Nothing is more frustrating than trying to explain another culture's humor. Take Dostoyevsky—he's one of Russia's funniest writers but unbearably depressing to read in English. Conversely, American comedy is often wasted on Russians. I remember nearly falling off my seat in a train as I read Mark Twain's description of a Wagner opera; he said it reminded him of the day the orphanage in his hometown burned down. One of the passengers asked what I was laughing about. When I translated the piece for him, he said, "What's so funny about an orphanage burning down?" That said, these jokes should help you better understand Russians.
1. A professor asks a student (during Soviet times), "What is capitalism?" "The exploitation of man by man," the student answers. "And what is socialism?" asks the professor. "The opposite."
2. Leonid Brezhnev arrives at his office one day and his secretary says, "Comrade Brezhnev, I'm afraid you have to return home. You're wearing mismatched shoes—one is black and the other is brown." Brezhnev looks down at his feet, then asks his secretary, "What good would that do? At home there's also one black and one brown shoe."
3. An international gathering has been convened to determine the ethnicity of Adam and Eve. The French delegate addresses the assembly first: "Mesdames et messieurs, it is clear that they were French. Who but a French woman would give up Paradise for love?" The British delegate takes the floor next and says, "Much as I respect my French colleague, I must disagree, for they were clearly English. Who but an English gentleman would sacrifice Paradise for his lady?" Finally the Soviet delegate gets up and says, "All that is bourgeois blather. They were Soviets, and for this we have triple proof. First, they had only one apple for the two of them. Second, they had hardly any clothing. Third, and most important, they actually believed they were living in paradise!" —V.P.