I first ran into the problem of explaining Russian humour to Westerners while in graduate school. When I told family and friends that my master's thesis was about laughter in Russian literature, they would laugh at me.
Typically, in the Western imagination, Russians are sombre people, who live in cold places, dress in grey or brown, drink vodka in shots and rarely smile, much less laugh. I've found that much of this image is easy to dispel as an outdated Cold War stereotype. (Granted, Moscow has long winters. And Russians do drink a lot of vodka. In shots. But on the issue of clothes, at least…) Yet the idea of an innate Russian deficiency in the humour department seems to stick.
The day that Putin laughed Perhaps this is an effect of the one Russian novel anyone may have read in school, the spectacularly unfunny Crime and Punishment. (In partial defence of Dostoevsky, Nabokov described his novels as "wastelands of literary platitudes" punctuated by "flashes of excellent humour". Somehow, I missed the funny bits. The wastelands, too, actually.)
The image problem is exacerbated by the Russian habit of maintaining a poker face in public and a tendency towards, let's say, a brusque manner. The irony is that Russians actually have a great sense of humour.
Being a specialist, I can write this in absolute, 100pc seriousness. (I have just attended a Princeton University conference on "Totalitarian Laughter". No laughs there, though.) The same guy who sits frowning in the Moscow subway is most likely an irrepressible wag when you get him alone for a drink.
Anyone who has anything to do with Russia has encountered the classic Soviet-era jokes that are retold to the present day. For example, the Red commander addressing his troops:
"Men, the Whites have been defeated and the victory of the Revolution is secure. In the past, man exploited man. Now, it will be the other way around."
Indeed, Communism and its absurdities produced some of the best jokes of all.
Will there be money under Communism? Yugoslavian revisionists say "Yes," while Chinese dogmatics say "No." We take a dialectic approach: there will be, but not for everyone.
In my informal poll of those who know Russia, the most common characterisation of Russian humour is "dark". This response may say as much about Americans as Russians. Americans love to laugh, but are extraordinarily careful about what they laugh about. Maybe it's a deficit of irony.
I suspect that the US leads the world in serious scandals derived from overheard jokes. Or perhaps the problem is that Americans try so hard both to be happy, and not to hurt anyone's feelings.
Hurt, however, is often at the crux of humour, as Russians seem to know best. A Russian proverb (loosely translated) runs: "Where a man feels pain, that's what he'll explain."
Russian humour is, most often, a self-deprecating and effective weapon against iniquity, injustice and pain, of which Russians have had extra helpings – especially in the last century or so. Which brings me to a last Russian joke.
A man is walking down the street with a spear through his chest. His friend runs up and says, "Wow! Does it hurt?"
"Only when I laugh," comes the reply.