As a barometer of slight shifts and turns in history and political climate, the Soviet Jewish joke always did a stellar job. Nowhere was it more perfect than in its sub-genre of widely circulated jokes about one Rabinovich, a stereotypical Soviet Jew with a recognizably ethnic last name. As a protagonist, Rabinovich combined the foolishness that allowed him to take the twists and turns of state ideology too literally with the wits to exploit the chasm between these misunderstandings and reality.
In one fine example, Rabinovich works in the Kremlin, where his job is to sit in one of the structure’s tall towers so that he could better see and signal the arrival of Communism. Americans try to lure him over to their side so that he will foretell the arrival of economic crises instead, but he declines, saying: “My current employment is permanent.” The joke is a variant of an older East European Jewish joke, in which the specter that is forever coming but never arrives—thus guaranteeing stability of the witty Jew’s employment—is the Messiah. But while the older variant, rooted in poking fun at Jews’ tendency to excuse the harsh realities of life in the present with the phrase “things will get better when the Messiah comes” would not have had much appeal to the predominantly secular Jewish population in the USSR, the promise of better life under Communism—coupled with the daily realities of empty shelves, the KGB, etc.—was a perfect object of satire.
After a hiatus of two decades, the crisis in Ukraine triggered by the popular ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych has revived this classic form, in the shape of a joke—still no more than a few days old—that has gone viral across Russian social networks, including VKontakte, the biggest Russian social networking site.
“Unbelievable, but Rabinovich suddenly re-appeared—and he looks so sad this time!” says one Muscovite to another. “Well, it’s understandable,” the second Muscovite replies. “When he first heard about Yanukovych’s plans to develop closer ties with the European Union earlier last year, he spent an enormous amount of money to buy himself a Ukrainian passport—together with a summer cottage in Crimea. But after all that, this week he’s been given a Russian passport again with pomp and circumstance!”
Rabinovich’s return is an event to pay close attention to not so much because Rabinovich himself is back but because of the return of a very specific type of wider contextual baggage that Rabinovich brings with him. Yes, he is still the same crafty Jew eager to have something that others can’t. But what he wants here, and is tricked out of by circumstance, is an escape from Russia to the West—the pervasive trope of the Rabinovich joke in the era of Soviet stagnation and refuseniks.
Purchasing a cottage in Crimea promises Rabinovich a sound investment in life in the West; Crimea’s annexation by Russia keeps Rabinovich’s dreams of emigration comically unfulfilled. But while both Russia and Ukraine are involved, this Jewish joke is neither Russian nor Ukrainian: It is fundamentally Soviet. What the return of Rabinovich—and the return of the Rabinovich joke—points to is the return of a way of thinking and understanding one’s context that typologically resembles Soviet-era realities.
Much has been written in the past few weeks about Putin’s resurrection of an imperial ideology aimed at uniting Russia’s population by fulfilling its supposed collective dream of returning the territories lost in the breakup of the USSR. The return of Rabinovich proves the strength of that analysis better than any scholarly argument could: the Soviet Jewish joke is back, along with the political realities resembling those of the Soviet era that we were wrong to dismiss as gone forever.