Sunday, April 19, 2020

Latest Chukchi Joke Speaks to that Nation’s Past and Perhaps to Russia’s Future

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 17 – In the last decades of Soviet power, one of the most popular forms of humor was the Chukchi joke in which a resident of the country as far away from Moscow as possible was presented in one of two ways, either as hopelessly backward or alternatively as having far more insights into Soviet reality than anyone else.

            The first kind were often openly racist and should be recalled only to be condemned and forgotten, but the second remain telling. One of this writer’s favorites goes as follows: A young Chukchi drives across the USSR, comes into Moscow, pulls into Red Square, and parks his car right in the middle.

            A Soviet militiaman runs up and tells the young man that he can’t park there. The Chukchi replies reasonably that he’s just driven thousands of kilometers from his homeland, wants to see the sights of the capital, is really very tired, and besides doesn’t see any “no parking” signs.

            At that the Soviet cop loses it. He gets mad and tells the Chukchi that Red Square is the center of the Soviet state and that important people, even members of the Politburo go back and forth across it all the time. That gets the Chukchi’s attention; and after a moment, he replies: “Thank you officer; I did forget to lock up.”

            Now, as part of a survey of the numerically small peoples of the North, Andrey Filimonov of the SibReal portal reports a new Chukchi joke, one that he suggests is not only “clever” but “important” for what it says about the members of that nationality and its past as well as about Russians and their future (

            According to the story, “the following results were obtained during a sociological survey of the residents of Chukotka: five percent support the president, ten percent don’t, but 85 percent ask “who is this president you are talking about?”

            The indigenous population of that land across the Bering Strait from Alaska and about as far from Moscow as you can get without being in another country call themselves not Chukchis – that is an outside imposition but dyg’o ravetd’ap or “real people.” There are fewer than 16,000 of them and they’re divided between whale hunters and reindeer herders.

            But they have always valued their independence. They resisted the expansion of the Russian Empire so mightily that Catherine the Great decided they were too far away and of too little importance for her to continue to spend so much money to try to enforce Russian laws there. Instead, she decreed that they could obey what they wanted and pay what they wanted.

            “After the Civil War,” Filimonov says, “communist agitators appeared who explained to the local population that ‘the revolution had freed them from centuries of tsarist oppression.’ But that propagandistic device didn’t work with the Chukchis – they never felt oppressed and did not understand why they must be grateful to Lenin and Stalin.”

            Told that they would now be free to organize their own lives, the Chukchis responded reasonably “Perhaps Lenin doesn’t know that we have organized our own life always?” Among the evidence for that is the role of shamans, trade with Americans, and a knowledge of English among many Chukchis even in Soviet times.

            “Until the start of the 20th century, the journalist continues, “Chukchis living on the coast were beyond any Russian sphere of influence. Many of them spoke English. They used the American system of measurements in feet and miles and also the Gregorian calendar.” And some had relatives in San Francisco. They had no interest in being viewed as “a backward people.”

            Contacts between the Chukchi and Alaska continued until after World War II when as a result of the Cold War, Moscow finally closed them down.

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