AUGUST 25, 2020
“IF THEY COME for me, I won’t give you up. I won’t tell them what happened in this room.” Vasily Babansky let out a sigh and locked eyes with the four young men around him. It was February 1940 and 18-year-old Vasily had become increasingly sure that the NKVD was closing in on him.
The silence hung thickly in the air, so at odds with the laughter they usually shared here. The five students were gathered together in their usual haunt — one of the dormitories at the Zoological Institute in Stavropolsky District, southwestern Russia. The door was locked, as it always was when they wanted to speak freely, but now the bolt seemed woefully inadequate. If the NKVD was coming for them, all they could rely on was silence and their loyalty to one another.
Silence would be a problem, though. They’d have to tell the NKVD something if they were arrested; Stalin’s secret police didn’t take “No” for an answer. Aleksandr Mitrofanov proposed they should tell the truth, but not the whole truth — they would come clean about anything they’d said or done in front of witnesses at the Institute, “but keep quiet about what went on in our room,” recalled another of the students, Pavel Gubanov.
They all solemnly agreed, and then Mitrofanov rushed off to find the poem he’d written criticizing the Soviet regime. He was proud of his work, and the group had hoped to make anonymous copies and spread them across campus. Instead, after relocking the door behind him, he would ritualistically read the poem aloud one last time to his comrades, then set the paper alight and watch the flames consume his words.
It would be another 11 months before the NKVD descended, but when they did, the lives of these young men would be torn apart. Despite their earnest pact not to inform on each other, in the end they had little choice. The NKVD has gone down in history for its brutality and willingness to extract confessions by any means necessary. All five would break their vow of silence as the interrogators raked through the ashes of their lives at the Institute. Aleksandr Mitrofanov, Vasily Babansky, Mikhail Penkov, and Pavel Gubanov would all be sentenced for the crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for being part of a “counterrevolutionary organization” that, the authorities were sure, was actively plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mitrofanov and Babansky received 10 years, Penkov eight, and Gubanov seven. The fifth man, Damir Naguchev, was for some reason treated with a touch more leniency: he received “only” three years for failing to denounce his comrades.
Locked doors, burnt evidence, and a plan for resisting interrogation: at first glance, it certainly sounds like conspiracy was afoot at the Institute. But if we take a closer look at the evidence left behind in the formerly secret Soviet archives, the fate of these five teenagers reveals a very different story. A story of how, under Stalin, a poem, a few jokes, and five open minds could spell disaster.
Behind Closed Doors
The group met at the Zoological Institute’s dormitory at 31 Pushkin Street. They came from different towns and villages, but they were united by their peasant backgrounds and, as they got to know each other, bonded over a penchant for critical thinking and a sharp sense of humor.
Mikhail Penkov — Misha to his friends — was a class clown, always ready with a comeback or a wisecrack. He gravitated toward Mitrofanov and the others after his own roommates repeatedly upbraided him for making political jokes.
A shared sense of humor is the lifeblood of many a friendship. This is true in any society the world over, but under a regime where critical jokes are seen as tantamount to terrorism, humor becomes more vital still. With the threat of denunciation and arrest around every corner, honest humor becomes the gold standard of trust. To tell political jokes in front of other people during Stalin’s reign was, paradoxically, to make a very serious statement: I trust you enough that I’m willing to put my neck on the line. Misha Penkov’s roommates either didn’t share his views or simply refused to take the risk.
It was a very different story with Mitrofanov and the others. They met together behind closed doors to chew the fat, talk politics, and set the world to rights. But if it was their open, critical minds that brought them together, it was their willingness to indulge in dangerous jokes that really cemented their friendship.
According to Gubanov and Babansky, Mitrofanov liked to retell a classic Soviet anekdot (the Russian term for a joke) that compared Stalin’s uncompromising leadership style to Lenin’s (allegedly) more flexible approach:
How come Stalin always wears jackboots when Lenin always wore shoes?
Because Lenin avoided obstacles, while Stalin walks right into them.
Jokes like these often focused on the yawning chasm that stood between people’s hard, hungry lives and the fantastic propaganda claims of joy and abundance that shamelessly littered the airwaves and the newspapers. Ever the raconteur, Misha Penkov enjoyed reeling out a longer joke that provided an absurd “explanation” for why the Soviet leaders could lie so brazenly about the extent of the country’s achievements:
Molotov [Stalin’s right-hand man] wears very strong glasses — everything he sees is magnified two or three times over. One day, an official bought himself a similar pair and he began to see everything in triplicate. Alarmed, the official went to Molotov’s doctor and urged him: “Take Molotov’s glasses off him so he can get a real look at our country’s progress!”
