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Serious Jokes

Reagan in June 1984. Senator Paul Laxalt is at left. (National Archives)

Today on the homepage, I begin a series on Vladimir Bukovsky — the legendary Soviet dissident, who was in the Gulag for twelve years and released to the West in 1976. He has had a consequential, often stormy life since. (Hell, he had a consequential, stormy life before.) We talked over the waterfront recently at his home in Cambridge, England. Part I of this series is here.

In our conversation, I asked Bukovsky about a number of figures, most of them Russian or American. These include Carter, Reagan, Trump, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. There is some Reagan material in Part I.

Speaking of material: Reagan loved Soviet political jokes. “Whenever he saw one of us,” Bukovsky told me, “he would immediately ask, ‘Got any new jokes?’”

Reagan’s favorite was this one: A man stands in the line to buy a car. He plunks down the money for his new car. The person in charge says, “Come back in ten years to pick up your car.” The buyer says, “Morning or afternoon?” “Does it really matter?” says the person in charge. “Yes — the plumber’s scheduled to come in the morning.”

There are videos of Reagan telling this joke. Here’s one.

Bukovsky, of course, has favorite jokes of his own. One of them goes like this:

In the morning, Brezhnev walks onto his balcony and says, “Good morning, sun!” The sun says, “Good morning, Comrade Brezhnev, General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Glorious Soviet Union!” After lunch, Brezhnev goes out onto his balcony again and says, “Good afternoon, sun!” The sun replies, “Good afternoon, Comrade Brezhnev, General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Great, Historic Soviet Union!” Later, as the sun is setting, Brezhnev says, “Good evening, sun!” The sun says, “F*** you, Leonid. I’m in the West now.”

You know, I first heard this joke about Erich Honecker, the East German boss. And I believe I heard it from George Shultz, in a 2008 interview. I can’t be entirely sure. In the piece I wrote, I related another joke about Honecker, told by Shultz:

Honecker has this hot new girlfriend, and he’s crazy about her. He says, “I’ll do anything for you.” “Anything, Erich?” says this babe. “Yes, anything.” “All right, then. I want you to tear down the Berlin Wall.” Honecker thinks for a second and says, “Oh! I see. You want to be alone with me!”

Jokes seem to be a necessary release in an oppressed society. Now that I think about it: I have never heard any jokes from the PRC, from Syria, from North Korea … That would be a good little research project.

(Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of the Middle East, collected jokes from all over, particularly the Middle East — he thought they were telling, which they are indeed.)

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