USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘soviet union’
Customs
Festival
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Tree for the New Year

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she shared with me about the Soviet way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.

 

Informant: “The Soviets made New Years the new holiday. They weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore, so they went around the rules and celebrated the secular holiday instead. They had a pine tree and Father snow (he was instead of Santa Claus). My family celebrates Soviet New Years still. A lot of us immigrated here—my mom and dad and both of their siblings and all of their kids. And my grandparents. So every New Year’s when I was growing up we would have a big family gathering with a tree—even though we are Jewish, I know it’s weird, but it’s not religious at all. It’s really just like a holdover from the Soviet Union. I got presents and my dad and grandpa always sang these long, hard-to-understand Russian songs.”

 

Thoughts:

This reminds me of Santeria, a syncretic religion in the Americas, centered around Yoruba-mythology and belief. When those who believed in Yoruba mythology were forced to convert to Catholocism, they began worshipping the Catholic Saints instead of the Yoruba Gods, at least in appearance. Rather, it seemed as though they were following along with the new rules imposed on them, but instead they were practicing their religion in disguise. The syncrasy of the religion came about, but the religion seems far more blended to outsiders than it is in practice.

People in the Soviet Union being prohibited from celebrating Christmas of other Christian holidays was a part of the Soviet anti religious campaign for state atheism. Given how much weight belief holds for many people and how so many customs, practices, and rituals are grounded in belief, it is unrealistic to extricate it from people.

 

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Soviet Folk Belief

Item:

“All right so uh, basically, if you leave your apartment, and it’s apartment because nobody lived in houses in the Soviet Union, I’m pretty sure it’s a Soviet thing, um if you leave your apartment, you better not come back in, because if you come back in you might get run over by a bus that day. Um if you really have to come in though, you have to look in a mirror before you re-exit your apartment because uh, and I wish I remember what my grandma told me about this, something about staring into your soul.”

Context:

The informant (his parents are from Ukraine and Azerbaijan) and his family observe this folk belief. He stated: “My mom does not let me go back inside if I’ve forgotten something, she freaks out, she’s like, ‘no, wait outside, I’ll get it for you,’ and she comes out and brings it to me. She won’t hand it to me through the doorway. My mom’s neighbor got hit by a bus when she was a kid, and I’m pretty sure the little girl went back inside to get her jacket, as far as I remember.”

Analysis:

I tried to research this folk belief online and could not find anything, therefore I believe that this belief is particular to the informant’s family. That the informant’s mom’s neighbor got hit by a bus confirms, in my mind, my opinion of the folk belief: I feel it arose in the aftermath of the little girl’s death. The part about the mirror confounds me though, because it is seemingly unrelated to the death of the little girl.

Humor

Soviet Joke about Sick People

“Soviet sick people are the sickest in the world.”

NOTE: For a Russian transcription of this joke, please see item 3 on the uploaded image: Russian Versions of Soviet Jokes

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. This is a joke because in the Soviet Union, they always officially said that we’re always the best. We’re the best in everything. Our production is the best, our workers are the best, our living is the best—you go to the store and there’s nothing to buy, but we’re the best. So, if we’re sick, we’re also the best in that, we’re the sickest. That’s the joke.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

Humor

Soviet Joke about Caviar

“A person who left Russia during Revolution came to visit. He comes to the store in Moscow and says, ‘Can I please buy a hundred grams of caviar?’ Well, there was no caviar in Soviet stores, it disappeared when I was a child, somewhere in the 1960s. I still remember when I was very little and my mom would take us to buy a little bit of caviar, and there would be black caviar and red caviar, and even though red caviar is considered to be the most expensive one, I liked the black caviar. And then, it disappeared because Russians suddenly realized—the Soviet authorities—that they can sell it for dollars, for foreign currency. So all of it went abroad and it disappeared in the Soviet Union. So that’s what you have to know before you can understand this joke. So the person comes and he goes into the shop and he says, ‘Can I buy a hundred grams of caviar?’ And the saleslady says, ‘Could you step aside, sir? Just stand here.’ There’s a big line of people, and one person comes and buys bread, and another person comes and buys milk, and a third person comes and buys something else, butter or bread. So, after the man stays there for fifteen minutes, she says, ‘Do you see anyone asking for caviar?’ He said ‘No.’ She says, ‘You see? We don’t carry it anymore because there is no demand for caviar.’

Link to Russian transcription of joke: 

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. This is a joke about the shortage of food in the Soviet Union. It’s also about how the Soviet authorities would cover up the truth. Why we don’t have caviar? Not because there is no caviar in Russia, but because there is no demand. We always have some sort of an explanation. For example, at some point, in Lithuania, where I grew up, the Soviet Union started to take meat and send it to other parts of the Soviet Union, and also to Vietnam. And to cover up the shortage, they said that there is no demand for meat all the way through the week, and there should be a couple of days per week when the meat stores should be closed. (There were separate meat stores.) So, suddenly the meat stores are closed on a number of days. Why? Well, the truth is that there is not enough meat. What is the Soviet explanation? That people come from White Russia, from Belarus, which is a neighboring Soviet republic which really doesn’t have meat at all, come to Vilnius [the capital of Lithuania] and they buy all the meat. So, we don’t want to have meat stores open on the days that they come, like weekends.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

general
Humor

Soviet Joke about a Newspaper Stand

“An old lady goes to buy a newspaper, but she forgot which newspaper she wants to buy. So, the newsman says, ‘Would you like to buy Pravda?’ which means, in Russian, ‘truth.’ And the old lady says ‘no, no, it’s not pravda, there is no pravda in Pravda, no truth in Truth.’ And the newsman says, ‘would you like to buy Isvestia?’, which means ‘news’ in Russian. And the old lady says, ‘No, no, not Isvestia, there is no isvestia in Isvestia, no news in News. Give me the Soviet Sport.’”

NOTE: For a Russian transcription of this joke, please see item 1 on the uploaded image: 

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. It’s saying that everything is just lies—there are no news, there is no truth. It’s a joke where people laugh at what is officially told by the Soviet party and the Soviet authorities to people, that these are not true news, these are not true truth, Soviet Sport is the only thing which reports the truth. So, it’s not that it’s worth reading it, I mean, my family didn’t read Soviet Sport because we were not into sports, but that’s the only newspaper which has truth—the results reported truthfully—and it is news, because the games were actually played.

Analysis: This joke laughs at the names of Soviet newspapers, which are called by such ridiculous titles as “Truth” and “News,” but only write the party line, so that they are not actually worth reading.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

Humor

Soviet Joke about a Medical Convention

“During a medical congress, people—doctors from different countries—are talking informally in a break. So, an American doctor says, ‘Well, we don’t know what to do, we’re treating a person from cancer, and he dies from pneumonia.’ And the British doctor says, ‘We treat a person for colon cancer and he dies from a heart attack.’ And the Russian doctor says, ‘We don’t have any problems of this sort. When we treat a person for a particular disease, he dies from that disease.’”

NOTE: For a Russian transcription of this joke, please see item 2 on the attached image: Russian versions of Soviet Jokes

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. Russian medicine is so bad that when they treat somebody, the person would definitely die from whatever disease he has.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

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