Thursday, April 19, 2018

Five Reasons Russians Tell Chukchi Jokes

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 19 – No nationality in the post-Soviet space is the subject of so many jokes as the Chukchi, a numerically small people of the north living almost as far from Moscow as one can get. Indeed, that is the usual explanation for their popularity: Few have ever met a Chukchi and thus are not at risk of offending one by telling jokes.

            But because such jokes are so widespread, Orynganym Tanatarova, a Chukchi writer, says, many people want to know how this situation came to be, especially since “no linguist, historian or ethnographer can say with 100-percent certainty why namely the Chukchi became the subjects” of so many jokes (

            She suggests there are five main theories. According to the first, ignorance about this northern people was initially so great that Russians elsewhere were prepared to believe almost anything some one told them about the Chukchi, and the anecdotes often presented them with respect or not as people fundamentally different than Russians or anyone else.

            The second theory involves the treatment of the Chukchis in Soviet films.  In many such films, such as Vitaly Melnikov’s wildly popular ‘The Boss of Chukotka’ (1967), the Chukchis were presented as “naïve simpletons.” This led to the multiplication of stories about the Chukchis in which they were almost always presented in an unflattering way.

            Melnikov’s film was so over the top in this regard, Tanatarova says, that the Magadan oblast committee of the CPSU filed a public protest as did the staff of the Scientific Research Institute for the North East. Unfortunately, she continues, these objections did little to stem the tide of humor denigrating the Chukchis.

            The third theory is that the Chukchis liked laughing at themselves and were delighted to come up with stories that showed them to good advantage compared to others.  They laughed at how they were portrayed by Melnikov because they knew how wrong he was – and their response was picked up by some others, some scholars claim.

            Tanatarova notes that “among the Chukchis are encountered people who live by telling jokes and funny stories” and that such people are respected by the community. Thus, “the reindeer herders like anecdotes” and soon they began sending into the Russian community stories that they had come up with on their own.

            The fourth theory, related to the second, is that the Chukchis believed that the real joke was on the Russians rather than on them.  The people the Russians call Chukchis call themselves Luogavetlans. For them, the word “Chukchi” refers to the owners of many reindeer. In making fun of the Chukchis, the Russians are unwittingly making fun of successful people, not failures.

            And the fifth theory, Tanatarova says, is that the Soviet leadership encouraged the telling of such hokes both to allow Russians to let off steam in a safe way and also to encourage Russians to think that it was perfectly fine for them to take away the wealth of the Far North because the Chukchis couldn’t exploit themselves.

            In short, “the authorities wanted somehow to justify the colonization of the enormous territories earlier occupied by the Chukchis and the extraction of resources from their lands immemorial. Therefore,” she says, “the representatives of this people were intentionally portrayed as good people but incapable of independently organizing their lives.”

            Tarantarova does not offer any examples of Chukchi jokes, but those who care about such things know there are two kinds, one that makes fun of the Chukchis in an ugly, even racist way; and a second in which the Chukchis behave in a way that makes fun of the Russians or even the Soviet political system.      

            Here is an example of the first kind: A young Chukchi comes to enroll in the Institute of Literature in Moscow. The director asks him if he has read this or that author. In every case, the Chukchi says no; and so the director says that there really isn’t a place in the institute for someone who hasn’t done any reading. The Chukchi responds that he didn’t come to become a reader but rather to become a writer.

            And here is an example of the second kind: A young Chukchi drives all the way across the Soviet Union, pulls into Red Square and starts to walk away. A Soviet militiaman comes up and tells him he can’t park there. The Chukchi notes that he doesn’t see any no parking signs. That leads the militiaman to explode: “But this is the center of the Soviet state, important people, even members of the Politburo go across here all the time.”

            That gets the Chukchi’s attention, and after a brief reflection, he responds: “Thank you officer, I did forget to lock my car.”

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