Radio Yerevan – when old jokes still prevail …

A review on the work Radio Yerevan by the artist duo Graw Böckler
by Helene Romakin
Looking today at the situation of countries that were once parts of formerly big political powers, it always seems to be a story of an “ex”. I imagine asking people: “What do you know about Armenia?”, and somehow I am sure I will get the answer “It is an ex-Soviet country”. If I’m lucky, I may even get the additional description of Armenia being a country situated somewhere in Caucasus. Coming from Russia, I still can proudly or rather shamefully exclaim that I am familiar with further knowledge based on a mix of racist stereotypes, fascination for the culture and jokes about the Armenian accent. I have never been to Armenia, but when I travel to other former Soviet countries I cannot lose this controversial feeling that I am at home – more than 20 years after the decline of the USSR. It might sound shocking and ignorant, and you would do right asking me, who the hell I am to make such a statement. However, this article is not about ignorance, but rather about the contemporary perception of ex-Soviet countries and attempts to deal with prejudices surrounding it.
Considering this background, I was positively surprised when I discovered the new video work Radio Yerevan by the artists Georg Graw and Ursula Böckler who together form the duo Graw Böckler at General Public, Berlin. Their 32 videos filmed in a documentary style in Armenia and Karabakh show short extracts of landscapes, situations from everyday life, Soviet architectural leftovers and more. All videos are underlined with jokes in a manner of former Radio Yerevan, a satiric program that actually existed in Soviet Union. The work is a comical investigation into the Soviet past and the perception of it today, and confronts the viewer with common stereotypes and a dry, possibly typical ex-Soviet humor.

Radio Yerevan, in Russian Армянское радио – Armenian Radio, was a popular program of humorous political anecdotes in the 1960s and 1970s, which was transmitted in all Soviet countries. All the jokes started with the line “Question to Radio Yerevan” and were followed by mostly trivial questions and paradox, almost absurd answers that usually began with “In principle yes/no”. All jokes were dominated by a satiric nature based on the “reality of Soviet everyday life”. Likely, these anecdotes emerged from common radio programs in which the radio answered questions posed by the audience. Supposedly, one particular joke helped Radio Yerevan to achieve its popularity: “In a capitalist world man exploits man, and in the socialist world it´s the reverse”.

Radio Yerevan showed the entire absurdity of Soviet communism that in its practice almost never followed the communist idea of equal treatment among community members. Innumerable similar anecdotes criticized the construction of socialism in Soviet media, which was often contrary to reality. Considering the fact that the radio station was an invention and never really existed as such, Radio Yerevan can be seen as a satirical resistance against Soviet propaganda, depicting the actual distress in people´s everyday life.

In the late 1960s, the magazine Sputnik brought the anecdotes to the German Democratic Republic as well as to the Federal Republic of Germany. Later, it was distributed in several languages such as German, French, English, Spanish, Czech and Russian. During the 1980s and with increasing open criticism towards the system by the Perestroika-policy represented by Michail Gorbatschow, the jokes became more radical until they were prohibited in the GDR in 1988. However, in today´s Russian culture the anecdotes appear from time to time in popular films or even on Russian radio under the title “New Armenian Radio”.

Even though the jokes are referring to things that don´t exist any longer, they appear prevailing – especially in combination with the realistically filmed videos by Graw Böckler. Although Armenia gained its independence in 1991, the videos show the inheritance of failed Soviet utopia that is still dominating many aspects of every day life today.
Experiencing this work, I don´t feel alone with my impressions, but rather like one tiny piece among the entire ex-Soviet reality.

Ursula Böckler and Georg Graw live and work in Berlin. Beside their videos, films and photography projects they run the platform Raum für Projektion – a temporary projection space and DVD label.

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