Socialism is like a room that contains a black cat, which you have to find. “Multilateral developed socialism,” a concept close to the heart of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989), is like a pitch black room that contains a black cat, which you have to find. Communism is like a pitch black room where there is no black cat, but you still have to find one. Jokes offered a rare means for the expression of the Romanian collective imagination during the dictatorship.

In the 1980s, when the country was suffering under one of the worst regimes in the communist bloc, the Romanian people took refuge in a mocking humour that poked fun at anything and anyone. In particular, they mocked their leader, aka the Conducator or the “Genius of the Carpathians”, the Communist Party, the shortages that had a stranglehold on life in the country, and the excesses of a regime that was cut off from the world and from reality.

Thousands of jokes, which were circulated by word of mouth, escaped official censorship in a country controlled by the dictatorship’s much dreaded political police, the Securitate.

In December 1989, a wind of change swept across the countries behind the Iron Curtain and the Conducator’s regime finally collapsed like a house of cards. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed after a summary trial, and Romania embarked on a long period of transition, which came to a close in the year 2000 when the country entered into accession negotiations with the European Union.

Little by little, Romanians began to rediscover prosperity in a country where economic growth averaged 7 per cent per year. With the emergence of new culture of consumerism, the jokes and mockery were forgotten. It was time to buy the latest car and to drive home from the supermarket with a full load of shopping.

Fertile terrain for a fresh harvest of jokes.

But dreams do not last forever, and wake-up calls can be harrowing. In 2008, the Romanian population experienced a very hard landing when it came back to earth.

Europe was caught in the grip of the economic and financial crisis, and the country was obliged to accept austerity: conditions were right for a fresh harvest of jokes. To judge from the gags that are doing the rounds in Bucharest, this time around, runaway capitalism is the main target.

An example: an American passes by a Romanian who is sitting by a lake taking in the view.

“What are you doing?” asks the American.

“Nothing, just looking at the lake,” comes the reply.

“Well you could at least get yourself a rod and do some fishing,” says the American.

“Why would I do that?” asks the Romanian.

“You could eat some of the fish and sell the rest. You’d make a bit of cash.”

“But why would I do that?” insists the Romanian.

“With the money, you could buy a boat and catch even more fish.”

“Yes, but why would I do that?”

“You’re too much.” The American is exasperated. ”With the money you could buy a boat, and then you could employ people to catch fish. You wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just sit there watching the lake.”

“But that is exactly what I’m doing.”

With its subversive logic, it is a joke worthy of writer Tristan Tzara who left Romania in the early 20th century to become one of the founders of Dadaism and Surrealism in Zurich and Paris.