Soviet Black Humor: Yuli Daniel’s “A Ditty on the Practice of Relativity”

Early responses to Sentimental Tales have begun to trickle in, and I couldn’t be happier! It looks like the book’s tickling some funny bones. A wonderful brief piece in Foreword Reviews, by Meagan Logsdon, concludes: “Juxtaposing joyful wit with the bleakness of Soviet Russia, Sentimental Tales is a potent antidote for Russian literature’s dour reputation.” She’s right about the reputation, yet Russian and Soviet readers did have occasion to laugh, and laugh mightily, even in the darkest of times. The stories of Zoshchenko and Babel, the novels of Ilf and Petrov, the songs of Utyosov — the list of Soviet gutbusters is long and illustrious!

Of course, those works are the products of the relatively liberal 1920s, but even during the Great Terror of the 1930s, the jokes kept coming. A new book by Jonathan Waterlow, titled It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), tells that story. Soviet citizens did indeed have a capacity to wrest humor from dire circumstances. Below, for instance, is my translation of a poem by Yuli Daniel (1925-1988), who was tried and convicted, along with his friend Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-1997), of publishing satirical anti-Soviet work abroad. It was this infamous 1966 trial that, according to most participants and students of the era, marked the beginning of the dissident movement. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, Daniel to five. In his blackly funny poem, Daniel reflects on the “relative” good fortune of such a “light” sentence.

Daniel and Sinyavsky.jpg

Daniel and Sinyavsky on trial in 1966

A Ditty on the Practice of Relativity

I went and lost three rubles. Screw it. I don’t care.
I’ll make do without a pint. Still, it isn’t fair!

I went and tore my raincoat. Just bought it, too — brand new.
Now everyone can see the patch. What’s a guy to do?

Got mixed up with a woman. She’s been around the block:
Broke it off and left me dry. Gave me quite a shock!

On top of that, one nasty Sunday, in the dead of fall,
I got tossed into the clink. The biggest blow of all…

So they dragged me into court. Felt like such a schmuck…
But all I got was five short years! Finally — some luck!

Песенка о практике относительности 

Потерял я трешку. Потерял — и ладно.
Без поллитра обойдусь. А все-таки досадно! 

Разорвал пальто я. Всем заплату видно.
Только было куплено. До чего обидно! 

Закрутил я с бабой. Баба — не девица:
Расплевалась и ушла. Впору удавиться!!! 

Ко всему в осеннее злое воскресенье
Упекли меня в тюрьму. Снова невезенье. 

В суд меня пригнали. Шел я, чуть не плача.
А дали мне всего пять лет — это вот удача!


5 thoughts on “Soviet Black Humor: Yuli Daniel’s “A Ditty on the Practice of Relativity”

  1. Interesting post! I have at least three Sinyavskys lurking on Mount TBR and they all sound fascinating. And any reader of Russian literature knows that happiness and freedom are completely relative – “Ivan Denisovich” being a perfect example!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Annie, that’s so good to hear! A poem like this is nothing without its little punches, and I’m glad to know I’ve delivered them forcefully enough!


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