First they came for the elephants, and then there was no one left

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

I have always enjoyed the old Soviet humor, and I thought I’d share this one that I found in my notes:


A flock of sheep were stopped by frontier guards at the Russo-Finnish border.

“Why do you wish to leave Russia?” asked the guards?

“It’s the NKVD!”, replied the terrified sheep. “Comrade Beria has ordered them to arrest all elephants!”

“But you aren’t elephants!” the guards pointed out.

“Try telling that to the NVKD!” replied the sheep.


Eapen Thampy

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19 Responses to “First they came for the elephants, and then there was no one left”

  1. #1 |  Ariel | 

    Given that you spend your time, and well spent on asset forfeiture, this old Soviet joke could easily be changed to sheep = people, and elephants=racketeers.

    Amazing how far the RICO law has taken us. You can’t even pay bond using money from an ATM.

  2. #2 |  Eapen Thampy | 

    Yup…that’s kind of the sentiment I had when I re-read that old classic.

  3. #3 |  Rojo | 

    The Russians are famed for their black humor.

    I remember this one from the Yeltsin kleptocracy years, before things settled into today’s oligarchy.

    Ivan is sitting at his Moscow apartment window. All of a sudden, he looks at the scene below him and yells out to his wife, “Masha, Masha, bring me my rifle and come here!” Masha comes running to the window and, handing the rifle to Ivan, says, “What? What is there to see here? It’s just another store line.” Ivan says, “No, Masha, look, the line is exiting the store, with meat, with cabbage, goodness, even with tvs! Don’t you see, the Communists are back in power!”

    Needless to say, the joke was not (necessarily) about wanting to see the Communists actually back in power, but was a pretty bitter commentary about the massive impoverishment that resulted from the Yeltsin kleptocracy when Russian life-expectancy and almost every other indicator of societal economic health took a steep nose-dive.

    Also, and this too should be needless to say, but the fact that I’m pointing out that the Yeltsin years were a complete economic disaster for the bulk of the Russian people does not mean I’m endorsing the old Soviet system, so the usual suspects can keep their “Black Book of Communism” excerpts to themselves.

  4. #4 |  MikeV | 

    Communist era factory workers: We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

    A russian told me that when he was in the army stationed in Siberia that they would be brought into the local factory to work for about three days after every pay day because the regular workers would stay drunk until they ran out of money.

  5. #5 |  Scott Lazarowitz | 

    Ronald Reagan told some Soviet jokes:

  6. #6 |  how | 

    Eapen, l’m not sure of its origin, but that same joke [substituting rabbits and giraffes] was related by Erik Larson in the endnotes to his excellent “In the Garden of Beasts,” albeit from a different perspective: it was told by Berliners, who were [very quietly and carefully] poking fun at the Gestapo.

    Weird coincidence that l read both your post and the Larson yesterday!

  7. #7 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    Rojo, the disaster which followed the end of the USSR made me a lot more dubious about libertarianism– or at least my assumption that Russians would self-organize and things would get better.

    I think libertarianism is weak on how improvements actually get made–or not.

  8. #8 |  ricketson | 


    I think Rothbard had some comments about how to transition from state-capitalism to free markets. Kevin Carson has discussed this issue repeatedly. Geolibertarians lends itself naturally to this sort of transition. Several prominent economists had encouraged Yeltsin to implement some sort of land-tax with basic income, IIRC.

    I don’t think that Russia’s problems were with libertarian economics (they weren’t aiming for anything we’d call “libertarian”), but with poor government accountability.

    Changing society is hard, however, libertarians are no worse than anyone else in showing how improvements actually get made. The only reason that mainstream Dems and Reps seem to have reasonable strategies is that they have built the illusion that regular people can achieve their goals by contributing to electoral campaigns.

  9. #9 |  Juice |

  10. #10 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I remember reading all kinds of ‘viewing with alarm’ commentary after the fall of communism about how much the Soviet economy has shrunk. I also remember thinking “You’re comparing current numbers with Soviet era statistics. And you are believing either set, why, exactly?”

    Multiple reports written by skeptics who had been to the USSR asserted that the Soviet economic statistics were a fairly transparent tissue of lies. Robert Heinlein went so far as to strongly suggest that even the Soviet population statistics were pigswill.

    I have no doubt that Yeltsin’s crew were crooks. Dishonesty and corruption are Russian governmental traditions going back at least to the Mongol conquest in the 13th Century. But to suppose that a restoration of Communism would accomplish anything good – in an economic sense – requires complete lapse of common sense, or so it seems to me.

  11. #11 |  Other Sean | 


    What has Russia to do with libertarianism, and what has libertarianism ever had to do with anything that has ever happened or even come close to happening in Russia?

    If a man quit a 3-pack a day cigarette habit in favor of smoking massive cigars after every meal, then turned up with cancer a few years later, would that make you “a lot more dubious about” smoking cessation?

    Of course that analogy isn’t quite fair, since there are many more differences between cigarettes and cigars than there are between late Soviet communism and present-day Putinian fascism.

  12. #12 |  Rojo | 

    “But to suppose that a restoration of Communism would accomplish anything good – in an economic sense – requires complete lapse of common sense, or so it seems to me.”

    And where did anyone suggest that? Oh, that’s right, no one suggested that. I, in fact, explicitly disavowed that, expecting that someone would falsely claim I was suggesting that.

  13. #13 |  V | 

    Two Moscow Militia members were deployed early one evening, with orders to lethally enforce a 10 PM curfew. As 10 PM neared, the streets became abandoned of any pedestrians until the only people out were other Militia on patrol. At 9:55 PM, both members observed a civilian dashing out from an alleyway. The first guard noted the time and held his fire. The second guard noted the time, raised his rifle, and dropped the civilian with several shots.

    The first guard looked at him and said, “I know our orders are to enforce the 10 PM curfew, but he still had five minutes.”

    The second guard replied, “I know where he lives. He wouldn’t have made it.”

  14. #14 |  croaker | 

    We have our version of black humor. I recall a joke about three law enforcement agencies going into the woods to catch a rabbit. The joke ends with LAPD dragging out a badly beaten bear that screams “OK! OK! I’m a rabbit!”

  15. #15 |  KristenS | 

    First thing I thought was this could easily apply today in the U.S. Then, instead of laughing, I got a sad. :(

  16. #16 |  albatross | 

    Is there survey data anywhere on whether Russians at the time thought they were better or worse off? Or statistics that are hard to fake?

    Obviously, there is no way to learn whether things actually got worse when communism ended by appeals to your feelings about communism or communists, or whether they *should* have gotten better, or whether the communists were bloody-handed bastards. The only way to learn those things is to look for data.

  17. #17 |  albatross | 

    My favorite comment about the bailouts: “In Soviet America, bank robs you.”

  18. #18 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    the disaster which followed the end of the USSR made me a lot more dubious about libertarianism

    Statists oversee the wholesale looting of a country after communism on the way to a massively corrupt state that has absolutely no libertarians or libertarian principles and libertarianism gets blamed. Awesome, Nancy. The state is screwing us, which is why we need the state for protection!

    I’m off to slap Regis Philbin because I have poison ivy. Makes a bit more sense.

  19. #19 |  Technomad | 

    Part of the problem with the USSR was that the capitalists were people who had always had to operate “nalyevo”—“on the left,” the Russian term for illegally or under the table. They had always been criminals, and had a hard time transitioning to a world where they were now legal and okay.