Skip to comments.I Was a Commie Writer (My Experiences As American Correspondent For Krokodil Magazine In USSR)
Posted on 01/06/2002 1:57:16 PM PST by PJ-Comix
At one point in my checkered career my writings were widely read throughout the Soviet Union all the way from Minsk to Vladivostok, eleven time zones to the east.. Was I some sort of leftist railing against capitalism whose writings were permitted to be published in the Soviet Union for propaganda purposes? Well, no.
To find out how I became for a time the most widely read American correspondent in the Soviet Union we must go back to December 1988 to the Periodical Reading Room of the UCLA library. In those pre-Internet days (at least for me) I often quenched my thirst for information at the UCLA Periodical Reading Room by leafing through a wide variety of magazines, including foreign magazines. Among these magazines was Soviet Life. I enjoyed reading Soviet Life. It was fun to compare the idealized version of Soviet living with the grim reality. Soviet Life presented happy peasants riding on collective farm tractors and joyful factory workers. Not a grim face in any of the Soviet Life photographs.
It was while reading the Potemkin Village version of the Soviet Union that I came upon an article about a Soviet humor magazine called Krokodil ("Crocodile" in English). This really caught my attention because I wondered what a Soviet humor magazine could be like. How could a magazine satirize a society that only permitted a glossy version of itself to be presented in the press? As I found out later, Krokodil was permitted to satirize Soviet societywithin limits. Because of this rare crack in the Soviet propaganda façade, Krokodil was extremely popular in the Soviet Union to such an extent that their monthly circulation was over 10 million. Actually many more than 10 million people read it because each copy of Krokodil, with its subtly humorous jabs at collectivist living, was passed around to many people.
This circulation figure really amazed me. For several years I had been freelancing humor articles to newspapers throughout North America. I believe the maximum circulation figure of the largest of these newspapers where I was published was no more than about 300,000 so the idea of being read by tens of millions of people definitely appealed to my sense of vanity.
The article in Soviet Life mentioned that the foreign editor of Krokodil was Leonid Florentiev. Armed with that information plus the mailing address for Krokodil that I found with a little research, I dropped a few copies of my previously published newspaper humor articles into an envelope bound for Moscow and promptly forgot about it until the following summer.
One day I received a letter from Moscow. I couldn't figure out who would be writing me from there or why. Opening the letter was no help at all because it was written in Cyrillic. Fortunately I knew an Armenian auto mechanic with incredibly bad breath who once mentioned to me that he knew some Russian. I took the letter to the Armenian and held my breath (not in anticipation of the letter's message but to keep from inhaling the horrid garlic fumes spewing from his mouth). It turned out that the Armenian really didn't know all that much Russian but he did know just enough to tell me that it had something to do with the May issue of Krokodil magazine.
That was all I needed to know. Since I was about to faint from the Armenian's breath, I snatched the letter out of his hands and thanked him for his helpfrom a distance.
I made a beeline for the library at California State University Northridge (which 5 years later was at the epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake) and went straight to the magazine reading room. Fortunately I was able to quickly locate the May issue of Krokodil. Unfortunately I couldn't read any Cyrillic (except for the fact that the Cyrillic "C" sounds like our "S") so I couldn't even locate my article in Krokodil.
Therefore I endeavored to give myself a crash course in Cyrillic. I looked up books about Cyrillic and quickly discovered that Cyrillic, with the exception of a few specifically Slavic letters, was very similar to Greek. What made things even easier was that I already knew a lot of Greek letters because of fraternity names and some familiarity with Greek lettering used in a few math courses that I had taken.
After a couple of hours of quickie Cyrillic studies, I returned to the magazine room to look up Krokodil again. Although I still didn't know Russian, I knew enough Cyrillic to quickly find my name over two published articles. Even more thrilling was that I saw that I had been anointed the American Correspondent for Krokodil!
Tens of millions of readers for my articles! That concept really gave me a swollen head. However I was soon deflated by the realization that all those readers plus a dime wouldn't even buy me a cup of coffee. Even if Krokodil could afford to pay me, the ruble back then was worth nothing. Even 5732 rubles were worth nothing. However, it was a great ego booster to know that I was THE American Correspondent for the largest periodical in the Soviet Union (and possibly even the world).
With my limited Cyrillic I noticed that one of my articles in Krokodil was called "The Canadianization Of America." This was a satire about how the mortal enemy of the USA was that "Colossus of the North," Canada, whose culture and society threatened to overwhelm us. This gave me a clue as to why Krokodil published my submissions. Apparently they liked the idea that the true enemy of the USA was Canada, not the Soviet Union, even if it was just a satire. Yes, I could picture someone in the Politburo giving Krokodil the big DA to publish my stories.