Under Soviet law, these two jokes were more than enough to constitute “anti-Soviet agitation,” which was punished under the most notorious part of the Criminal Code: Article 58-10. The regime used this intentionally vague piece of legislation to silence its critics, whether they were genuinely trying to stir up resistance to Soviet power or merely lightening the burdens of life by poking fun at the leaders and their failings.
The danger involved in telling political jokes made them all the more exciting, of course, but Mitrofanov took things a step further when he wrote the poem he’d later feel compelled to burn. Committing criticism to paper was riskier than cracking a few jokes that could, perhaps, be denied later on. And Mitrofanov was surely hoping to stir up more than a few laughs when he floated the idea of printing and circulating the poem around campus.
Under interrogation, Mitrofanov could only recall a few lines from memory:
Under the yoke of these Soviet laws
life for the people is hard,
but under the gaze of the Soviet dragons
no one can say “we’re downtrodden.”
Трудно живется под гнетом закона
людям советской страны,
но под надзором советских драконов
они не могут сказать, мы угнетены.
To an authoritarian regime convinced that it was building utopia, these were shockingly inflammatory words. As the poem makes clear, Mitrofanov and his comrades knew it was dangerous to voice their true feelings, which was why they locked themselves in their room, and why they only intended to distribute the poem anonymously.
Friendship and Conspiracy
Despite these precautions, they would soon find themselves in the crosshairs of the NKVD. What went wrong?
Even though Vasily Babansky was the first to feel the NKVD breathing down his neck, Misha Penkov seems to have been the weakest link in this band of brothers. While the others were careful to eject any potential witnesses and bolt the door before telling a political joke, it counted for little if Misha couldn’t keep his mouth shut the rest of the time. Ivan Chervonny was one of Misha’s roommates at the Institute and, when the NKVD brought him in as a witness, he stated bluntly that everyone considered Misha to be “a loudmouth” who, despite their repeated objections, never stopped flapping his gums. Although Misha had found a more receptive audience in Mitrofanov and the others, he couldn’t manage to keep his jokes safely behind closed doors.
However blasé Misha Penkov was about it, these young men clearly recognized they were taking a risk, so we shouldn’t decide whether this was a conspiracy based solely on our own, more liberal definitions. The question we need to ask is: Did they consider themselves conspirators? Was Mitrofanov’s poem just the first step in a plan to sow rebellion in the hearts and minds of their fellow students?
Given that the NKVD could usually extract any kind of confession they wanted to hear, it’s telling that even as the five boys broke down and betrayed each other, none of them ever accepted the accusation that they had been a band of counterrevolutionary plotters. Hanging out in the dormitory to tell a few jokes and share a few lines of provocative poetry just didn’t equate in their minds with being some kind of underground cell. Babansky protested that there was nothing formal about their group, emphasizing to his interrogators that they’d never written a charter or mission statement, or made any kind of plan to disrupt or overthrow the regime. Instead, as he put it, “we just happened to speak a few counterrevolutionary words sometimes based on the material shortages [we were facing].”
The group’s actions in the final months leading up to their arrest bear out Babansky’s words. As 1940 drew to a close, two issues rocked their world: serious food shortages and the government’s sudden decision to abolish student grants. Students at the Institute were going hungry and their education was now in serious jeopardy. This was a golden opportunity for any anti-Soviet group to stir up protest.
Yet they did nothing of the kind. Instead, Babansky and two of the others sent a letter directly to the Kremlin, describing the shortages and explaining that, as a result, fights were frequently breaking out between desperate citizens queuing for their very survival. They wrote to the authorities as conscientious citizens, asking them to intervene. Similarly, when the regime gave up on student grants, Damir Naguchev’s first thought wasn’t to take to the barricades, but to cite the Soviet Constitution, which had promised free education for all.
The Soviet regime’s crucial mistake — one that defined and regularly crippled it — was to equate criticism with rebellion. Like countless other citizens across the USSR, these five students thought it was possible to be critical without being heretical. They weren’t trying to overthrow the government — they wanted it to live up to its promises. They weren’t estranged from the system — they were actively engaged with it. They talked about the decline of the ruble, the endless queues at the shops, material shortages, and the ramifications of Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states, not because they wanted to undermine the system but because they wanted to see solutions.
