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Bread and soup

September 13, 2020

Jonathan Waterlow has been reading in the Soviet archives about people imprisoned for telling jokes in the Stalin era:

One day, during the food shortages, our jokesters joined a gathering in the girls’ dorm where the students sang songs and played cards. There was a small portrait of Stalin sitting on one of the nightstands, next to which someone — presumably the bed’s owner — had left a piece of bread. Spotting this little still life, class clown Penkov shouted over the hubbub, “Whose bread’s that?” After a brief silence, he pointed at the picture of Stalin and said, “Grab it before he gets the last of it!” The NKVD interpreted this as “an anti-Soviet attack designed to discredit the leader of the peoples.” But what if it was just a throwaway line from a hungry student who enjoyed the limelight and wanted to give his friends a reason to laugh?

This struck me as weirdly similar to a story from the early 1830s told by Joe Peschio:

The second episode, also involving sedition in the form of the abuse of state symbols, concluded less fortuitously for Buturlin and his comrades. It took place in a private room at Dubois’s restaurant in the early evening, a common starting time and place for this trio’s exploits.

Romanov arrived there already a little, as they say, in his cups, sat down on a divan, behind which stood a pedestal with a plaster bust of Emperor Nicholas I, and, accompanying his speech with gesticulations, produced a tremor which passed to the bust. I remarked that he should be more careful, and not break the bust, which would have added to our already considerable debt at the restaurant. To this he replied with a laugh: “Bah! Ce n’est qu’une tête de [plâtre]” (it’s nothing but a plaster head), and then, with an indecent (of course) joke (but purely a schoolboy joke), he began to bring a few spoonfuls of soup up to the mouth of the bust. There was no one in the room besides us three; but it must be assumed that someone heard and saw everything from the next room because the whole episode was reported to the highest authorities in detail.

Later that week, Buturlin was summoned by General Arps of the Life Guards. Arps informed him that reports of “certain incidents” had reached the tsar, and that Buturlin was under suspicion of involvement in them. He ordered Buturlin to write an account of his association with Romanov and Golitsyn. Buturlin was then arrested and spent six weeks in the stockade before being demoted and sent back to the Pavlograd Regiment. Golitsyn was transferred to a civil post in the Caucasus, and Romanov to Arkhangel’sk. (13–14)

These punishments for Pushkin-era noblemen were severe enough, but in 1941 the five teenage Moscow University students of peasant origin were sentenced to between three and ten years imprisonment, with one dying in the Gulag and another being rearrested and exiled to Siberia shortly after his release, still for the same initial “crime” of anti-Soviet agitation and counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Like Buturlin before them, the Soviet students were coerced into informing on their friends.

See Waterlow’s “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Cost of Humor in the USSR” (August 25, 2020), in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Peschio’s 2012 The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin.

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