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Soviet nostalgia lives on in Russian anecdotes

Finnish political scientist examines post-Soviet humour in new book

Soviet nostalgia lives on in Russian anecdotes
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By Irma Stenbäck
      The terror of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, political scientist, Dr. Ilmari Susiluoto is trying us with new Russian jokes.
      Susiluoto's Takaisin Neuvostoliittoon ("Back to the Soviet Union) might cause anguish to people with an overly serious mindset - and that is what we Finns are seen to be - or are we?
Russia is the home country of anecdotes.
      The Soviet Union collapsed, and anecdotes remained, Susiluoto points out. Anecdotes are always dangerous for those in power. Throughout history they have served as a political barometer.
     Anecdotes, little stories, are not only about the stories themselves. They are a way of life, and a state of mind. Susiluoto says that without anecdotes, Russia is simply impossible to understand.
     Takaisin Neuvostoliittoon is the writer's third book about Russian anecdotes, and only now has their deepest significance begun to emerge for him. In his latest book, Susiluoto has left the main channels of the Russian stream humour - sex, alcohol, drugs, and everyday life.
What is on offer now are more political and ethnic anecdotes with their backgrounds. Putin's Russia is full of Soviet nostalgia, prohibitions, and poverty, bribery and crooks. Democracy is a joke, and the Jewish Khodorkovski is a hero far away in a dungeon on the Chinese border.
     As Susiluoto sees it, the name of the book is an anecdote in itself, in much the same way as the definition of the world's shortest joke: "Communism".
     The Russian President has his own home page with anecdotes and court jesters (http://www.vladimirvladimirovich.ru/).
     Susiluoto notes that even in Finland, President Urho Kekkonen kept an eye on the jokes that were told about him by asking Eino S. Repo to compile a book of Kekkonen jokes in 1966 that showed him in a favourable light.
     According to Susiluoto, Finns and Russians understand each other's humour. Being included in a Russian anecdote is a privilege that Danes or Dutch have not attained. These nations are too boring and unvaried to rise into the consciousness of a large country.
But the funny and slightly silly, stubborn Finns, the Chuhnas do.
      George Bush, Queen Elizabeth, and the President of France (if he has been involved in a sex scandal) have been taken into Russian anecdotes, as has our own President Tarja Halonen.
      When Halonen was re-elected in January, the Russian newspaper Nexavismaya Gazeta put on a flashy headline: "Red Tarja elected Finnish President".
      Finns also have their place in Russian elephant jokes.
      "A German, A Frenchman, a Russian, and a Finn took part in a writing competition on elephants the German came up with "A Short Introduction to the Physiology of the Elephant, 1,500 pages, plus appendices". The French entry was "The Love Life of the Elephant". The Russian wrote "Elephants in Russia", and the Finn wrote "What do Elephants Think of Me?"
Susiluoto says that modern Russia is impossible to understand without a criminal vocabulary.
     A Finnish-Russian dictionary more than 800 pages long lacks both words for crimes, as well as all references to intimate life, which is so dear to Russians, from drinking to genitalia, and from making love to fighting.
     Susiluoto has compiled a praiseworthy anecdote vocabulary in his book.
     For instance, the word for aristocrat is used as the highest rank in a criminal hierarchy. The word dermokrat refers to someone who speaks nonsense (it is a combination of the words dermo - the Russian expression for excrement, superimposed into the word meaning "democrat".
     Finnish tourists might take note that the word finka means both "Finnish woman" and "knife".
Throughout the book Susiluoto apologises because it is very difficult to translate some of the Russian jokes into Finnish, because translations always lose some of the linguistic and cultural context. Individuals and nations laugh (and cry) for different things.
     Susiluoto's ‘book does not bring out laughter on every page, but there are still plenty of smiles.
     The book can also be read as a pamphlet of ideological history concerning the relationship between our two countries and their citizens.
     Susiluoto has a personal perspective in both directions.
     Exhibitions, displays, and tours arranged in Russia by Finnish propaganda officials have always been complete fiascoes, according to Susiluoto. Russians have jokes about them, which they naturally never tell the Finns.
      When the Ministry of Education dragged the Finnish male choir Huutajat ("The Screaming Men") to the middle of the Palace Square in St. Petersburg, there was only a small Finnish delegation listening to them.
The book has its own chapter about Finno-Ugric relatives in Russia.
      Russia is undergoing an information revolution, and soon the Internet will be in every dacha.
     Susiluoto was happy to find an extensive assessment of the Finns' ability to withstand cold on a Ukrainian Russian-language website.
     Here are a few examples: At -10 degrees Celsius, heating is switched on in British homes, while Finns change into a long-sleeved shirt. At -20 Austrians fly to Malaga, while Finns celebrate midsummer.
     At -300 hell freezes over and Finland wins the Eurovision Song contest. Russians start to have doubts about the theory of global warming.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.5.2006

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IRMA STENBÄCK / Helsingin Sanomat

  9.5.2006 - THIS WEEK
 Soviet nostalgia lives on in Russian anecdotes

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