Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Belarus, an example of an authoritarian state, Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State presents over one hundred contemporary political jokes in the contexts of their performance. Throughout, Anastasiya Astapova demonstrates the salience of the joke genre, the multiplicity of humor manifestations, and the fundamental presence of intertextual links between jokes and another folk genre—rumor. Informed by real-life fieldwork in an authoritarian regime, Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State challenges many common theories of political humor, including the interpretation of political jokes as weapons of the weak. It illustrates how jokes and rumors remind communities of their fears, support paranoia, shape conformist behavior, and, consequently, reinforce the existing hegemony. In this rare study on everyday life in and reactions to repressive regimes, Astapova unveils political humor as it is lived.
Anastasiya Astapova is senior research fellow at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu and a board member of the Estonian Young Academy of Sciences.
Chapter 1: Why Does the Jelly Tremble? Surveillance Rumors and the Vernacular Panopticon
Chapter 2: Why Do All Dictators Have Moustaches? Political Jokes in the Authoritarian State
Chapter 3: Joking about the Fear (of Joking)
Chapter 4: The Making of the President: Lukashenko’s Official Image and Vernacular Ridicule
Chapter 5: When the President Comes: Potemkin Villages
Chapter 6: “There is a High Probability of the Mustachioed Dude’s Victory”: Election Without Choice
Conclusion: Every Joke Has Only a Shred of Joke to It
Anastasiya Astapova’s book Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State was in press in mid-2020, just as Lukashenko’s election rigging and the protests against it were unfolding. Far from being rendered obsolete by the political turmoil and concomitant shift of consciousness, Astapova’s study of “political folklore” is a remarkable resource for grasping the vernacular logic and style of everyday Belarusian discourse on the cusp of these profound events.
"The Emperor Yu of the Xia Dynasty was said to have sent agents among his subjects to collect the songs and tales about him. Today, national political leaders would be wise to attend to oral folklore to ascertain the true sentiments of their citizenry. Anastasiya Astapova uncovers the hidden transcript contained in the slippery genres of joke, rumor, and legend in Belarus—"the last dictatorship in Europe"—and explores the extent to which they are able to propel political sentiment into political action. Her findings go a long way to understanding what is happening on the streets of Minsk today. "
"Anastasiya Astapova offers a rare window into the everyday political life of Belarus. Citizens seek information, protect themselves from surveillance, and reap what personal and professional benefits they can from a regime that offers stability if little else. New rumors and old jokes orient them to risks and remind them of constraints. Intertwined with state propaganda and the displays of well-being that all Belarusians must help to enact, this lively political folklore further blurs the line between truth and fiction. Ultimately, Astapova argues, it helps to normalize authoritarianism. Her subtle comparative analysis should give all readers pause, for self-mythologizing leaders, Potemkinism, dubious electoral procedures, and popular cynicism are not unique to Belarus. "The last dictatorship in Europe," even as it is changing, anticipates the perils of a post-truth public sphere."
"Anastasiya Astapova became known as a perceptive commentator on Belarus with her outstanding Negotiating Belarusianness: Political Folkore betwixt and between (2015), and her reputation is further enhanced by this study of jokes and anecdotes from the country known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Like Svetlana Alexievich, she displays great talent for revealing fascinating material through interviews, in the present case at considerable risk to herself and her collocutors. Whether or not the present turmoil ends in democratic change, this book gives essential and entertaining background to the protests of 2020, also providing at times heartening witness to the human spirit."
"A culminating critical study in a career-long inquiry of political folklore in Belarus, Astapova’s Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Non-Democratic State is insightful and thought-provoking. Enriched through years of ethnographic research, this book dives deeply to analyze the poignant, sometimes perilous, social uses of jokes and other expressive forms in the face of political restraint. Humor and Rumor expands our understanding of the dynamic interplay between authoritarianism and the folkloric performance of individuals who live their daily lives within its shadow."
Humor and Rumor in the Post-Soviet Authoritarian State is an exemplary piece of research and a joyful piece of writing. Examining the resilience of everyday people living in what is effectively a dictatorship, Astapova seamlessly integrates humor studies, folklore, digital humanities, and political science into a study that not only describes and explains the role of humor in Belarus but also provides insights into our current situation, as faith in institutions is on the wane and political authority appears to be employed at the caprice of entrenched powers. It is also the first full-length work to consider humor and politics on the vernacular level since social media entered virtually every facet of contemporary life. This book will soon become a standard.