‘In This World Nothing Can Be Said to Be Certain…’ by Alun Thomas

Anyone who has done archival research will surely agree; laugh-out-loud moments in the archive are scarce and, when encountered, are more often provoked by hysterical exhaustion than back-slapping hilarity. Trapped in a hot, dusty room with serious people reading serious things, faintly intimidated and addled by a hypoglycaemic haze, any researcher can develop a hypersensitive funny bone. It is from this context that I submit the following as one of the funniest exchanges I read on my last trip to the former-USSR:

COWS!

At a major Communist Party conference in the early 1920s, representatives were bickering over the proper taxation of cattle-herders. The matter of how many cows to take and distribute, and on what conditions, raised passions in the hall. One speaker, a Comrade Sadvokasov, came in for particularly sardonic criticism. His arguments were mocked and over-simplified. One attendee said that ‘what you need, Comrade Sadvokasov, I’m very much afraid to say and will not utter’ to laughter from the audience. What had the comrade said? Among other comments, he seems to have made some deprecatory complaints about the poor: ‘…if we take one cow from the rich and give it to a pauper… the pauper will just eat the cow, and we’ll have to take another cow off the rich.’

I found this comically familiar. Benjamin Franklin seems to have been quite right about death and taxes. We talk a lot about tax in this country too, and people get similarly bad-tempered about the subject and its attendant clichés. The circular logic of a tax policy designed to fulfil the insatiate greed of the indolent poor. Unearned wealth consumed rather than invested. When’s the last time you heard that?

Sometimes the most diverting aspects of my research are recognisable from my own life. It’s a nice reminder that whether in Orenburg or London, at a Soviet conference or the House of Commons, discussing British welfare recipients or Central Asian shepherds, some things are easily relatable.

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