Sporting fluorescent-Hawaiian-flowered swim trunks, black-framed sunglasses on cords, blue sun-block and a plastic fluorescent orange peaked cap, Yakov Smirnoff does not look like a man on a mission.
In fact, the former Soviet citizen-turned-American comedian looks downright out of place at Moscow's all-season outdoor swimming pool.
Surrounded by pensioners in make-do swim suits, Smirnoff is setting a new high in conspicuous consumption. To the comrades' further annoyance, Smirnoff has toys: a fluorescent-orange Frisbee and a multicolor skateboard.
These are just a few of the tools Smirnoff has in his diplomatic handbag on his first trip to his homeland since he and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1977. While in the Soviet Union, he has taped location pieces in Moscow and in Odessa for a Showtime special to be shown later this year in the United States.
Among the purposes of his mission: introduce Soviets to the real American culture. Not the stuff of orchestra exchange programs, but the \o7 real\f7 stuff. Among the tools at hand: stuffed slippers adorned with Ronald Reagans; dancing flowers, Hula Hoops, footballs, Frisbees, Slinkys, skateboards, miniature airplanes, Twinkies and Juicy Fruit.
Smirnoff hopes the candid conversations he is holding with Soviets will give Americans a new view. "Americans think Soviets are so grim. I want them to see that they can smile."
Smirnoff's film crew follows him around in his escapades with everyday Soviets--standing in line at McDonald's, playing football with militiamen in Red Square and talking to students. In the TV program, Smirnoff will narrate in English over the Russian conversations.
"I want it to be funny. The deepness in the message will still come through. The message is there's a flower of free enterprise here. This is our Berlin Wall, if you will. It's small and weak still, but it's there."
It's been 12 years since Smirnoff left his native Odessa on the Black Sea and landed in New York. Since then he has gone from busing at restaurants to starring in Miller Lite commercials, a syndicated television series ("What a Country!") and a movie ("Moscow on the Hudson").
Is it easy to return as every would-be immigrant's dream-come-true? Considering he's made a living off taking digs at Soviets, there was the question of whether he would be welcome. "It wasn't hard to get in. Now we just have to see if I'll get out," he says.
He admits to having had knots in his stomach when he was taking off from Kennedy Airport in New York. "All of a sudden all of these things you left behind are (emotionally) coming back."
And a lot of "these things" aren't pretty. The day he applied for a Soviet exit visa, Smirnoff lost his job as a comedian on Black Sea cruise ships. He waited two years to get out.
For 26 years, Smirnoff lived in a communal apartment building, in one room shared with his parents ("I guess that's why I'm an only child"). Now he owns a Hollywood mansion with swimming pool and live peacocks roaming the grounds. "I bought it as a fixer-upper under the five-year plan. To my real estate agent, Chernobyl is a fixer-upper."
He was on the waiting list for a Soviet car for 13 years. Now he drives a Rolls Royce with vanity plates that read "Comrade." And he was on a waiting list for a phone for 12 years. "I never got that either."
But it wasn't the tough economics that Smirnoff hated most. "It was not being able to say what I wanted to say."
Once a year Smirnoff turned in the script for his show to the censors at the Department of Jokes, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. You had to stick with whatever came out of there, he says. You couldn't take a chance on ad-libbing. "People have been taken away for less than a joke here," he points out. "At least that was what the fear was."
Smirnoff remembers his last comedy show in Odessa at the 6,000-seat Green Theatre. It was April 1, 1977, just before he was to get permission to leave for New York. "I had started working again, and they were risking their jobs and paying me under the table. The system is so big. It sounds like they're watching every move you make, but a lot of times they don't know what they're doing. So I got away with it."
He says he has mixed feelings about returning to Odessa. "I came to America to make it my home, and I did. So it's not like I'm returning home. I'm not sure of what I'm looking forward to about going back to Odessa. Most people will be looking for what things I can give them," he says sadly. "I know I used to when people came back from the West."
What does he think about Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who made such visits as Smirnoff's possible with his policies of \o7 glasnost\f7 and \o7 perestroika\f7 ?
"He's changed a lot of things. In his anti-alcohol campaign he raised the legal drinking age from 2 to 4. You know there are 100,000 alcohol-related collisions a year here, and they don't even have cars."