Autumn 1999 (7.3)
In Search of Truth?
Look No Further than Jokes and Anecdotes
I visited the U.S. for the first time in 1973. I was with a group of film directors and writers from Baku and we toured New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. We went to the top of the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. We toured the numerous museums in New York-the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. In California, we traveled to Muir Woods, Disneyland and even the San Diego Zoo. And, of course, as filmmakers, we made the rounds in Hollywood.
Photo: Khrushchev at Oil Rocks on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Soviet Power, April 1960. National Archives.
Life in America, while glorious and much less restricted than our own, had its own contradictions. We were visiting Washington at the peak of Nixon's Watergate scandal. Of course, we had heard a lot about democracy and understood it intellectually, but we were admittedly shocked to see someone standing outside the President's Oval Office handing out leaflets full of scathing accusations against the President himself. No matter how progressive and independent minded some of us thought we were, such blatant disregard for authority and freedom of expression was beyond our imagination.
Photo: Oil Rocks, the world's first offshore oil drilling operation, 1959. National Archives.
Seeing these things burdened our hearts as we thought about the lack of human rights back in our own backyard-the USSR. Ordinary Soviet citizens were not even allowed near our leader's office-the Kremlin-much less inside it, expressing critical views to every passerby.
Our tour guide turned out to be an older woman who had emigrated from Yugoslavia. She was an American citizen and fluent in Russian. On that trip, I was sharing a hotel room with Azerbaijan's well-known writer Magsud Ibrahimbeyov. This guide took it upon herself to try to smuggle books to the two of us. They were in Russian but had been published in the West. Of course, all of them were packed with anti-Soviet sentiment.
I'll never forget our last night in New York City before we left for Moscow the next day. We had hardly had any time to read any of those books.
Magsud finally reached the conclusion: "No problem, whatever we don't finish reading, we'll just pack and take with us."
"No," I cautioned. "The customs officials might discover them-we'd lose our chances to ever travel again."
"You can do what you want to, but I'm going to take mine back with me," said Magsud.
"No way," I insisted. "I won't let you. Better to stay up all night reading them."
And so we did. All night long-passing books back and forth to each other. It was amazing what we discovered in those books-ways that the KGB stalked people, persecuting and torturing them. The unbearable conditions in Soviet jails and psychiatric wards, and the horror of Stalin's labor camps.
The next morning Magsud admitted: "You were right. We would have been in trouble if we had tried to take these home."
But then we had to figure out how to get rid of the books. We couldn't just leave them in our room. Agents would have questioned us immediately. Culturally, we couldn't give them back to our guide who had so graciously given them to us in the first place.
"Why don't we leave the books on some other floor of the hotel-not this one," I suggested.
"Which floor?" Magsud wondered.
"Well, why not the 17th floor?"
"Well, you know, the October Revolution broke out in 1917," I replied.
So we gathered up the books, carried them up to the 17th floor, left them in the corridor and hurried back to our room.
But that wasn't the end. When our plane landed in Moscow and we were going through customs, our friend Polad Bulbul-oglu [now Azerbaijan's Minister of Culture] came over to welcome us back. Polad was one of the most popular variety singers in the Soviet Union at the time. He spent more time in Moscow than in Baku and often traveled abroad. Therefore he had a lot of friends at the airport.
Photo: Chernenko and Brezhnev in Baku, 1978. National Archives.
Nodding to one of the guards, he said, "Vasya, let them pass, they're my friends." It was as simple as that.
Then Magsud started blaming me: "Did you see? No one checked us. I shouldn't have listened to you, I wish I had brought those books with me."
"But what if Polad hadn't come and they had caught you?" I asked.
The truth is, I had dared to pack one of those books in my bag-one that we hadn't had time to read. It was George Orwell's novel "1984." The title sounded innocuous enough-like fiction. Later on when we started reading it, we realized that this allegory was even more anti-Soviet than any of the rest of them.
Time solved our argument. Fifteen or sixteen years later, all of those forbidden books were somehow circulating quite widely throughout the Soviet Union. Some were even being published in Russia, giving everybody the chance to read them. By the early 1980s even newspapers were exposing the horrors of the Soviet period.
