In the days of the Socialist Republic of Romania, while the nation’s leaders were striving to convince their people that “humanity’s golden dream” was at hand, that the individual needed to be free of any religious interests if he was to be a free thinker, that everyone needed only to look to the state for their safety and future, people were beginning to have the courage to express the reality of the matter. Despite the regime’s strict prohibitions, many regularly passed around pirated Western movies and music, and carried on a steady trade in coffee, cigarettes, meat, and other hard-to-get commodities. They also told jokes at the expense of the regime.
Political jokes tended to focus on several glaring examples of hypocrisy and failure in the socialist system. Firstly, it didn’t deliver on its promises of justice and plenty. “What is colder than cold water in Romania in the winter? Hot water.” Other jokes focused on the self-dealing and corruption of the communist ruling class. The Party was at the top of the societal food chain and held exclusive rights to the best-paying jobs and any foreign travel opportunities. The first thing an employer looked at on a resume was the name of the person who recommended the applicant—and woe to the applicant who didn’t “belong” to someone important. “There’s an opening for a high office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The candidates include a political scientist, a lawyer, and a diplomat. Who gets the job? Ceauşescu’s cousin.”
The incongruity between the regime’s negative portrayal of the outside world and the very different image drawn from personal contacts or movies and books fascinated the populace. “They will soon be building a six-lane highway linking Bucharest and Frankfurt. Three lanes will go from Bucharest to Frankfurt and the other three will be for passing.” One great hope of the people was that the Americans would eventually rescue them from socialism. “The oldest living citizen of Romania is being interviewed on television. ‘Say something to the citizens.’ The old man is silent. ‘Look, now, with the help of television, all the socialist countries are listening. Say something.’ The old man is silent still. ‘OK, now through Panavision, the whole world is listening.’ ‘The Americans too?’ he asks. ‘Yes, them too.’ ‘Heeeeeeeelp!’”
Finally, satire signaled the failure of socialist propaganda. The ridicule with which the system was treated may not have been the sole reason for its demise, but it was certainly a sign that the system was kept in power by force, not persuasion. Official media was held in contempt: “’What do you think about Scanteia?’ ‘Excellent newspaper.’ ‘And Lumea?’ ‘Too thick. It clogs the toilet.’” The ridiculousness of the cult of personality and the jarring contrast between the ever-present superlatives in any speech regarding Nicolae Ceauşescu’s socialist system and its obvious failings also lent itself to black humor. “A minister visits Nicolae Ceauşescu in his palace. Staring at the luxurious surroundings, he forgets himself for a moment and exclaims, ‘Oh my God!’ Ceauşescu replies, ‘Come, come—in private, feel free to call me Comrade First Secretary.’”
While there seems to be something in the human disposition which can find humor in any situation, even life under communism, it should not be forgotten that telling jokes was dangerous. The secret police—and informers—were always watching, and any allusion to dissatisfaction with the system could put one’s life at risk. Joke-tellers could be jailed, and given prison conditions and the attitudes of the jailers, this could mean death. Humor in those days was in fact a very serious matter.
Today, in Romania, the socialist regime has fallen, but cynical attitudes towards the government are still strong. During the recent antigovernment protests—the biggest since the fall of communism—one got the impression that humor is not only no longer dangerous, it’s mandatory. The wry humor being brought to bear on governmental corruption and poor economic performance recalls that of communist days. “It’s gotten so bad even the introverts are out on the street,” some signs say, while others call for the jailing of corrupt politicians with slogans like “make Jilava [Prison] great again.” One sign warned politicians that only a crazy person angers a nation whose favorite desert is coliva, the sweet cake baked in memory of the dead. Echoing an older admiration of the west, some signs reference Canada’s recent lifting of its visa requirement for Romanian tourists by saying, “Our worries are over. We’re going to Canada.” Along the same lines, one entertainment site jokingly suggested that a new anti-corruption referendum include the question, “Do you want to check your bags?”
This time around, however, the country is not united, but rather split in its support or criticism for government. The oppressor is not as clearly defined as in previous times. Rather than the grandiose, utopian propaganda of the socialist regime, there are different, subtler types of disinformation circulating.
From ironically crafted fairytales and funny village nicknames to the subversive humor of the socialist days, satire has long been a Romanian hallmark. While the type of humor used today reflects the confusing, dynamic new media environment, it shows that a new generation is finding its satirical voice. Today’s politicians should pay attention—lest they find themselves the subject of tomorrow’s biting anecdote.
For more about Romanian humor under communism, see C. Banc and A. Dundes, First Prize, Fifteen Years!: An Annotated Collection of Romanian Political Jokes, from which some of these jokes have been adapted.