Some nations and ethnic groups are famous for their jokes all over the world (Who doesn’t know a good Jewish joke?). Other people’s humour is less prominent or inferior. In many cases the lack of visibility of a nation’s humour can be explained by the lack of attention towards it on behalf of the media, popular culture, and, of course, researchers.
When deciding on my PhD project, I thought I could fill in one of these gaps – and that’s how a thesis on Belarusian family humour was born.
Jokes highlight the Belarusians’ patience
Belarus is an Eastern European country with a population of around 9.4 million. Up until recently Belarus and its people rarely made it to the international news and thus remained very much a “thing-in-itself”, as Kant would have put it.
A stereotypical image of a true Belarusian existed only in Belarusians’ minds, and jokes about Belarusians can be mostly heard and understood within the country itself. Belarusians’ submissiveness and passiveness are among the popular targets of such jokes. Consider the following joke, which exists in many variations in oral and online communication:
A Russian was seated on a bench which had a nail pointing out of it. The Russian sprang up from the bench, crushed it, cursed everyone, and left. A Ukrainian sat [on the same kind of bench]. The Ukrainian stood up, pulled out a nail, took it, and left. A Belarusian sat there too. The Belarusian was sitting and sitting, ouching and ouching, and then said: “But maybe it ought to be this way?” (See the current variant of the joke in Belarusian; you can also find some other jokes on similar topics in this thread).
Such self-deprecating jokes sometimes compare Belarusians with other nations (as in the example above) and emphasize that Belarusians are usually the victims rather than the aggressors. The focus on Belarusians’ tolerance and patience in jokes creates an ambiguous image of the nation. On the one hand, such character traits prevent Belarusians from pursuing their own agenda and defending their rights. On the other hand, they can also be interpreted in a positive light and depict Belarusians as a nation who would choose peaceful means over open conflict.
Family humour solves problems
While jokes with punchlines (called анекдоты in Russian and Belarusian and anekdoodid in Estonian) are rather uniform in the ways they depict Belarusians, family humour is much more diverse. Most of it consists of conversational jokes, funny remarks and nicknames, humorous stories that occurred with family members in the past. Much of this humour is situational and one of a kind: it is quickly forgotten. But some of the jokes and stories stay in the family members’ memory for a long time and are remembered when the context is appropriate.
When I was asking Belarusian families about the role of humour in their lives, almost all of them highlighted its positive effects and its usefulness in solving difficult situations in family life. However, later during the conversation, many of them pointed out that there can be different modalities of humour, and that not all of them are acceptable to their family.
A lot of my research participants underscored that they use only positive humour and avoid making jokes that can be offensive. Of course, sometimes good intentions do not correspond to the practice – some of those who told me that they don’t use aggressive humour in their family communication later brought out examples of teasing their family members (who are not always happy about this teasing). But such “cruel” jokes also have their purpose – they often serve as a corrective mechanism when serious criticism is either ineffective or undesirable. For example, one of my interviewees (a 26-year old female) describes a practical joke she had once played on her husband:
I mostly do the cooking … But on Saturdays he [my husband] must cook breakfast for me. Once he refused to cook it on a Saturday; he said: ‘Cook it yourself’. I said: ‘Okay’ and put two eggs in the microwave oven [where they exploded]. He then had to wash it. Now he cooks [every Saturday], sure thing.
Political disruption makes for new jokes
Not only family life calls for humorous reactions, but also the political situation in Belarus, which has become especially dramatic after the recent elections, where a lot of falsifications were registered. Political humour has been always present in Belarusian folklore. Some of it follows the trends of Soviet political humour, with the names of Soviet political leaders substituted by the name of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko:
A guy is going home from work. He is sober and doesn’t attract any attention. Suddenly an armored police car stops by, riot police officers jump out of the car and start pushing him into the car, hitting him with the batons. The guy shouts: “Let me go, I have voted for Lukashenko!” – “Don’t lie, no one has voted for Lukashenko!” (Here is one of the versions of the joke in Russian)
Belarusian political jokes that have been circulating in the country for decades have a lot of adaptations also outside of Belarus (See my supervisor Anastasiya Astapova’s article about it; I recommend it to anyone interested in political humour). However, sometimes specific situations call for very targeted humorous responses that are particular to the Belarusian context. The recent political disruption has resulted in mass protests that featured a lot of creative and humorous posters:
The top line reads: “Sasha [short for Aleksandr, Lukashenko’s name], we bought you a ticket to The Hague [where the International Criminal Court is located]!” The poster looks like the boarding pass of Belavia, the Belarusian national air company. References to Lukashenko’s crimes that will be investigated in The Hague are popular during the recent protests. The source of this photo is a popular Twitter account that humorously comments on Belarusian news.
Humour reveals who we are
The preferences in both political and family humour in Belarus, as in other countries, depend on people’s age, gender, and personal taste. While men tend to tell more jokes with punchlines, women usually prefer personal stories that happened to them, their friends and family members. The generational divide is visible when we look at the formats of humour. Older people still read and tell textual jokes, but many younger Belarusians admit that they don’t remember any of them anymore. They mostly share memes, pictures, and videos via social media and messenger apps.
It is impossible to study Belarusian humour outside of the wider social, political, and cultural trends that define contemporary communication. Joke plots travel quickly across the globe, as well as the practices of sharing humour. But at the same time, a lot of humour is deeply rooted in the context of a particular nation. Humour itself can be used as an endless source of information about the people who share it.
So whenever you spend hours scrolling social media threads in search of funny images or videos, don’t think that you are wasting your time – in fact, a good joke or a meme can sometimes tell more than a long encyclopedia article.
Anastasiya Fiadotava is Junior Researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum. Recently, she defended her PhD thesis on Belarusian family humour at the University of Tartu.