Russian Ethnic Humor: Sociological Conclusions

Emil Draitser, Hunter College

In this paper, using basic principles outlined by sociologist Christie Davies in his book Ethnic Humor Around the World, through a content analysis of a representative amount of Russian ethnic jokes, I offer my interpretation of ethnic relationships in Russia in sociological terms.

The choice of a group targeted for Russian ethnic jokes is based on their geographical and/or cultural marginality, as is the case with many such groups around the world. I consider a variety of causes for the appearance and proliferation of ethnic jokes, including, but not limited to, the sharpening of a long-standing ethnic conflict (as it is the case with Ukrainians), cosmopolitanism versus ethnic identity, political power of the Soviet period versus loss of control in the post-Soviet time, non-official truth versus official truth.

An examination of an ethnic stereotype of a Georgian as an uncultured spendthrift undeservedly enjoying his wealth has shown that its evolution reflected a class stratification of Soviet society in the early 1960s. Appearing at the time of the growth of Russian nationalism, with its claim that the Russians are the most disadvantaged group in the former USSR, Russian Chukchi jokes treat the Chukchis as projections; their presumed dismal living conditions have served to express Russian destitution, and their misery as Russian misery. An explosion of especially fierce jokes about Ukrainians in the late 1980s and early 1990s was primarily caused by the high anxiety evoked by the threat that this group, presumed economically highly significant at the time, would leave the Union.

Hence, contemporary Russian ethnic humor is primarily a result of the gradual stagnation and disintegration of the Soviet system in the post-Stalinist period and the tension that this process created in the mainstream Russian culture.