Over the next few months the American Correspondent sent in more humor articles to Krokodil. None of the stories had anything really to do with politics. Typical of the stories I sent in was unusual geographic place names in North America. ("Boca Raton" means "Mouse's Mouth" and "Gran Teton" meansyou figure it out.)
Yes, it was a great thrill to know that millions of people were reading my stories. Most likely that number included Comrade Gorbachev himself and the other Soviet elite. I sometimes wonder if they thought there were some hidden messages in my stories. (Did they perhaps really believe that there was a fear of "Canadian Imperialism" in the USA?)
As the summer of 1989 came to a close, I found out that some of the Krokodil staff, including Leonid Florentiev, were planning to visit the UCLA for a conference on humor as part of a program sponsored by humorist, Jim Boren. The date for this meeting was to be in October. Ironically the auditorium site for this conference was close to the very library reading room where I had first found out about Krokodil the previous December.
When the evening of the humor conference at UCLA came, I arrived with some trepidation. I wasn't invited to be a participant and had to content myself to being a mere audience member in the auditorium.
Also present at this conference on the stage, in addition to the Krokodil staff and Jim Boren, were George Carlin and Robert Easton, a comedic actor who specialized in characters with thick Southern accents. I wish I could tell you what was discussed at the conference but I can remember almost nothing of what was said. Few things are more boring than a discussion of humor. Humor is something that has to be experienced, not analyzed. All I remember is a rather dull discussion about the differences between American and Russian humor.
One other reason that I can't remember much about the humor conference discussion was that I was utterly absorbed in observing the dynamics of the Krokodil staff on stage. They were a rather informal bunch and looked nothing like those pictures of happy obedient collectivists observed in the pages of Soviet Life. The only notable exception to this was the KGB guy who really stood out since he appeared so different from the rest in both garb and demeanor. This gentleman was the immaculately dressed and groomed (well- tailored gray suit and a perfect head of thick silver hair without a strand out of place) guy who kept a careful, and unsmiling, watch on the sloppily dressed Krokodil staff. I was sure that no one else in the American audience noticed that he was the KGB resident observer on this trip despite the fact that all Soviet delegations to the West always had such observers to prevent defections or embarrassments. In times past, the Krokodil staff would have been in mortal fear of upsetting the KGB observer but the deterioration of the Soviet system was already so far along in late 1989 that they merely ignored him at best or treated him with contempt at worst.
When Leonid Florentiev finally took the podium something incredible happened. In contrast to the bland homilies about the place of humor in society discussed by the American speakers, Florentiev launched into a satirically bitter commentary about life in communist society.
Suddenly an electric charge surged through the room. People were made to feel distinctly uncomfortable and I LOVED it! First of all, the American organizers of the event became quite embarrassed. Instead of a "happy face" discussion of humor, Florentiev went off the agenda with his unexpected attacks on communism. The KGB handler meanwhile was glaring angrily at Florentiev. Rather than inhibiting him, Florentiev seemed emboldened by the anger of the KGB man.
Most interesting of all was the attitude of the Americans in the audience. Being UCLA, located in West Los Angeles, the overwhelming majority of the audience was liberal. Florentiev's humorous jabs at communism were NOT what they expected at all. His commentary caused a lot of nervous whispering among the audience. When Florentiev finished his talk he called for questions from the audience. After a few moments of embarrassed silence, one audience member stood up and, made a truly astounding request:
"Mr. Florentiev, could you say something bad about American society?"
Florentiev glared at the audience for a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity. Finally he gave a one word answer that seared the audience like a hot branding iron:
At that point you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. Then, in a somewhat disappointed state, an American declared the public portion of the conference over but that we could convene in the lobby for further private discussions with the participants. Most of the American audience glumly left the auditorium with few remaining behind in the lobby to talk to the Russians.
In the lobby, small groups formed around the visiting Krokodil visitors (as well as an Estonian editor representing Pikker humor magazine in Estonia) but they soon broke up since the Russians, with the exception of Florentiev, spoke little English. Florentiev himself was speaking to a professor of Russian and I, oddly enough, was talking to George Carlin (I told him I got a kick out of how he used to call his old New York neighborhood "White Harlem" because it sounded tougher than "Morningside Heights") and Robert Easton. Normally I would have been in awe of both these gentlemen but at the time I only wanted to speak to Florentiev so the result was I was able to talk to them without any sense of self-consciousness since my mind was preoccupied. Like a panther stalking his prey, I kept a careful eye on Florentiev, waiting for the professor to leave so I could move in. Meanwhile I had an interesting conversation with Easton who told me about the filming of one of my favorite movies, The Loved One, in which Easton portrayed a hillbilly actor named Dusty Acres.
