Today, as promised: a post devoted to jokes and anecdotes at the expense of the gerontocrat par excellence. I know you’ve been holding your breath.
The Politburo and a smattering of Soviet aerospace scientists are gathered in a large, official room; everyone is very agitated, including Brezhnev. There is much shuffling of paper and hushed conversation as the participants take their seats around the table. Then Brezhnev speaks: “Comrades! The Americans have landed on the moon! This presents a grave threat to Socialism and the peaceful existence of the Soviet Union. We must surpass their achievements – and I have decided how we will do this. Since they have landed on the moon, we will go to the sun!” After a stunned silence, one of the braver scientists raises his hand: “But Comrade Brezhnev, that would be very… hot. Our spacecraft will melt.” Brezhnev turns on the scientist and looks down his prominent nose. “Of course, Comrade, but I have already thought of that and factored a solution into my plan: we will fly at night!”
The second “act” of this post is not a joke, but a true story told to me by my current Russian teacher, Saia. Saia studied philology at Moscow State University, and she distinctly remembers the day when the whole university was instructed to hold a colloquium on Brezhnev’s new book, Tselina (Virgin Lands). The book is part memoir, part triumphalist political history about Brezhnev’s tenure as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the agricultural development of that republic. I have read parts of it myself and can attest to the fact that it is as Soviet and boring as it sounds.
The day before the colloquium, for which all students were required to read Tselina, Saia was approached by her friend, Volodya.
“Psst, Saia, I have him here.””Brezhnev?!”
“No, dummy… [sotto voce] Solzhenitsyn.” And from his bag, Volodya pulled up a stack of papers just far enough that Saia could see what they were.
Solzhenitsyn is possibly the most famous Soviet dissident, and he was as famous within the USSR during the late Soviet period as a novelist and outspoken critic as he became abroad. Although he was exiled in 1974, his books were widely circulated and read as samizdat (DYI publications) texts. Excited at the prospect of reading his next work, Saia hurried Volodya into the nearest restroom – a men’s room – and having ensured that no one else was there, took the manuscript from Volodya’s bag and put it in her own.
“Saia, after you’re done, you’re to pass it to Igor. Got it?”
She spent the whole night reading under her covers by flashlight, pouring over the precious, illegal pages. According to her, being caught reading Solzhenitsyn could have jeopardized her status as a student at Moscow State; she may have been expelled and sent home, if not worse. After having read it through, she stashed it under her mattress.
The next day she woke up and dutifully filed towards the Brezhnev colloquium. At some point during this process, she bumped into her roommate.
“Saia, please tell me about Tselina so that I can say something if I’m called on.”
“I haven’t read it. Why would I be reading that crap?”
“But you were up all night reading – if not Tselina, what were you reading.”
Not trusting her roommate, she answered: “Porn.”
“Oh.” And they filed into the crowded hall.
After interminable hours spent listening to praise for Comrade Brezhnev, Saia returned to her room, ready to pass the dissident manuscript to Igor. Upon looking under her mattress, however, she discovered the papers had disappeared. Scared, Saia began to upturn her room in search of what had been entrusted to her.
“What are you looking for?” asked her roommate, seated at her own desk.
“This?” – and from beneath her she produced the Solzhenitsyn.
Saia, now equal parts angry and nervous, snatched back the pages and asked her roommate why she’d been snooping around Saia’s belongings.
“You said it was porn!”
As Saia tells it, she resisted the urge to smack her roommate square in the mouth and ran out of her room to her rendezvous with Igor.
“Psst, Igor, I have the book.”
“No, dummy… [sotto voce] Solzhenitsyn.”
And the scene from the day before repeated itself. There was, however, a lasting outcome. Scared to even say Solzhenitsyn’s name on campus, she and her friends began to refer to all of the dissident author’s samizdat works as “Tselina” – and she to this day hasn’t read the actual book by that title. She can’t fathom why I want to.
I’ll end with another short joke at Brezhnev’s expense. On the eve of the 1980 Olympics, Brezhnev stands before an assembled crowd of Soviet citizens. “Comrades” he begins, reading slowly from a script. “Tomorrow begins the 22nd Olympics in Moscow, O-O-O-O-O…” he continued, reading the rings.
If you want more Soviet “anekdoti” (jokes) about Brezhnev and Khrushchev (and some funnier ones), I recommend you visit the webpage for Spufford’s book Red Plenty. There is a section devoted to jokes.