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A Clown’s Funeral

The Odessa-born comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky was the Seinfeld of everyday Soviet misery and humiliation. His last joke came from beyond the grave.

Vladislav Davidzon
November 23, 2020
Mikhail ZhvanetskyWikipedia
Mikhail ZhvanetskyWikipedia

When I first heard that the deeply beloved, Odessa-born Soviet satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky had died at the age of 86, I inadvertently thought back to his earnest explanation for the reason that he chose to write. “What did I need to write for?” the diminutive everyman comedian pantomimed, “well, I was short, fat, bald, and ugly, but as a composer I knew once told me, ‘I just have to get her to walk over to the piano.’”

It is true that Zhvanetsky was short, bald, and fat, but he was far from badly formed. With his rounded shoulders, gregarious smile, and aquiline nose, Zhvanetsky looked like a Soviet Wallace Shawn with a touch of late perestroika-period Seinfeld.

During the 1980s and into Gorbachev’s reign, the jowly Jewish mechanical engineer from Odessa was arguably the most famous comic in the Soviet Union. Almost 300 million Soviet citizens could recite his routines. His well-turned aphoristic phrases entered the lexicon of everyday Russian speech throughout the Union from Arkhangelsk to Ashgabat and from Tbilisi to Tomsk.

The persona of the cheerful Jewish everyman from Odessa who dealt with the unceasing privations and ritual humiliations of quotidian life in the worker’s paradise with a laugh and a shrug and a good anecdote did a great deal to disenchant swaths of the population with the regime, though he was not a hero or any sort of dissident and his humor was surely tolerated by the party. He was a man who had to get by, but who hummed along with the party’s tune in a passive, resisting manner.

Born in the early ‘30s, and first having studied to be an engineer, Zhvanetsky did not achieve renown in his vocation as humorist until his 40s. It was while working fixing cranes in the Odessa port that he met his future collaborators Viktor Ilchenko and Roman Kartsev, with whom he founded a comic trio. For a long time before he started a solo career, he toiled in writer’s rooms giving his best material to more famous comedians. Eventually, the comic trio moved to Leningrad under the patronage of the Soviet comedian Arkady Raikin, to write his jokes and monologues for him.

It took Zhvanetsky many years of channeling dogged self-effacement before he emerged as a comic frontman. He excelled as an exacting phrase-maker and a witty aphorist and he composed books of his collected stand-up material.

Zhvanetsky’s wry Odessan humor was totally, categorically, and thoroughly Jewish in cast and tone, and he played up being a Jewish funnyman to Soviet audiences with a self-referential wink. The American writer and translator Boris Dralyuk, himself a native of Odessa, is incontrovertibly correct in describing Zhvanetsky as a “kitchen-table existentialist” as well as “Odessa incarnate, and no one since Babel was a purer product of the city, a purer expression of its sardonic yet sentimental, warm yet pugnacious character.” The one time that I met him at the glammed-up after-party of a film festival, he kept teasing me about my obviously Jewish surname.

Basing one’s legacy on scabrous routines about ordinary Soviet stoicism in the face of privation and ritual humiliation was always a losing bet—a fact that Zhvanetsky understood well. The jokes for which he was famous were very much contingent upon a specific time and place, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union those concerns became of merely historical interest.

Yet Zhvanetsky yearned during his later years to be taken seriously as a contributor to the great Russian literary canon. He went on to befriend and socialize with some of the most renowned Russian literary authors of his time, and he not so secretly measured his jovial and popular work against their highbrow productions. Obviously, such a comparison could only end with disappointment, and his late-period work turned more and more to philosophical ruminations, a great deal of which were quite charming and poignant and showcased his distinctive timing and wit. Whether the comedian’s thoughts on the meaning of life, women and men, and aging will in fact be read by Russian readers in half a century’s time is an open question, though.

I myself was born during perestroika in the mid-1980s, so I am far too young to have experienced Zhvanetsky in his prime. My own affection for his work is rooted in a sentimental affection for the cultural references of my parents’ generation. Those in my own generation who got the humor and the references did so ironically, and because he had entered city history and lore. When I lived in Odessa he was mostly treated by the city as a living statue.

When I attended a packed hall performance of his greatest hits in Odessa four years ago, Zhvanetsky was already in his early 80s. There were many young families there and young people, but the audience was very much living out the later stages of its life. In fact, one member of the audience had a heart attack in the middle of the second act. Several dozen doctors present in the audience sprung out of their seats to attend to him.

As any professional stand-up man would in that situation, Zhvanetsky looked up from his sheath of joke material and quizzically inquired of the audience, “what, are my jokes so bad, are they bombing tonight? I promise that this usually does not happen.”

It should be said that Zhvanetsky was conspicuous among his late Soviet peers in not having fallen into the trap of what Russians refer to as “ruining his obituary”—a reference to an oblique adage about an honorable individual who behaved badly and compromised himself in an unseemly matter with the authorities in old age after having lived an otherwise blameless and even heroic life. Zhvanetsky was indeed embraced by the regime in his old age, as were many others who had been even more rebellious against Soviet authorities. He even amiably accepted a prize directly from Putin’s hands in the wake of the commencement of Russia’s war with Ukraine. In his 80s and buffered by a lifetime of acclaim, there really would have been no political penalty for not having accepted the accolade. Yet he did so, going along with the show in Putin’s Russia just as he did in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.

Yet it should also be noted that the comedian demurred from signing on to any of the truly noxious jingoistic public letters that some of his peers signed on to in the overheated atmospherics of 2015. As a result, he was to the very end beloved in Ukraine no less than he was in Russia. Ukrainian President and former comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky doffed his cap to him as a master fellow performer: “His satire became wisdom for many of us.”

Zhvanestsky remained committed to the craft of the professional funnyman to the very end. He even went beyond the call of duty by working the room into the afterlife. A suitably comical situation ensued after the state funeral, which took place in Moscow’s grand Novodevichy Cemetery, where the comic joined his fellow Russian ironists Gogol and Chekov, in a ceremony attended by the Russian minister of culture as well as the preternaturally scandalous Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva.

As soon as the ceremony concluded, Russian social media networks erupted with scandalized shock at the picture of the grave broadcast from inside the cemetery, which seemed to depict an Orthodox cross having been erected over Zhvanetsky’s grave. However, upon closer observation it emerged that this was in fact the product of an optical illusion: The cross was in fact protruding from the grave located directly behind that of Zhvanetsky’s neighbor, the Russian Jewish actress Galina Volchek. This was finita la commedia for the Russian Jewish entertainer’s dream of appearing to go along with a crowd while retaining his own irreducible essence by cracking wise.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.