Soviet Know-How.

I’m almost finished reading Jonathan Waterlow’s It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), and it’s going to feature prominently in my year-end roundup for The Millions — it’s a terrific book that looks at Stalin’s USSR from an unusual perspective, that of the jokes people told (and sometimes got in trouble for). It’s not about the jokes themselves (he doesn’t quote all that many of them), it uses that lens to view a society that’s too often described by scholars who tend to favor their own theories over the lives people lived. Waterlow, while a historian with a PhD from Oxford, is not a professor and has no theoretical ax to grind; he does know a lot about people and how they adjust to the world around them, and his account is refreshing and eye-opening. I’m going to quote a passage from chapter 5 on what he calls “know-how”:

These fragments of ‘wisdom’ and insight [i.e., anekdoty, ‘jokes’] worked as a ‘sense-making device’ — a term which the sociologist Andrea Mayr has used to describe prison argot: it’s an ‘insider’ idiom which grows to enable the powerless to share their own, unofficial understandings of the world they cohabit alongside, and yet apart from, the official.

The argot-like shadow language of acronyms and secret meanings known between people who trusted each other to share them […] was not used solely as a throwaway game to elicit a momentary smile or knowing look, but could also convey significant information about how the Soviet system actually worked. […] I call this body of unofficial understandings and advice ‘know-how‘. […]

He tells a joke about a class of children asked by their teacher to raise their hand if they’re in favor of executing “wreckers” (when two fail to raise their hands, a fellow student explains “They’re new — they don’t know that raising your hand is obligatory”) and another about a teacher who asks “If I buy a case of apples for 25 roubles and sell it for 50 roubles, what do I get?” (“‘Three years in jail,’ chorused the class”), then continues:

More revealing still, these jokes dramatised the fact that people had to learn how to act and what (not) to say under the regime, because it was often far from self-evident. Like children at school, everyone had to be socialised according to the norms of this new society. As Christina Kiaer and Eric Naiman have put it [in Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside], ‘in linguistic terms, ideology was transformed from a native to an acquired tongue, a language of which there were no native speakers’. But if they were learning to ‘speak Bolshevik’ in the real classrooms, many adults were simultaneously learning to speak sense between one another.

I like the idea of Stalinist ideology as “a language of which there were no native speakers.” (If, like me, you’re curious about it, the surname Waterlow “is a habitational name thought to have been taken on from the since lost place, Wadlow in Toddington, Bedfordshire.”)


  1. Still no comments? Clearly, everyone is too scared to speak their mind about this post. Silence will not protect you, comrades! Your approval is obligatory.

  2. PlasticPaddy says
    Whilst the post seems to be more about the establishment and enforcement of a new orthodoxy by more or less crude methods, I think there was a genuine problem of how to encourage peasants to act autonomously and consider themselves to be citizens and not slaves. This would also have been a problem in the transformation of a predominantly agrarian society to a “bourgeois democracy”, although in that case, the kulaks would have been natural allies of the government.

  3. Lars Mathiesen says

    Please take our silence as enthusiasm.

  4. Trond Engen says

    Oh, sorry. I was so busy clapping I must have missed the sign for stopping,

  5. Silence will not protect you, comrades! Your approval is obligatory.

    *awards Lameen Stalin Prize, 1st degree*

  6. Camaraderie is mandatory, comrades!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Pah! You are all mere running-dog reactionary approval-monger hyenas!
    Long live the Fourth International!

  8. Silence is violence!

  9. Long live the Fourth International!

    You are out of date, comrade; the Fifth International is where it’s at.

  10. (Heh. Wikipedia has a List of Trotskyist internationals.)

  11. Communist Internationals are in competition with French Republics…

  12. Trond Engen says

    There are probably about as many Trotskyist Internationals as there are Trotskyists. For some time the number of factions was constrained by the number of available fax machines, until technology freed the masses a couple of decades ago,

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Hmm. According to the google books n-gram viewer (with all of its various flaws and limitations), “Trotskyite” was used more frequently than “Trotskyist” from 1934 through 1967 but then the trendlines crossed, with “-ist” recently being about twice as common as “-ite.” But I would nonetheless use “-ite” if left to my own druthers. Is this an exonym/endonym difference, or something else?

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I believe the usual endonym for “Trotskyite” is “Communist”, or sometimes simply “Socialist”; this is analogous to the way other small ethnic groups call themselves by a name literally meaning “(real) people.”

  15. Trond Engen says

    In my case it’s probably just non-native English.

    Also, we write Trotskij but trotskyist. I hadn’t thought about that.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, if Trond is going with the current majority variant in the corpus and I’m going with the minority variant, that’s not particularly compelling evidence that he’s not a native speaker. (Unless the corpus is heavily stocked with hits from texts written by non-native speakers, which seems unlikely but not impossible.) I do think that maybe the -ite variant has a more pejorative vibe than the -ist just as a general matter of the semantics of suffixes apart from particular negative judgments about particular referents, but I take David E.’s point re endonyms and how some sectarians don’t like to self-identify as a mere sect.

