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The Soviet Union Is No Joke : SOVIET HUMOUR The Best of Krokodil by the editors of Krokodil magazine (Andrews & McMeel: $12.95 paper; 192 pp.)

August 13, 1989|Dubravka Ugresic | Ugresic is a Yugoslav writer and critic. and

We have here a light and harmless book that has appeared on American bookshelves thanks to the ripple effect of perestroika on Soviet-American political and cultural relations. "Soviet Humour" is a selection of caricatures published in recent years in the celebrated Soviet satirical magazine Krokodil. At the grand old age of 67, Krokodil is the oldest magazine of its kind in the Soviet Union; published every 10 days, it enjoys the largest circulation of any periodical--5.3 million copies.

In his warm greetings, aimed at the American reader and titled "Let's Laugh Together," Aleksey Pyanov, editor-in-chief of Krokodil, reveals how this book came to be. The idea was proposed by Herbert Cummings, president of the Workshop Library on World Humour, and James Boren, president of the International Assn. of Professional Bureaucrats.

Two years ago they invited their Soviet colleagues to America and soon met with the Krokodil delegation at a "summit meeting of humorists," held in the atmosphere of--to quote Jim Boren's slogan--"exploding laughter rather than exploding bombs." American humorists, among whom were Jim Boren, Art Buchwald and Jim Berry, wasted no time in returning the visit, and "Soviet Humour" is the first child of this union between American and Soviet humorists. It has added yet further proof--if indeed any were needed--that the shortest distance between two people is laughter.

The Soviet caricatures presented in this selection--as Charles Solomon, animation and cartoon historian (and Times paperback reviewer), points out in the foreword--coincide with the conceptions that Americans have about the Soviet Union.

These notions were often encouraged by American caricaturists who often depicted the Soviet Union as "either a bleak, gray land where dumpy peasant women sweep the pavements, or as a sinister conspiracy of a country, bristling with missiles, spies and aging generals in medal-encrusted uniforms."

The caricatures in Krokodil prove that most Soviet people are "neither sweeping the pavements nor spying on the West, but rather living ordinary middle-class lives and laughing at the world around them," says Solomon. Furthermore, Soviet caricatures show that many situations thought to be--in the words of Solomon--"uniquely American" are actually the product of daily life in any industrialized urban society.

"Soviet Humour" consists of five chapters, divided into topics: Relationships, Life Style, Social Vices, Politics and Bureaucracy, The Environment. Topics such as marriage, marital infidelity, gossiping wives and henpecked husbands, jokes about pets, sport and sportsmen, alcoholics and destruction of the human environment are all so universal that there is not one American reader who would fail to understand the message of Soviet caricaturists.

The humor represented through the caricatures in "Soviet Humour" has been modified in a number of ways. Krokodil is an official Soviet publication and as such it is subject to censorship. In its long life it has experienced rigid and not-so-rigid censorship, but it has nevertheless remained official.

What this means is that its humor, to a greater or lesser degree, serves Soviet political, moral, ideological and aesthetic standards. This kind of humor is adapted to what one could describe as the "middle of the road" Soviet reader, as it neither harms anyone nor does it actually make anyone laugh to excess.

And again, the humor had to be recensored--this time for comprehensibility; the Soviet editors were careful to ensure that the caricatures selected would be understood by the American reader. The only exceptions might be a number of caricatures that have been taken directly from Russian fables.

"Soviet Humour" will for most American readers be their first encounter with Soviet humor and as such will represent a bridge to bring them closer ("Hey! They laugh at the same things!").

For those who are a little more familiar with urban jokes, with the humor of the urban chastushka, with "alternative" caricature and with the aesthetics of sots-art, "Soviet Humour" will be no revelation. Among the readers at whom it is aimed it may raise, perhaps, just a weak smile.

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