Sense of Humor
Many years have gone by since that trip and even eight years have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It all seems so far away, as if we were talking about a completely different century, like, for example, the Middle Ages. It's true, the Soviet system was somewhat like the Middle Ages with its feudal system. When we think back on those years, it's strange that we not only think about the crimes of that system but also about its humorous moments. People expressed their true feelings about the society, its political system and leaders only by anecdotes whispered in one another's ears. Jokes were the most popular and most democratic of folklore genres during the Soviet period. Many of those jokes are still vivid in my mind.
Two Sparrows-A Joke
Two sparrows meet in the air. One of them is flying from the USA to the USSR and the other is going in exactly the opposite direction.
The sparrow from the USSR asks the USA sparrow: "Why are you leaving the USA?"
The bird replies: "Because the USA is tying the bales of wheat that it sends to the USSR so tightly and loading them so efficiently that not even a single seed drops out. So I'm starved. Those bales are heading for your country where they say that half the wheat is lost and scattered around wherever the bales are unloaded. So I'm flying there to get some food.
"And where are you coming from?" the USA bird asked.
"From the USSR. I'm flying to America."
"But why? Isn't it true that seeds are dropping out of bales there?"
"Then why are you heading to America?"
"I'd like to chirp a little bit."
Or there's another one that describes the twisted irony of the Soviet bureaucracy in six steps. It went like this:
1. There is no unemployment in the USSR, however no one is working.
2. No one is working, but all the plans are fulfilled.
3. All the plans are fulfilled but the shops lie empty.
4. The shops are empty, yet everyone has everything they want at home.
5. Everyone has everything at home but everyone is disgruntled.
6. Everyone is disgruntled, nevertheless everyone votes together in common consent.
Gaining Stalin's Favor
Another category of jokes targeted the Soviet leaders-like Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Of course, their own personalities and activities fueled those anecdotes.
Our late maestro Niyazi told me the following anecdote about Stalin. In 1938, during the celebration known as "The Decade of Azerbaijani Art", which was held in Moscow, Uzeyir Hajibeyov's opera "Koroglu" was performed at the Bolshoi Theater. After the performance, Stalin and a number of other Politburo members met with the composer and the performers.
One of the members of Stalin's close circles complimented Hajibeyov by saying, "You should write two more operas like that."
But Stalin interrupted him with an emphatic "No."
Uzeyir was taken by surprise at Stalin's abrupt answer which filled him with dread especially since hundreds of thousands of people had been deported to prison camps or labor farms just the year before-1937. One didn't have to be guilty of anything to receive such a verdict. Uzeyir knew that Stalin's opinion would essentially determine the fate of both the work and his career.
After a long pause, Stalin clarified the tense moment: "No, he shouldn't write two more operas; he should write four more."
Jokes about Khrushchev tended to emphasize his stupidity. Once when Khrushchev visited Baku, they gave a banquet in his honor at Oil Rocks, the oil project that had been built up on piers in the Caspian and which was recognized as the world's first offshore drilling project. Attempting to flatter Khrushchev, one of the local leaders told him: "It's so difficult for us to run even this small field here, it must be immensely difficult for our dear Nikita Sergeyevich to rule such a vast country."
To which Khrushchev, who was already stone drunk by that time, replied: "It's not difficult at all. Any stupid old clod can do it."
Another anecdote relates how Khrushchev was visiting one of the Central Asian countries and was met by the elders in the community. Such leaders are called "aghsaggals" which means "the ones with the white beards" who are highly respected for their wisdom and experience. But Khrushchev mispronounced their title and called them "saxauls" which in Turkic languages identifies the name of a cactus-like plant.
Of course, many people remember the episode when Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on the table when he was addressing the UN. "We will bury you," he had threatened the West. Despite this outburst, we must never forget the crucial role Khrushchev played in breaking Stalin's dictatorial grip and in daring to "dethrone" his predecessor after his death , especially since a huge personality cult had been built up around him. Khrushchev loosened the noose on the republics, which eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union. We must respect him from this point of view. [An ironic twist took place in the summer of 1999, when Khrushchev's grandson became a citizen of the United States.]
I myself witnessed some of the melancholic comedy that was related to Brezhnev. Once Brezhnev was giving a speech in Baku at what is now called Respublica Palace (at the time, it was known as Lenin's Palace). In the middle of his speech, I noticed that Heydar Aliyev and a number of other dignitaries who had come from Moscow were looking on quite nervously and whispering among themselves.
