Yakov Smirnoff knows what it is to be a true American patriot.
The Russian comedian, who immigrated to the United States in 1977, has a deep love for his adopted country. He is known for his signature tag line: “What a country!” But through the years he has put his heart and his money where his mouth is.
Yakov is a talented artist. Many of his paintings pay homage to the U.S.A. Not many people know that in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Yakov spent a very large amount of his own time and money to produce and put into place a huge artistic memorial overlooking the site of the Twin Towers that had gone down. He did it anonymously because his name is associated with laughter, but he wanted to express solemnity and reverence at the tragedy, as well as his own hope and love for America.
You might think I’m giving a plug to his one-man show that we saw recently in Branson, Missouri. You’d be right. As they say in online product reviews, “Yes, I would recommend this to a friend.” Along with a generous dose of entertainment, his show offers some good advice about building strong relationships with the ones you love. (Would you believe laughter is a key?) Optimism about America comes through strongly.
A caveat here: there was sexual innuendo in some of his jokes that I felt was unnecessary. I attributed this to the fact that our backgrounds are very different and that many in the entertainment industry seem to expect this of comedians. After my initial reaction (“Is blue ‘humor’ really necessary for such a talented man?”), I tried to look deeper into the ideas he was expressing and their motivations.
He reminded me of some of the reasons I am grateful for the country where I was born and where I live.
Over the past few months, Mrs. S. and I have had some great opportunities to appreciate the words: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain . . . .” We’ve seen them in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. During my lifetime, I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit six continents. But never have I seen anything to match the beauties of my home country.
Then there is freedom to choose our leaders. In our own home state and in the Midwest this fall, we saw hotly contested, sometimes vicious election campaigns with charges of indifference to voters, malfeasance, even criminality in office. The acrimony was painful. But in this country we have viable choices of candidates who may share our personal philosophies. I am reminded that there are literally billions of people on the earth who enjoy no such choices. I have lived in countries where the outcome of elections is always a foregone conclusion—or where there are no elections at all.
We live comparatively secure lives here. Mrs. S. and I spent 18 of the last 24 months living in Central America. For a hobbyist photographer like me, there were opportunities to see beautiful, fascinating things I loved to photograph. And yet I often dared not carry sophisticated camera equipment that would have allowed me to make photographs or video of the quality I desired. Carrying it in some areas could have put our lives or safety in jeopardy. We drove a car with tinted windows that prevented would-be robbers or kidnappers from seeing who was in the vehicle, or how we might be dressed. It was a blessing to come home to our country and be able to move about freely without worrying about malevolent, greedy eyes around us.
There are many people in the world who hate our country, who would like to destroy it. Why? Because in this country we have choices. We do not have to live the way they dictate. Worse, people who live under their rule are able to see or sense the differences, and they long to enjoy the freedoms Americans have. That makes this country a threat to the power of terrorists and other would-be dictators. The United States of America is seen as the hope of something better. That in itself is a blessing to the world.
It is something that an art professor-turned-comedian saw decades ago living with his parents in an overcrowded apartment in the Soviet Union. He saw hope in a new home across the ocean. Now he teaches in his theater show that we all see that which we seek. If we look for hope and optimism, we will find it. And it is much easier to find in this country than almost anywhere else in the world.
So my hat’s off to you, Mr. Smirnoff. You’re right about this place: “What a country!”