Q: What do Leonid Brezhnev, Sherlock Holmes, and the Chinese have in common?
A: They’re all regular characters in the fount of humor that is Russian jokes.
Not jokes about Russians, that is, though there are plenty of those as well, but jokes from Russia, or anekdoty. Wikipedia has a good selection with some background information. Some of them rely on puns or cultural references that don’t translate well, but most are hilarious even to a non-Russian with no particular familiarity with Russian culture. (Be warned, by the way, that many of them also are not family-friendly by any stretch of the imagination.) I especially like the older ones poking fun at Communism. Here’s a Stalin joke from the page about Russian political jokes:
Stalin reads his report to the Party Congress. Suddenly someone sneezes. “Who sneezed?” Silence. “First row! On your feet! Shoot them!” They are shot, and he asks again, “Who sneezed, Comrades?” No answer. “Second row! On your feet! Shoot them!” They are shot too. “Well, who sneezed?” At last a sobbing cry resounds in the Congress Hall, “It was me! Me!” Stalin says, “Bless you, Comrade!”
Lenin doesn’t get away any easier:
Lenin coined a slogan on how to achieve the state of communism through rule by the Communist Party and modernization of the Russian industry and agriculture: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country!” The slogan was subject to popular mathematical scrutiny: “Consequently, Soviet power is communism minus electrification, and electrification is communism minus Soviet power.”
And that’s just the beginning—these things get elaborate. (By the way, East Germany seems to have had a similar tradition of anti-Communist political jokes. Wikipedia has a collection of those as well.) I guess we were wrong to think of Russians as dour and humorless all this time. We Scandinavians are sometimes subject to similar stereotypes, and we have a long tradition of ridiculing each other, generally in good fun. Here in Norway, we love jokes about stupid Swedes (a common example: “How do you sink a Swedish submarine? You swim down and knock on the door”), and I’m told they have the exact same jokes in Sweden—except, of course, that the Swedes tell them about Norwegians.
Though anekdoty were around long before the October Revolution, it’s easy to see how the Soviet system was further grist for the comedic mill; when you’re stuck in an evil, reality-denying tyranny, there’s little to do but laugh or cry, and it looks like the Russians decided they might as well laugh. An object lesson for us, maybe?