Eventually, one of them went up to the platform and whispered something in Brezhnev's ear. Brezhnev nodded and said, "Hmmm," but continued reading his speech. Again, those dignitaries started whispering to each other. Finally, Heydar Aliyev (now our President) got up, went to the platform, replaced the text with a new one right while Brezhnev was reading.
Brezhnev started reading the new text in the same robot-like monotone. Realizing that some of the ideas were the same as what he had just read, he interrupted himself and said: "It seems as if I've already read this."
It turns out that he had confused the two texts. One speech was intended for the meeting during the day; the other was for a banquet that would follow in the evening. Some of the text was common to both speeches.
In any case, if Brezhnev had continued with the first speech at the end, it would have read, "Now let's raise this toast..."
I once had a chance to observe Brezhnev very closely. He was panting heavily like a fish out of water, almost like he was choking. And his eyes were glazed over. When you looked at him closely, he seemed like a robot dressed as a human and wearing a human mask. Eventually Brezhnev died, and Andropov replaced him. It wasn't long until Andropov also died and then Chernenko replaced him. And then came Gorbachev.
A true life experience in 1985 made me realize just how much Communist Party members had already lost respect for the political hierarchy in the Soviet Union.
At that time, I had the occasion to go to Nakhchivan as part of the Theater Society. After putting on a drama there, we were supposed to continue on to another region. But the following day, we heard that the head of our delegation, producer Shamsi Badalbeyli, had fallen ill. His heart was giving him trouble. Shamsi urged me to go ahead even though he wouldn't be able to join us. He was lying in bed and looking very pale when I left him. His son Farhad Badalbeyli, a well-known pianist, was by his side.
We were concerned but we left Shamsi Muallim [a polite term meaning "teacher" that was very common during the Soviet period] and headed on to the next region. When the mayor of that region was welcoming us and explaining the program, someone came up to him and whispered something in his ear. The mayor turned pale, and began to consult with the Secretary of the Communist Party. Then he apologized to me: "We'll have to postpone the theatrical production. But let's go have dinner anyway, and then you can go back to Nakhchivan."
"What's happening?" I asked.
"The man died."
"What?" I replied, shocked. "Get me a car, I'll have to return to Nakhchivan right away."
"Anar Muallim," he begged, "stay and have dinner with us.
We've arranged a small banquet here; you can go later."
"What are you talking about? Banquet? Dinner? I can't do that. We're close family friends. His son is there all by himself having to deal with the situation alone. I'll have to head back right away."
As I glanced around, I noticed that the local leadership and the Secretary of the Communist Party were eyeing me rather suspiciously. After a few minutes, it became evident that there had been a dreadful misunderstanding.
Thank God, the man who had died wasn't Shamsi Muallim at all. It was the leader of our country, Chernenko (1911-1985). That's why everybody had been so surprised at my reaction when I insisted that we were close family friends and that I didn't want to leave his son alone during those difficult moments.
Of course, the death of every man is a loss, and may God rest Chernenko's soul. Our relief came not because Chernenko had died, but because Shamsi Muallim was very much alive. We dined together that evening and raised our glasses in toasts and celebration.
Later, Nakhchivan's Secretary of the Communist Party approached me: "Who do you think we are, Anar Muallim? Did you think that we would have carried out that banquet if Shamsi Muallim had died? No, never. After all, we are Muslim."
His words made me realize that we had already entered into a new period that Gorbachev would call "Perestroika" - Restructuring. Such an incident would never have happened on the occasion of Stalin's or Brezhnev's death. Something had already begun to change in the psychology of the people and in the common spirit and structure of society. Even though we could sense these changes taking place, none of us could ever have imagined what the final consequences would be in such a short period of time.
So at the same time that Chernenko was being mourned in Moscow, we were entertaining ourselves in Nakhchivan. It must have been our destiny to part from our difficult past by entertaining ourselves. The melancholic comedy of the Soviet system was ending.
Anar is one of the most well-known prose writers in Azerbaijan today. He comes from a distinguished family of writers; his father Rasul Reza and mother Nigar Rafibeyli were also featured in our Literary issue in Spring 1999 [AI 7.1]. Anar, who is President of the Writer's Union, has been a frequent contributor to our magazine.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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