Preparing teaching materials for a new term can lead to some surprising discoveries. My highlight this year, while getting things together for my history of Communism module, was coming across the Revolting Russians episode of Horrible Histories on Box of Broadcasts, the video streaming service for schools and universities.
The show takes a typically light-hearted, sketch comedy approach to exploring the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, but also leaves some room to focus on some of the serious ideas behind this momentous history. I think it gets a nice balance, for a children’s show, but others may disagree.
Highlights, for me, included a weather report by a very camp Karl Marx, forecasting revolution across Europe in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Lenin’s formation of the Bolshevik faction in London in 1903 descended into an argument over how to share ice creams equallyat London Zoo.
Stalin’s propaganda of the 1930s was reflected on too, through the rewriting children’s rhymes: if you are happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, clap for Stalin – otherwise you might get ten years in a forced labour camp!
The Second World War itself was examined via a parody on gamer videos, featuring Gamer Dave TDS, taking on the ‘End of Level Boss, Stalin’ in the ‘Operation Barbarossa’ level:
Also, for kids (of all ages) who like poo jokes, a sketch about Stalin ordering the collection of Chairman Mao’s excrement in 1949 arguably offers a way in to thinking about the paranoia and deep tensions that tended to develop between (male) Communist leaders in the years after 1945.
Revolting Russians featured two excellent songs, one a reworking of Back in the USSR by the Beatles, called Yes We’re the USSR: “Revolution here has been a great success, reds no longer under the bed”, sings Lenin, with Stalin (as Ringo) on drums. “Yes, we’re the USSR!”
The other song features Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky doing a version of Coldplay’s When I Ruled the World, and here they lament the collapse of the one mighty USSR. “The people gave the Berlin Wall some welly” sings Stalin, and adds “first revolution to be watched on telly”.
This is also an important point, as by this time TV was a new way for the spreading of news. The collapse of Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe helped to inspire further nationalist revolts in the Soviet republics in 1990 and 1991. Also, notoriously, people started crossing the Berlin Wall itself following a botched televised press conference briefing by Günter Schabowski, a spokesman for the German Politburo.
Horrible Histories is not the only one to mock the USSR though jokes. Ronald Reagan was famously a fan of using humour to undermine the Soviet Union in the era of Gorbachev. Here is a YouTube clip collating some of his ‘classics’:
Whatever else you say about Reagan, he was certainly wittier than Donald Trump – though admittedly this is quite a low bar.
Comedy was also a feature of life in Communist countries, and humour in the Soviet era could be a way to subvert the system. As one Soviet era joke went: (Q) What would happen if five year plans were introduced in the Sahara Desert. (A) It would be all right for a while, but soon there would be a shortage of sand.
Another from East Germany mocked the Trabant car: (Q) What’s the best feature of a Trabant? (A) It has a heater in the back to keep your hands warm when you are pushing it.
The BBC TV series The Lost World of Communism, also available on Box of Broadcasts, features a number of satirists, including Jaroslav Dolecek in Czechoslovakia. His films poked fun at the idolisation of Communist leaders, the black market and collective farms. He revelled in the ‘we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us’ way of life of late Communism.
Hammer and Tickle, another documentary available on Box of Broadcasts, has attempted a survey of the entire history of Communism through jokes. Though sometimes descending into Eurotrash-esque voice-overs, the programme examines many ways satire allowed people to sustain a sense of perspective on life under Communist rule, and later also revolt against the system, and is well worth a watch.
Jokes also formed part of the memory of Communism. For example, one joke that circulated in East Germany after the regime fell highlighted the ways the Stasi monitored people’s lives. Supposedly, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many Stasi agents became taxi drivers. This was very useful because, at the end of a heavy night out, you just had to remember your name and the taxi driver could take you straight home.
More recently, the excellent film by Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin, combined In The Thick of It humour with the end of Stalinism. It poked fun at the absurdities of the leadership crisis that gripped the USSR in 1953, while also revealing the ways personal one-upmanship and fear, rather than Marxist ideology, dominated the motives of leading protagonists such as Lavrentiy Beria and Nikita Khrushchev.
Not everyone likes this type of humour though. Notably, Peter Hitchens criticised the Death of Stalin as he felt the film made a joke of the leaders, which also made light of those who died under Communism. As he put it, ‘If you trivialize the death of a mass-murderer, you trivialise the deaths of his victims’.
While I certainly disagree with the point that the Death of Stalin was tasteless, people like Overy do make a good case for the problems found in the blurring of accuracy as a result of comedy. It is important to remember humour can inadvertently gloss over true horrors.
For example, the ways North Korean leaders have been repeatedly the butt of jokes, and are portrayed as ridiculous, can inadvertently turn our attention away from the extremes of life under the regime.
While dark humour can certainly help us deal with some real horrors, it should not make us forget the true nature of the past either.
Dr Paul Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History