On anekdoty

J. Robert Lennon @ Open Letters Monthly

Brian Earls on the politics of Russian jokes @ Dublin Review of Books
There can come a moment in the experience of travel when a shift in understanding occurs – that instant when, as it were, the curtains begin to part – as a previously elusive society seems to reveal something essential about itself. I experienced one such moment on a summer evening in the early 1990s. Together with a Moscow friend, I had gone on a walking holiday and found myself spending the night in a mountain hut in the southern Russian republic of Kabardino Balkaria. Apart from myself, the remainder of the company, a group of about six climbers, were Russians. I had at that time been living in Moscow for about a year, and was slowly and with an effort that was scarcely matched by the meagre results, making my way into the beguiling but unyielding Russian language. I and my companion were mere hill walkers, but the others in the hut were serious climbers, who the following day planned to climb the nearby Mount Elberus. As this involved setting out before sunrise, and thus before the summer heat had begun to melt the snow, the climbers were not inclined to sleep. Instead they passed the time exchanging what they called anekdoty. It was evident that these must be jokes, as in the darkened hut the speakers were regularly greeted with laughter. While occasionally this was loud and heartfelt, more often it was knowing and subdued and seemed to imply some complicity between narrator and audience. The laughter was, it seemed clear, an essential component of the occasion, encouraging performers to embark on new jests and prompting the previously silent into speech.

While this merriment was afoot, I lay on my bunk straining to understand, and to be admitted to some small share of the pleasure which the rest of the company evidently derived from the recitals. At first the rapid flow of speech and varying voices and styles proved impenetrable. When at last something began to cohere, to my surprise I seemed to be listening to a narrative in which a number of characters from Tolstoy’s War and Peace featured. While the presence of Natasha Rostova, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Bezukhov seemed improbable in this particular setting, the stylised and simplified tsarist Moscow which provided the setting for the anekdot left little doubt regarding the identity of the protagonists. Somewhat puzzlingly, alongside these familiar figures, another individual, Poruchik Rzhevsky, who I could not recall from Tolstoy’s novel, was also a prominent actor in the laughter-provoking antics.  read more