Yakov Smirnoff (born January 24, 1951) 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.
"America: What a country!"
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. A modern example:
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 Russia.
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.
Occurrence of "In Soviet Russia" jokes on television
There was also an episode of King of the Hill in which they go to Branson, MO for a bluegrass festival and Bobby sells a Soviet Russia joke to Yakov.
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.
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 damage.