The bitter irony of their story is that these young men were in many ways a shining endorsement of the new Soviet education system. Here was a posse of youths who were not only the first in their family to receive a college education, but were probably the first to achieve basic literacy. Now they were engaged with politics, economics, and world affairs, discussing the issues of the day with a drive and a passion to make things better — just as the regime had, ostensibly, intended.
In this light, the students’ “anti-Soviet” jokes look very different. They provide the key to understanding the group’s position: the young men had serious points to make, but they could do little about their situation except highlight the problems and worry about the future. Telling jokes helped them to manage their frustration and their sense of powerlessness.
When they were riffing sardonically on the material hardships the whole country was facing, they were using gallows humor to share the burden and make light of their fears. One day in their little room, Mitrofanov asked Naguchev what the Soviet regime had ever really done for them. Naguchev pointed out that it had given them all the opportunity to get an education, which was no small thing for these upwardly mobile peasants. Mitrofanov shot back sarcastically, “You can read but you can’t feed!” (Gramotnyi, no golodnyi). Their state education was incredibly important to them but, like so many Soviet policies, the future it promised them was constantly undermined by the poverty and repression of daily life.
The end of student grants posed a very serious threat to the group’s life at the Institute. Looking to the Constitution for support or writing letters to the government wasn’t enough to quell their fears, nor did it help them to vent their anxiety that their future was about to be taken away from them. Humor — flippant, caustic, and often dark — came to their rescue as a kind of emotional therapy.
When Misha Penkov heard the announcement, he immediately turned to withering sarcasm to help mask his confusion and fear. Lying on his bunk, right in front of his unfriendly roommates, he yelled an official propaganda slogan back at the radio: “Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for this happy life!” He went on to complain that now, evidently, only children with rich parents would be able to get a college education.
If this was a counterrevolutionary comment, things swiftly descended into locker-room talk. Back in their usual room, Babansky joked that “the girls won’t be able to study anymore — they’ll have to open up some brothels” in order to pay their tuition fees. Casual sexism wasn’t an attack on the regime, but, obnoxious though it was, it had much the same effect as Penkov’s jibe, putting psychological distance between the speaker and his fears.
This is what the students’ jokes really were: everyday banter about everyday life that took the edge off harsh realities. Whether it was absurd stories about Molotov’s glasses, mockery of empty propaganda, or even offhand sexism, their jokes met seriousness with silliness, helping them maneuver their way through uncertain times.
Because Stalinism was so repressive, it’s tempting for us to exaggerate the political significance of these acts — to imagine rebellion and resistance burning in the hearts of every Soviet citizen who risked telling a joke or making a snide remark. But the truth was often more tame. We all joke about the trials and tribulations of our lives, our work, and our relationships. The threat of the secret police bursting into our homes for doing so undeniably makes these acts more significant, and yet the core social, psychological, and emotional dynamics are fundamentally the same.
One day, during the food shortages, our jokesters joined a gathering in the girls’ dorm where the students sang songs and played cards. There was a small portrait of Stalin sitting on one of the nightstands, next to which someone — presumably the bed’s owner — had left a piece of bread. Spotting this little still life, class clown Penkov shouted over the hubbub, “Whose bread’s that?” After a brief silence, he pointed at the picture of Stalin and said, “Grab it before he gets the last of it!” The NKVD interpreted this as “an anti-Soviet attack designed to discredit the leader of the peoples.” But what if it was just a throwaway line from a hungry student who enjoyed the limelight and wanted to give his friends a reason to laugh?
The Long Road to Redemption
Vasily Babansky died in the Gulag in 1943. The other four served their sentences and, after their release, tried to make new lives for themselves in different parts of the country. They probably never saw each other again, but their fates would remain intertwined and the legal scars of their college years would take decades to fade.
Even after he completed his sentence in 1948, Pavel Gubanov’s student days continued to haunt him. He came home to the village of Pelagiada, only to be arrested again on March 1, 1949. He’d committed no new crimes, but the local MGB (the NKVD’s successor) didn’t like having someone around who’d been part of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy. They decided to make him someone else’s problem and exiled him to a special settlement in the middle of Siberia.
