Their teacher had advised them not to read Tolstoy novels, because they were very long and would easily confuse the clear ideas which they had learned from reading critical studies of him. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn<
Laughable stories in Russian literature were called anecdotes. Brockhause and Efron Encyclopedia notes that anecdotes appeared first in West Europe with the development of such comic stories as "Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio and others.
In modern study of literature anecdotes are small verbal comic stories of different content with unexpectedly smart ending. The initial meaning of word "anecdote" goes back to Greek language and means "unpublished". Earlier anecdotes were small stories about historical persons. In this meaning a term "anecdote" was used at the first time in satirical "Secret History" by Procopium (VI century).
This meaning of "anecdote" word was spread till the end of XIX century. Later this type of anecdotes disappeared but some funny stories from a life of historical persons are still alive in people memory.
For example, when in Russia there existed a Table of Ranks, all military ranks were divided into army and guard ranks and guard ranks were a two classes higher. That is why Guard had no generals, the most high rank was colonel. Russian Emperor had a rank of Colonel in LifeGuards of Semyenov regiment.
Guardsman should keep one carriage and a number of horses due to his rank: generals should to have a team of 6 horses harnessed in pairs; colonels and majors had 4 horses, captains had 2 horses. On this occasion there was an anecdote in Russian aristocratic salons - "One Moscow lady asked English traveler: "What rank has Mr. Pitt (English Minister)?" He could not answer... To specify the question the lady asked him :"How many horses a Minister put into carriage ?" "Usually a Minister harnesses a pair of horses", answered a traveler. "Well, how great is the Power where the first Minister is only a captain!" noted a lady. (from the book "Omens of Olden Days/N. Marchenko, Moscow, 2001)
As one can see from above example, humorous cases could be anecdotes only during definite period of time because they reflected the events of contemporary life. We probably can't understand "a gist" of described above story without preface. Each epoch has its own anecdotes and own sense of humor.
Anecdotes were collected even in Middle Ages. The most famous anecdotes collector of those times was Italian Podjo Braccolini who arranged a book "Facecii" (a first edition was in 1470). The most famous his followers were Henry Bebel, Frishlin, Corneciani, Rabelais and others.
In Russia the most famous anecdotes collection of XVII Century is "Laughable Narratives" (Tolstoy Manuscript) that were copied from Polish sources.
In our time anecdotes exist in writing and oral form especially in urban folklore. Everybody knows about great collection of anecdotes collected by our wonderful artist and clown Yuriy V. Nikulin. He collected anecdotes and told them excelently.
Everybody knows and likes anecdotes. Anecdotes are a folk response on each event of our life and they cover all life's sides (from policy to family life). This is a special type of oral folk art and it can't be compared with any one more.