A satirical French cartoon on the subject of Tsar Nicholas II (Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov), the last Emperor of Russia, with a reference to the peace treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). – Year: circa 1905 (Source: Alamy)
A newer concept to me, when I learned of “democratic satire” (in Russian демократическая сатира or demokraticheskaya satira), the equally as complex term of “stiob” (стиоб or stiob, surreptitious irony mixed with biting social commentary) became instantly understandable. The Russian style of humor is often laced with deeply rooted cultural affiliations and politically-motivated allusions. At times, Russian humor takes the troublesome elements of Russian culture and the Russian worldview for a satirical joyride while other times the spiritual moralism at the heart of Russian culture is put on display. Whatever the case may be, to be funny in the Russian context is to pierce holes in the seriousness of all aspects of the Russian system and the myriad of paradoxes, mishandlings, blunders, and inequalities which the system is built upon and upholds. A relatively young genre (emerging only in the 17th century), humor has come a long way in Russia. Yet, as I will show, to understand the existentialist humor of Dostoevsky or the searing transparency at the heart of the Soviet anecdote, one must first comprehend the concept of “democratic satire.”
In this post, I’ll explain what this concept is and some examples for you to read.
A Little Bit of Context
While the “funny” in Russian literature didn’t begin in earnest until after the Times of Trouble (1598-1613), it was because of this period that parody of social conditions, government officials, the church, and tradition would begin. As the hegemony of the Church began to be critiqued and the “new” world of religiosity began, what could and could not be publically said defrosted a bit (think Khrushchev Thaw but medieval). Literature became far more critical of its surroundings rather than staying quiet on the impropriety and duplicity of clerical leaders and the church itself. Finding solace in the growing secularist nature of Russian society (thanks to Peter Ist/The Great), the exploitation of literature for propaganda and fierce political reprobation was common. Literature was one place where authors could be as biting as they wanted, as “freedom of expression” within the confines of text was allowed. As a result, harsh attacks on Orthodoxy and the ideological attachment of the Russian people to it was a popular topic, along with a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Russian nation. It would only be in the late 18th-century (circa 1770-1780s) when a Russian national consciousness / national identity would begin to be conceptualized for the Russian people, but right now a completely new path was opening up for the Russian writer, one decoupled from religion and imbued with Enlightenment ideals and fed on the notion of “liberation.” Upon this foundation of self-development and caustic realism, the genre of a people-oriented, ground-up style of humor emerged.
Democratic Satire is…
Social commentary covered in a façade of humor, wit, and touchy coarseness but never crosses the line into genuine insult or chastisement. Most of the literature that is associated with the genre of “democratic satire” (also called folk satire due to the close relationship of folklore with the style) comes from two centuries, the 17th and 18th centuries. Further still is the anonymous nature of many of the authors, although given the subject matter and the time period it’s not entirely unsurprising. Utilizing common tropes and narrative plots found in folk stories and fairy tales, these stories contain allegories, parodies, satirical jests, and ironic twists that exemplify the real world conditions and situations that they were written within. Democratic satire also in indebted to the tradition of oral narration (i.e., oral history), the oral storytelling device and tradition of Skaz (short for skazka) an example of its cultural significance. But the genre of “democratic satire” is also intimately connected with the desire to make sense of one’s surroundings and/or escape them completely. Under pre-Petrine rule (i.e., Muscovite rule), life was very hard for those not at the top. Thus, early humor writers were conceiving of a world that was becoming too connected to reality. Thus, to cope with this they started embracing this interpolation and poking fun at their own situation with acidic results. Notions of utopia were shattered with brutal scorn masked in jokes, the fear of cultural stagnation hidden behind the laughter at the drunken man, the fat and lazy clergy a symbol of religion’s dwindling efficaciousness (or the putrid ambivalence of mankind to screw things up, even in the divine context). Prior to Peter’s secularization of Russian society, people were still led to believe that God’s kingdom was the purest goal, while corruption in the church was to be ignored, poverty all around them ignored, dirt and disease passively allowed into their homes. If anything, the Russian satirical tradition awakened the masses to the abject dismalness of life and instead of silently allowing it to come and overtake one’s mind satire allowed the public to finally have some type of power, if only on paper.