Gubanov would spend years writing letters to the authorities, trying to have his conviction quashed and pleading for permission to return home. His letters were raw with emotion — he talked about his two sons (the eldest was only five), and how he struggled to explain to them why he couldn’t come home. He emphasized — stretching the truth by a couple of years — that he “was just a boy of 17” when he committed his crimes, adding in desperation, “Surely I can’t be a criminal for the whole of my life for just a handful of unfortunate words.”
It would take five years for the charge of counterrevolutionary conspiracy to be annulled and for Gubanov to be reunited with his family in December 1954.
All those who’d survived were now free, but their shared conviction for “anti-Soviet agitation” was more difficult to shake. This wasn’t simply a mark against them in the eyes of the state but could also be a source of deeply personal shame. Gubanov was just one of many joke-tellers imprisoned under Stalin who had to face difficult questions from their children about their “criminal” past. Some would spend the rest of their lives attempting to clear their names and many wouldn’t live to see that happen. One of the most tragic things I discovered in the former Soviet archives were the letters from family members who were still battling to clear their parents’ or grandparents’ names all the way through the 1980s, and even right up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The path to redemption was long, twisted, and frequently arbitrary. Whether joke-tellers were exonerated or not depended largely on the political climate, but also on luck and sheer, bloody-minded persistence.
Inspired no doubt by Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of February 1956, in which the new Soviet leader sought to distance himself from the “excesses” of Stalinism, Misha Penkov began writing appeals to the courts in mid-April of that year. At first, the authorities saw “no grounds for re-examining the case,” but the political tide was beginning to turn. Both Gubanov and Penkov continued independently to write new appeals that tapped into the new mood of de-Stalinization, stressing that their case hadn’t been investigated “objectively,” or that their confessions had been extracted under physical and verbal duress.
It must have been incredibly disheartening, but they refused to give up. Finally, in January 1960, the Stavropolsky District authorities began to creak into motion. In mid-July, the former students received a glimmer of hope as they were each informed that their case was at long last undergoing review.
Their hopes would eventually be dashed, but not before some bureaucratic bungling allowed the dream of absolution to feel tantalizingly close. Behind the scenes, the Stavropolsky Procuracy wasted three months by sending the appeal to the Supreme Court of the Russian Republic rather than the Supreme Court of the USSR. It was only in December that an answer came down from on high, in which Prosecutor Samolukov declared he saw no reason for the appeal to be seen by the court. There is a huge “?!” scrawled in pencil over the top of this statement, revealing just how incomprehensible the legal system was even to the officials working deep inside it.
The Soviet legal system was as capricious as it was cruel. It would be almost another decade before Gubanov, Penkov, and their former comrades were finally exonerated. There was no rhyme or reason for why it took so long: I read dozens of cases in which joke-tellers sentenced for exactly the same “crimes” were rehabilitated in the decade following Stalin’s death in 1953. And when exoneration finally arrived, there was little sense of justice to it. As in so many of the case files I read in the archives, the Pushkin Street students were eventually deemed innocent with the brazen statement that, in fact, there was “no evidence” of a crime having been committed in the first place. Even when reversing its decisions, the state rarely admitted responsibility for its mistakes or acknowledged that the legal system was often wielded as a tool of oppression by Soviet politicians. No compensation, nor even an apology, was ever made to the students or their families.
They had still been teenagers in 1940 when they’d enjoyed joking around in the dormitory. It was only on February 6, 1970 — three decades after they’d arrived at the Zoological Institute — that they were finally exonerated by the Supreme Court.
Their story offers us a vivid sense of how swiftly lives could be torn apart under Stalin, and how countless people’s futures were ground up in the bureaucratic machinery of a state that refused to free them from their pasts long after the dictator was dead and gone.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story is that it was so unexceptional. Mitrofanov, Penkov, Babansky, Gubanov, and Naguchev were not activists or dissidents. They had simply come together, as people so often do, to tell a few jokes, blow off some steam, and share their hopes and fears. The severity of their punishment was also unexceptional. Like so many others, these five young men became victims of Stalinist paranoia and a ruthless obsession with mental purity that turned humor into heresy, banter into activism, and friendship into conspiracy.
Jonathan Waterlow is a Scottish writer and podcaster. He is the author of It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin and has written for publications including The Times Literary Supplement, Aeon, and The Spectator. He holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford.