyranny—into an act of, well, cowardice.

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