Soviet Famine Humor, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 844-882:

Officially the famine did not exist. It was only mentioned in the terms of veiled allusions to ‘difficulties on the collectivisation front’. Trudnesty—difficulties—is one of the most frequent words in Soviet parlance; it serves to minimise disasters in the same proportion as achievements are magnified. The Soviet citizen automatically understands that a ‘gigantic victory of the revolutionary forces in Britain’ means that the Communist Party has increased its vote by one half per cent, whereas ‘certain difficulties in the health situation in Birobidjan’ means that the cholera is raging in that province.

After a week, I had incorporated into my vocabulary some of the essential household words of Soviet life such as pyatiletka (the five year plan), komandirovka (official journey), propusk (permit), nachalnik (chief), remont (‘in repair’). I learnt that valuta (foreign currency) could buy one any otherwise unobtainable goods; that si-chass meant literally ‘at once’ but was in fact the equivalent of the Spanish mañana; that a kulturny choloveik, a ‘cultured person’ was one who did not spit and swear, who used a handkerchief, and could do sums without an abacus. I learnt that Soviet watches, gadgets and machines had to ‘go to remont’ every three months; I learnt to write on the coarse, grey sheets which served as writing paper, and to wash under a kind of samovar with a drip-tap, fixed to the wall. I learnt that no map or policeman could help you to find an address because all streets had new names but were called by their old ones; and that officials and employees were permanently being moved about the country as in a game of musical chairs. All this I learnt eagerly and with a great sense of exhilaration, for I knew that everything that annoyed me was the heritage of the past and everything that I liked a token of the future. Besides, I have always had a deep longing for the primeval chaos, a nostalgia for the apocalypse; and here I found myself in the middle of both.

One of my favourite pastimes was to walk through the streets trying to guess the meaning of the mysterious abbreviations by which every institution, office or shop, was called. Thus my co-operative store was called INSNAB; the organisation that looked after me, MORP; the Institute for which Alex worked, UFTI, which was a branch of NARKOMTASHPROM (People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industries), which depended on SOVNARKOM (the Government), and was controlled by GOSPLAN (the Government Planning Committee) jointly with the CKSP(B)CS (Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party, Bolshevist Fraction, of the Soviet Union). Most difficult to remember were the initials of my publishers in Kharkov because they were not in Russian but in Ukrainian. The abbreviation ran: URKDERSHNAZMENWYDAW, and meant: Ukrainian State Publishing Trust for National Minorities. The reason for this epidemic of initials was that enterprises could no longer be called after their proprietor or trade-name; it was a symptom of the depersonalisation so typical of Soviet life.

In trying to understand everyday life in a totalitarian state, one should beware of over-simplification. In the period preceding the murder of Kirov in 1934, which started the Terror, people in Russia did not live in permanent fear, but rather in a world of diffuse insecurity, of floating apprehension. An incautious remark did not, as a rule, entail immediate retribution. The citizen merely knew that his remark would remain on the record, and that the day might come, perhaps in a year, perhaps in ten years, when he would slip up on his job or get involved with a jealous woman or a neighbour coveting his flat, and on that day the G.P.U. would hold against him every dubious conversation and encounter of his past. In other words, the Soviet citizen was no more acutely frightened than a Catholic is of the Last Judgment—except that the G.P.U. operate this side of death, and that he had nowhere to turn for confession and absolution.

In 1932, it was still possible among intimate friends to pass on a joke that was politically off-colour. To understand the sample that follows, one must know that before he was exiled, Trotsky had advocated a harsh policy towards the peasants for the benefit of the industrial workers, whereas Bukharin had advocated concessions to the peasants at the expense of the workers. The story purports to list questions put to candidates for Party membership, and the correct answers thereto:

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the town but no food in the country?
Answer: A Left, Trotskyite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the country but no food in the town?
Answer: A Right, Bukharinite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is no food in the country and no food in the town?
Answer: The correct application of the general line.

Question: And what does it mean when there is food both in the country and in the town?
Answer: The horrors of Capitalism.

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