Cracking the code of Russian allusions
August 29, 2013 Alena Tveritina, RBTH
If your Russian is emerging or conversational, but you can still stand in a group, stumped by all the rapid-fire references to films, jokes, plays – Olga Fedina has written a book just for you.

RBTH: Was there a trigger or moment when you decided, ‘This is the book I should write’? If so what was it?

Olga Fedina: The first trigger was probably my personal experience in London. Someone once told me at a party that I reminded him of the Olive Oyl character from Popeye cartoons. Everyone knew what he was talking about, except for me...

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I did not know Radio Yerevan (armyanskoe radio) was still alive and kicking.

I am not talking of course about the real radio stations that broadcast from the capital of Armenia. I mean the particular category of (mostly) politically charged jokes that blossomed in the later years of the Soviet Union. 

Those years, the late 1970s-1980s, were marked by growing cynicism towards the Soviet ideology. The reality of people's life had nothing to do with the picture of the life in the USSR drawn by the government propaganda, and the ultimate aim of the Marxist state, building communism, was proving more and more elusive. This was reflected in such jokes as:

"This is Radio Yerevan; our listener is asking: 
'We are told that the communism is already seen at the horizon. What is a horizon?'
We’re answering: 'Horizon is an imaginary line which moves away each time you approach it.'”

Or:

"This is Radio Yerevan; our listener is asking: 
'What is the difference between Soviet and English fairy tales?'
We’re answering: 'The English fairy tale start with ‘Once upon a time…’, and ours with ‘Soon there will be…’”


These jokes have a typical Radio Yerevan structure: a question is asked to an imaginary radio station, and receives a witty answer. Sometimes the answer includes a "yes, but" or "no, but", followed by the punchline:

"This is Radio Yerevan; our listener is asking:  
'What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both guarantee freedom of speech.'
We’re answering: 'Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.'”


Radio Yerevan has faded away during perestroika time. I do not remember when was the last time I heard the Radio Yerevan joke - until a few weeks ago, when my friend Irina, my husband and I went to Questions to Radio Yerevan event here in Valencia, a project by Graw Böckler artist duo from Germany. 


Ursula Böckler and Georg Graw used the jokes that reflected the decadence of the Soviet system as a means for exploring the crisis of the European system. It was Georg's mother who, even though she was from West Germany (I was surprised these jokes were known beyond the Soviet bloc), brought up the topic of Radio Yerevan when her son said he was taking a trip to Armenia. This is how Ursula and Georg started digging up the old Radio Yerevan jokes out of the oblivion, and use their structure and their mood in their project Radio Shengen, of which they say:

"Europe has entered a period of crisis. There is of course an economical and a political crisis and there is a crisis of personal dissent as well. Many people do not identify with Europe anymore. They even developed a hatred towards a formerly promising utopia. The European Union of today seems an anonymous, bureaucratic monster that took control over peoples lives.The project „Question to Radio Schengen“ creates a connection from this imminent crisis of Europe to the crisis of the declining Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s of the last century. The link between these two empires are jokes."Question to Radio Schengen“ is a new category of political jokes, partly aiming at deconstructing European ideology. 
The jokes will be transposed from the soviet to the European reality. An example: 
"Question to Radio Schengen: Is there a difference between Saddam Hussein and Angela Merkel? 
Radio Schengen answers: In principle, no. Only Merkel does not know it yet.“