  17. David Marjanović says

    I’d interpret “-ist” as “believer in the ideology of that name” and “-ite” as “follower of the person”, easily pejorative as “unthinking follower of whatever the leader says”. Of course that’s not likely to be more than a statistical tendency at best, and of course it breaks down when the ideology is a personality cult in the first place.

    some sectarians don’t like to self-identify as a mere sect

    The Church of God and the Assembly of God come to mind.

    Then there are compromise phenomena like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which fulfill both needs at once.

  18. The Day of Unanimity is my favorite part of We, with the totalitarian sophistry about how the vote is unanimous even if there are opposing votes.

  19. Don’t forget the Church of Christ Without Christ.

  20. jack morava says

    A Russian (academic) colleague once told me that the default convention in Russian email was that no response was to be taken as affirmation. I remember this as interesting tea-time chat but wonder how seriously to take it. It seems like an awfully broad generalization, and anyway, internet conventions change with time. I wonder if anyhatter has any information relevant to this? It seems to have theory of games [eg prisoner’s dilemma] overtones.

  21. Sounds like nonsense to me, but I am not a Russian academic.

  22. the default convention in Russian email was that no response was to be taken as affirmation

    Never heard about it. It would be extrenmely stupid, because you never know whether your e-mail was read at all. Maybe it is some strange iteration of Russian saying “silence is the sign of agreement”, which is also is honored in the breach about as often as in the following.

  23. The Church of Christ Without Christ.
    Free association: the hilarious “Church of St.-Peter-without-the-walls” in Waugh’s The Loved One.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    “I presume the Loved One was Caucasian?”
    “No, why did you think that? He was purely English.”

  25. The Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls is a real church, the outermost of the four urban Roman basilicas. Some of the other urban and suburbicarian* Catholic churches are also sometimes identified by an “outside the walls” cognomen.

    * Is there any other context in which the word suburbicarian is used instead of suburban?

  26. Planchet [d’Artagnan’s servant]: “And where in the Bible does it say that Englishman is your neighbor?” (quoted from memory)

  27. It’s not in Les Trois Mousquetaires (I searched on “frère”).

  28. It’s from Vingt Ans après, “Où avez-vous vu dans les écritures, je vous le demande, que
    les Anglais fussent votre prochain?” But it is not Planchet, it’s Mousqueton. Eh, bien!

  29. Brett: in the story, the pompous American founder of the cemetery visits the original St. Peter’s. He thinks it’s a great idea to have a church without walls, and has to be explained how come the church he is visiting has them.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Où avez-vous vu dans les écritures, je vous le demande, que les Anglais fussent votre prochain?

    Mousqueton’s method is basically sound: it is good exegetical technique to interpret difficult passages in the Scriptures in the light of the Scriptures themselves. My only quibble would be that it is not always wise to rely on the argumentum ex silentio; yet, who can deny that if God had truly meant us to love the English, he would surely have made it clearer?

  31. David Marjanović says

    – Richard IV, played by BRIAN BLESSED

  32. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    In Latin and Italian, before the ecclesiastical dioceses and their sees were suburbicarian, so were the Constantinian civil diocese of Italia suburbicaria and its provinces. The latter may not be translated into English, though. They don’t seem to on Wikipedia.

    My fallible understanding of the distinction in the Roman context is that suburban conveys de facto subordination to the city as the center of gravity, while suburbicarian conveys de iure subordination to the authority of city officials: the vicarius in the civil case, or the bishop in the ecclesiastical one.

    If this applied to other cities, Staten Island would be suburbicarian and New Jersey merely suburban. But I’m afraid only one urbs has any suburbicarian underlings.

  33. John Cowan says

    I was so busy clapping

    With one hand.


    Interestingly, adam is actually the Turkish word for “man”.

  35. @Fancua: Of course, in the original Hebrew, it was also a word for “man,” as well as “red.”

    However, the name “Adam” is not in the actual Blackadder quote.

  36. Not exactly. אָדָם ādām ‘primeval man’ < אֲדָמָה ădāmā ‘earth’ < אדם ʔdm ‘be red’ (e.g. אָדֹם ādom ‘red sg.masc.’) < דָּם dām ‘blood’. The derivations occurred in earlier stages of Semitic, so these Hebrew reflexes are stand-ins for earlier forms.

  37. January First-of-May says

    “Church of St.-Peter-without-the-walls”

    In this context, of course, without is the antonym of within (a sense otherwise almost entirely extinct), i.e. basically means “outside”. But it does sound silly.

