Thursday, August 23, 2007

Political jokes in Communist Bulgaria

On Highlander's blog, commenter Adam asked, "I know that mocking of the leadership (in closed circles) was prevalent in countries such as these three (Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany), but how was it in Bulgaria during the dark years (of Socialism)?"
I began to answer, but it turned out too long for a comment, so I decided to make it a post.
Mocking socialism and the current dictator (for the most of this period, Todor Zhivkov) was very widespread in Bulgaria, although political jokes were criminalized. Even people without pro-capitalist views enjoyed such jokes. Often, the subject was dictator Zhivkov's life expectancy and eventual death. In the absence of term limitations and free elections, nobody could predict that Zhivkov would be removed from power alive.
Here is one joke that is better told than written (because it includes body language):

In a crowded bus, a man is reading a newspaper. Some other people see on 1st page large black letters (VIP obituary?) and a photo of a semi-bald man with smooth hair remnants and a large nose. They get very excited. However, the paper owner isn't very helpful to his fellow travellers and holds the paper in a way not allowing others to read. Finally, a tall man manages to cast a look. He turns to the others, nods and makes a "tsk" sound meaning "no", then says a single word: "Pompidou".
(French President Georges Pompidou died in 1974.)

Another joke from the 1980s: Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Todor Zhivkov are invited to visit God, who promises to answer one question from each guest.
Reagan asks, "When will US astronauts set feet on Mars?" God answers, "In 2023". Reagan begins to weep and says, "What a pity that I won't be alive to see this."
Gorbachev asks, "When will Russian economy catch up with US?" God answers, "By 2060". Gorbachev also begins to weep and says he is weeping because he won't be alive by this time.
Zhivkov asks, "When shall I die?" God, instead of answering, begins to weep. (I.e., even He won't be alive by this time.)

Violin player Alexander Nikolov, better known by his nickname Sasho Sladura, liked telling political jokes. Somebody reported him to the authorities. They sent him to the Lovech labour camp where in 1961 he was beaten to death, the usual method of murdering inmates in this particular camp. The above photo, copied from, shows Sladura bottom left.
Later in the 1960s, civil engineer Boris Chinkov was sentenced to prison for telling jokes. He was released before serving his full term, allegedly after French President de Gaulle entreated for him during a meeting with Zhivkov. The court papers from Chinkov's case listed the jokes constituting his crime. One of them was "the joke about the best Michurinist mother". Here it is:

Who is the best selectionist among followers of Michurin? - Todor Zhivkov's mother, who successfully crossed a pumpkin with a loudspeaker and obtained a fully viable hybrid.
("The Pumpkin" was one of Zhivkov's nicknames. As usual for dictators, he was fond of delivering long speeches. Michurin (1855 - 1935), whose Wikipedia page is a bit too sympathetic to him, was a Russian practitioner selectionist. He definitely had a gift and produced practical achievements, but his lack of education made him stick to theories disproved decades and centuries earlier, such as that species aren't real, can cross with each other and transform into each other. Michurin was made an icon during Stalin's repressions against geneticists, but he shouldn't be blamed for this turn which happened after his death.)

In fact, only a very small percentage of jokers were punished. The regime, especially in its later decades, realized that people need some harmless vent for their discontent and, besides, it is impossible to imprison the entire population. However, the modest attempts for free speech were closely monitored. Tens of thousands of professional State Security (secret service) agents and many more cooperating agents had the task to eavesdrop, report and record jokes.
After 1989, many of these agents found good postions in politics and business. When the State Security past of any of them is revealed, he first denies, then says that his activity as agent was directed only against true enemies of Bulgaria and never harmed innocent people. It sucks that nearly 20 years after the regime's collapse, the country is still in the grip of State Security.


Anonymous said...

Maya, I honestly never thought that I would post on your blog. I am happy I was wrong.

A particular eastern joke springs back to mind after having lain completely dormant in my memory for two decades or more:

In the Kremlin, the president, the head of state, the wise leader, Leonid Brezhnev, is just about to enjoy his lunchtime nap when one of his most prominent underlings comes rushing into his office, breathless:

"Comrade Leader, there are a thousand people eating in the Red Square!"

"Fine, I like to see my good people eat."

The underling hesitates, and hurries off.

But next day at lunch:

"Comrade Leader, there are ten thousand people eating in the Red Square!"

"So what, I like to see my good people eat."

"Yes, but Comrade Leader, they are eating rice, with chop sticks."

* * *

Pretty prophetic, I would say.

Maya M said...

Welcome to my blog, Adam! Good joke.