In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a political joke about Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964–1982, and investigates the joke’s history and meaning.
In late 1982, an elderly woman walks up to one of the guards at the Kremlin in Moscow.
“I’d like to see General Secretary Brezhnev,” she says.
“I’m very sorry, grandma,” says the soldier kindly, “but I’m afraid Comrade Brezhnev has just died.”
The old lady turns and hobbles away.
The next day, she returns, once more asking the guard, “Could I see General Secretary Brezhnev please?”
The soldier thinks the old babushka must be senile and says: “But General Secretary Brezhnev has died.”
She turns and leaves again.
The next day, and the day after and the day after that, the woman returns, asks to see Brezhnev, and is told he’s died.
Finally, when she turns up for the sixth time, the guard’s patience has run out. “Listen, lady, I’ve already told you several times, Brezhnev is dead! Do you hear me? He’s dead, dead, DEAD!”
“I know!” she giggles, “and I’m really sorry to keep bothering you like this. It’s just that I love to hear you saying it!”
The meaning behind the joke
Almost a decade before the collapse of communism, people in the Soviet Union were telling one another political jokes of the sort that could easily have got them locked up not so long beforehand.
By the early 1980s, the USSR was controlled by a gerontocracy headed by Leonid Brezhnev, who in turn was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, and then by the now almost-forgotten Konstantin Chernenko. Jokes about their age and poor health (“Brezhnev needed blood transfusions, Andropov needed dialysis, but Chernenko’s plugged into the mains.”) joined the established cracks about police brutality, bureaucratic corruption and industrial inefficiency. For many years before Gorbachev and his era of glasnost, ordinary people’s fear of the Soviet system was being superseded by almost-open contempt.
The joke itself is old, and has several variations. An older version has a Jew repeatedly phoning the number of the KGB headquarters to be told it has accidentally been burned down. It’s crossed national boundaries, too; an American take on it has a session musician phoning the home of legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz (1927-91) – who had a reputation for being spectacularly obnoxious (his life was blighted by drink and drug problems) – to be endlessly assured by the house-cleaner that he was dead.