    Google search results appear to mention three different real (or real-sounding, at least) churches of St.-Peter-without-the-walls, in Calais, Rome, and Vienne, though as all three are mentioned in reference to very old (medieval) events, I doubt that even one of those three is still standing.
    (On further search I suspect that the Roman one is a mistaken reference to the basilica of St. Paul. No idea about the other two.)

    Unless the corpus is heavily stocked with hits from texts written by non-native speakers, which seems unlikely but not impossible.

    It might also be relevant that the Russian form is троцкист, with the -ist suffix (and offhand I can’t think of any other realistic derivation).

  38. suburbanus vs. suburbicarius: Georges’ Handwörterbuch has almost exactly the same translations for both headwords: “nahe bei der Stadt, im Weichbild der Stadt (Rom) befindlich” (the only difference being the placement of “(Rom)”. Forcellini’s Lexicon totius Latinitatis is explicit, suburbicarius is defined as “idem ac sububanus”; with an additional note “Apud scriptores Ecclesiasticos suburbicariae Ecclesiae dictae sunt, quae in suburbano Romae erant”. The main difference seems to be that there are a lot more citations for suburbanus, most of them from classical authors like Cicero or Tacitus, whereas suburbicarius seems to be restricted to late and obscure authors.

  39. David Marjanović says

    However, the name “Adam” is not in the actual Blackadder quote.

    Oh, so the German dub made that up. I later watched it in English, but somehow forgot…

  40. David Marjanović says

    Now that I’ve watched it, it’s ridiculously different. *deep breath* Dubbing.

    For the record: “As the Good Lord said, love thy neighbour, unless he’s Turkish, in which case – kill the bastard!” Not even that loud. Amazingly, the dub managed to exaggerate the shouting.

  41. Trond Engen says

    Trotskist in Norwegian too of course. That hurts. I’m reading too much English, but I thought I was immune to anglicism.

  42. John Cowan says

    As someone who was born inside the Trotskyist/ite movement, I can affirm that there is no consistent endonym. Trotskyist parties are about as consistently named as Lutheran denomination or the various revolutionary organizations in The Life of Brian.

  43. “The discovery of the Hittist language, an Anatolian language closely related to Luwian, provided important information about the nature of the Proto-Indo-European language…”

  44. “The discovery of the Hittist language, an Anatolist language closely related to Luwist, provided important information about the nature of the Proto-Indo-Europist language…”

  45. Protist-Indo-European?

  46. Spoken by our ancestors the slime molds.

  47. Nos ancêtres les myxomycètes.

  48. “Relations between Functionalites and Generativites have been, shall we say, frosty.”

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Nanki-Poo: But how good of you (for I see that you are a nobleman of the highest rank) to condescend to tell all this to me, a mere strolling minstrel!

    Pooh-Bah: Don’t mention it. I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable.

  50. Lars Mathiesen says

    Trotskist — what a delicious tangle of coronal and velar stuff. One traditional tongue twister in Danish is stativ stakit kasket (stand, fence, cap — there is no meaning, just say it fast five times and it won’t be the same words any more).

    Also, den der tier, samtykker. It’s not just the Russians.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Nos ancêtres les myxomycètes.

    This has to be an actual French song title… but the Google conspiracy hides it from me somehow.

  52. David Marjanović says

    …and I never mentioned…

    Russian saying “silence is the sign of agreement”

    Older Than Feudalism: quis tacet, placet or quis tacet consentire videtur.


    Once upon a time, Algeria was socialist enough to officially have full employment. The unemployed mocked this by saying it was their job to prop up the wall (ḥit, IIRC) they were leaning against, so they were hittistes

  53. Nos ancêtres les myxomycètes
    Ont inspiré toutes nos conquêtes.

  54. Trond Engen says

    Google doesn’t know it. Did you just come up with that now? If so, I’m officially impressed. (If not, I’m still impressed by the delivery.)

  55. Did you just come up with that now?

    Mais oui. Pardon merci, je suis le grand zombie!

  56. David Marjanović says

    Nos ancêtres les myxomycètes
    Ont inspiré toutes nos conquêtes.

    Donc on jète par la fenêtre
    Chacun qui peut-être les rejète !!!

    (…Yes, that’s fenêtre and peut-être in one syllable each, and les rejète in two even though that puts the [e] into a closed syllable.)

    BTW, slime molds are pretty close to animals, but not as close as actual molds. 🙂

  57. I think it’s kind of amazing that multicellularity seems to have evolved at least four separate times just among the opisthokonts.


  1. […] Languagehat on Jonathan Waterlow on Soviet-era humor, including the idea of Stalinist ideology as a language with no native speakers. That’s related to the point that “people had to learn how to act and what (not) to say under the regime, because it was often far from self-evident.” I love this idea, and it reminds me of stories of apolitical and naive people in Il’f and Petrov’s Little Golden Calf (Золотой теленок, 1931) or Vaginov’s Goat Song (Козлиная песнь, 1927). (I posted about a story Waterlow tells here.) […]

Speak Your Mind