Finally there was a pause in the conversation between the professor and Florentiev so I leaped in, leaving the two renowned performers in my wake.
"Hi! I'm PJ!" I said, with my hand out.
Florentiev eyed me warily and shook my hand with something less than enthusiasm. In a desperate bid to ingratiate myself with Florentiev I offered this:
"I can write Cyrillic. Watch this."
I pulled out a sheet of paper from my pocket and wrote "GLASNOST" ("Openness") on it in Cyrillic. This served only to bring a look of distaste to Florentiev's face. To me, writing "GLASNOST" in Cyrillic was a way to demonstrate my rather limited grasp of Russian in a pathetic attempt to impress Florentiev. To Florentiev (and most other Russians), Glasnost was a sick joke perpetrated by Gorbachev an attempt to maintain the failing communist system with cosmetic reform. At this point, Florentiev's opinion of me must have been the same as what he thought of the silly American liberals who composed the audience earlier.
Finally, in a desperate gambit, I said, "I can also write Stalin's name in Cyrillic."
Florentiev rolled his eyeballs, probably wishing the ridiculous American in front of him would disappear.
I then wrote "KOBA" in Cyrillic. Suddenly a hint of a smile formed on his lips. "Koba," which means "Wolf," was Stalin's nickname in his early Bolshevik days. Not many Americans would know that which seemed to make an impression on Florentiev. Then I added another touch:
"Koba is a lot easier to spell than Djugashvili."
Djugashvili was Stalin's real name, a fact also known to few Americans.
Florentiev looked at me with growing interest and asked, "What did you say your name was?"
This time I gave Florentiev my FULL name. A look of recognition spread over his face and his mouth broke into a wide friendly smile.
"It is YOU!!!" he exclaimed.
He followed this outburst with a shout in Russian and suddenly all the other Russians gathered around me. They each vigorously shook my hand in greeting as if they were old friends. Florentiev spoke for them:
"They say they feel as if they already know you because of your stories in Krokodil. We talk about you all the time."
What a sudden change this was. Only moments earlier I felt like an anonymous intruder and in one short instant I became the center of attention. Meanwhile the other Americans looked on in amazement. In the case of George Carlin, he seemed somewhat amused that a relative unknown like me would appear as some sort of a celebrity to the Russians who probably weren't really aware of Carlin's celebrity status in the USA. However, Jim Boren's wife seemed a bit irritated at the course of events since my "intrusion" changed the agenda from the boring discussions about humor. However, there was little that she could do. I had a captive audience and as far as I was concerned, they were MY Commies and I wasn't about to reliquish them to her or anybody else.
One of the people who was introduced to me was the Estonian from Pikker. Since I knew that as an Estonian he probably felt himself as something of an outsider among the Russians, I decided to draw him in and make the Estonian the center of attention of my stories.
I turned to the Estonian and said, "Are you from Tallinn?"
The Estonian was pleasantly surprised that I knew the capital of Estonia since he claimed that most Americans have no idea where Estonia is even located.
"How right you are," I replied. I once knew a college student who was assigned to write a paper on Estonia. She started to do some research by trying to locate Estonia in an atlas but gave up in frustration because no matter where she looked on a map of Africa, she couldn't find Estonia."
When Florentiev translated this, the visitors broke out into wild laughter. That sound of laughter was elixir to my ears. I was on a roll. There was no stopping me now so I mined my reservoir of funny Estonian stories.
Fortunately I once knew an Estonian named Vello Veski who got himself into all sorts of unusual situations due to his low-key nature (he was known as "Mellow Vello"). As a result I had dozens of funny Vello Veski stories at my disposal so I made full use of them.
For example, I told them about the first time I met Vello. He had just arrived in Florida from Estonia but was clad in the wrong type of wardrobe since he was wearing baggy black pants and a baggy long-sleeve white shirt.
"Vello, your clothing is terrible. You must change it completely," I told him.
Then I informed the visitors what happened the next time I saw Vello. I noticed that he took my advice. Florentiev translated and I paused for the punchline:
"This time he was wearing baggy WHITE pants and a baggy long-sleeve BLACK shirt."
After a short delay for Florentiev to translate the punchline, the room shook with laughter. Mrs. Boren was NOT amused but this only inspired me to continue with the hijack of her guests with yet more Vello Veski stories such as the time Vello and his wife went to a travel agent to book a romantic vacation in Switzerland.
"Was the trip successful?" asked one of the Russians.
"Oh yes! Quite successful. The trip was very romantic. Vello's wife fell in love with the travel agent and the two of them went on that romantic Swiss vacation booked by the travel agent, leaving poor Vello back in the America."
