Yakov Smirnoff is, according to his
own description, a Russian-born American comedian.
Smirnoff, birth name Yakov Naumovich Pokhis, was
born in a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine, at the
time part of the Soviet Union. He has been an art teacher
in Odessa, and continues to paint. He came to the U.S.
in 1977 and became an American citizen on July 4, 1986.
He was a roommate of comedian Andrew Dice Clay and
has appeared in several motion pictures, such as Buckaroo
Banzai and on television. Since 1992 he has been a
fixture at Branson, Missouri.
The largest part of the humour of Yakov Smirnoff
falls into two wide categories:
* Misunderstanding of American life and custom through
the eyes of a new immigrant. For instance, reading
employment announcements of "Part-Time Woman Wanted": "What
a country! Even transvestites can get work". Upon
being offered barman on a "graveyard shift",
the remark "A bar in a cemetery! What a country!
Last call? During Happy Hour the place must be dead."
* Bizarre comparisons between America and Russia. "We
have no gay people in Russia — there are homosexuals
but they are not allowed to be gay about it. The punishment
is seven years locked in prison with other men and
there is a three year waiting list for that."
Subsequently, "In Russia" was replaced
with "In Soviet Russia" in many of these
Yakov Smirnoff's legacy is the "In Soviet Russia" jokes,
which frequently appear in many online communities,
in particular Slashdot. The general form of the Soviet
Russia joke is that the subject and objects of a statement
are reversed, and the preposition: "In Soviet
Russia" or something equivalent, is added.
However, the original context of the "In Soviet
Russia" jokes have been somewhat lost. The original
joke was, "In California, you can always find
a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party can always find
you!" or "In America, you watch television.
In Soviet Russia, television watches you!" The
implication is that the latter use of the noun "party" implies
the Communist Party, and refers to pervasiveness of
the Communist party in Soviet Russia. Thus, for a joke
to have the same intent as the original, the latter
part should be both different from the former part
of the joke and describe a characteristic of Soviet
It is also worth noting that at the peak of Smirnoff's
celebrity in the mid-1980s, he did not say "Soviet
Russia" — he said "Russia," as
the Soviet Union had been around since 1917, was still
extant, and showed no signs of going anywhere any time
soon. Smirnoff added the "Soviet" qualifier
after the fall of the USSR, long after his fame had
faded, to specify that he was referring to the communist
regime and not the present state.
In a Family Guy episode, Peter Griffin plays around
with his car's navigation system, and turns it to "Yakov
Smirnoff Mode". The navigation system says, "In
Soviet Russia, car drives you!". Later in that
episode, it says, "Turn right at fork in road.
In Soviet Russia, road forks you!" (The comment
made by Peter Griffin: "Boy, did that get old
In an episode of King of the Hill titled The Bluegrass
Is Always Greener in which they go to Branson for a
bluegrass festival, Bobby sells a Soviet Russia joke
In the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000,
Crow T. Robot invited Yakov Smirnoff to lecture on
the film Jack Frost, a Russo-Finnish co-production.
Predictably, Smirnoff's "lecture" degenerated
into a sequence of unrelated "In Soviet Russia" jokes: "In
your country, you watch movie The Rock. In our country,
we break rock in gulag." (Smirnoff was actually
played by a member of the MST3K production team.)
There are also instances of this joke appearing on
the television shows The Simpsons (DABF09, "The
Old Man and the Key") and Futurama.
KGB-FM is a San Diego, California radio station that
uses the fact that its call letters are the same as
the KGB (the Soviet Secret Police and Intelligence
Agency) as a promotional gimmick. Often times, on-air
announcements are made in an ominous monotone with
a Russian accent.
One day while Smirnoff (who years earlier had defected
from the Soviet Union) was driving in the San Diego
area, he tuned his car radio to KGB-FM and he heard, "This
is KGB. We know where you are." Hearing this surprised
and scared him so much that he nearly became involved
in a motor vehicle accident.
Smirnoff received U.S. citizenship at Ellis Island
on July 4, 1986, and ever since then the Statue of
Liberty has been featured often in his art. On the
night of the September 11, 2001 attacks he started
a painting inspired by his feelings about the event,
and composed around the Statue of Liberty. Just prior
to the first anniversary of the attacks, he paid $100,000
of his own money to have his painting turned into a
gigantic (200 feet × 135 feet, or 61 m × 41
m) mural. The mural is a pointillist piece, using one
brushstroke for each victim of the attacks. Sixty volunteers
from the Sheet Metal Workers' Union then erected the
mural on a damaged skyscraper overlooking the ruins
of the World Trade Center. The mural remained up until
November 2003, when it had to be removed due to storm