Again more laughter.
After several more Vello Veski and other funny stories, Mr. Florentiev made an announcement.
"We are going to give a special award to our American Correspondent for his contributions to Krokodil."
"Just what I always wanted!" I replied. "A Commie medal. Remember, I want it to be a full fledged Commie medal with hammer and sickle and a profile picture of a bald Ulyanov." (Ulyanov was Lenin's real name.)
All the Russians (and the Estonian), except for the angry KGB guy, laughed at this.
Later that evening on my way home, I thought over the events of that evening. What really struck me was the amazing outspokenness of Leonid Florentiev. If he could be so emboldened as to speak out against communism in a public forum, this must have meant widespread discontent with the government in the Soviet Union. I therefore concluded that the Soviet government could not last much longer. This analysis proved to be correct since the "Evil Empire" collapsed two years later despite the "Glasnost" façade of Gorbachev.
Unfortunately, Krokodil collapsed along with the Soviet Union. What was the role played by Krokodil in this upheaval? After all, it was the only publication in the Soviet Union, through subtle satire and cartoons, that could be critical of the government and Soviet life in general. The revolutionary role of laughter should not be discounted. After all, one of the reasons why the August 1991 coup by the hard-line communists failed is that the public in Russia were laughing at the visibly shaking hands of one of the ringleaders. It's hard to be intimidated by people that you are laughing at.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union I received a letter from Leonid Florentiev. He had become a full-fledged capitalist and was starting his own private humor magazine. I eventually lost contact with Florentiev but I often wondered what became of his enterprise. After all, there was much in the post-Soviet era of Russia that was ripe for satire.
Oh, and I am also still wondering if comedians in the nightclubs of Tallinn are telling Vello Veski jokes.
"...the humor magazine Pikker, which throughout its existence since 1957 up to early 90s..."
A prize oxymoron, as someone (not I) might also have said of its sister magazine, Soviet Woman.
In the mid-1970s I was involved with a US company that imported Soviet films. For one of the major films (Oblamov, one of the few exported to the States in those years) the Soviets sent the entire cast and the director (Nikita Mikahlkov who later won an Oscar for Burnt by the Sun) to NYC for the premiere. The movie stars (famous in the USSR) and the great director were accompanied by KGB watchers who were much more powerful than the guy you describe. The stars and Nikita were put up in a 4th rate Manhattan hotel and when they asked for permission to attend a Broadway show permission was denied; they had to sit in their rooms like prisoners.
I was present at a luncheon at a swank NY restaurant and the most nervous moment for the watchers was after the lunch, getting their wards into the cars. They were afraid their captives might make a run for it.
It was a rotten system and shame on those Americans who were put out by Leonid Florentiev's comments.
Here's a link to a site selling everything under the sun.
Yeah, that KGB watcher looked so out of place on the stage I was surprised that the American audience, dopey as they were, couldn't catch that. Also during the conference afterwards, he stood grimly off to the side and took no part in the conversations. I have to give him credit for immaculate grooming however. No sloppy Soviet clothes for him. He was dressed like a successful western businessman.
My dad runs a business in Russia. I'll forward him your story...it's great!
Back in the late 70s, some Soviet journalists showed up at my college (Fordham University) ostensibly to interview American college students. I think the real purpose of the exercise was to show how ignorant American college students were. The journalists first asked us to name any cities in the Soviet Union. My classmates came up with Moscow and Leningrad, but then there was an awkward pause as they struggled to think of another one. Then one of them hesitantly said St. Petersburg -- the old name for Leningrad. I winced as the journalists exchanged bemused smiles.
Next they asked us to list the names of major Russian writers. We identified Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, then there was another awkward pause. The Soviet journalists were having a hard time containing their amusement. The "interview" was going even better than they anticipated. At this point, I had a moment of inspiration. I raised my hand and mentioned Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Their smiles immediately vanished. Then I asked the guy with the tape recorder if he had any idea when The Gulag Archipelago would be published in the Soviet Union. The interview abruptly ended.
Sounds like a Clinton press conference. Bravo, WW. (^:
Then one of them hesitantly said St. Petersburg -- the old name for Leningrad.
Another Russian Joke, circa 1990:
An old Russian man is getting ready to retire. He goes to pension office to prepare his claim.
Grey Bureaucrat: Comrade, where were you born?
Old Russian: St. Petersburg.
Grey Bureaucrat: Where did you grow up?
GB: Where did you live as an adult?
GB: Where do you wish to live when you retire?
OR: St. Petersburg.
BTW, it's St. Petersburg Today!
Found this link through Newsbusters. Excellent reading even if several years old.