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Saturday, June 12, 2004

Yakov Smirnoff Remembers President Reagan

Dear Friends: During this week of national mourning, I wanted to share with you some of my special moments with President Reagan. The stories I could share about our President Reagan are many and in particular, I wanted to share some of his wonderful humor with you.

As things begin to happen for me in America, I received a phone call I had always dreamed about. I was asked to perform for the President of the United States. I couldn't believe it. They told me I would be performing in front of President Reagan's cabinet and I said, "Great! I've always wanted to see Nancy's china."

When the big night came, I was very nervous. I figured if the president didn't like me, I'd never work this country again. Fortunately, the show went great and my picture wound up in all the newspapers with President Reagan. My fiancé even received a few tips from Nancy on our wedding and the appropriate fashion choices.

President Reagan also shared some Russian humor with me. He told me about the Communist boss who asked the Russian farmer how the potato crop was doing. The Russian farmer told the Communist boss that "everything was great, you can take one potato and put it on top of another, and the potatoes would reach the throne of God in Heaven." The Communist boss said, "There is no Heaven." The Russian farmer said, "There's no potatoes either." After that, I told everyone I got most of my material from President Reagan and he told everyone I was a national treasure.

I think that is probably the key to why President Reagan was called The Great Communicator. He knew the value of laughter in all relationships. It's hard to stay angry with someone who laughs with you. This is a profound message even for America today.

President Reagan was going to Russia to speak with Mr. Gorbachev. The biggest problem at the time that you would hear about in Soviet-American relations was the nuclear freeze. I did not know if this problem would ever be settled because to the Russians, a "nuclear freeze" meant moving the missiles to Siberia. Some progress was made, however at the summit talks between Mr. Gorbachev and President Reagan. Gorbachev made it clear that he was in favor of disarmament. That's why he disarmed Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.

I followed these issues closely and when Gorbachev asked Reagan to get rid of the MX or Trident missiles, I actually wrote a letter to the president, giving him my opinion that he should get rid of the MX rather than the Trident because "four out of five Americans prefer Trident". This appears to have caught President Reagan's attention.

In 1988, I was called in to help with the speech that President Reagan was going to deliver to the Russians. After looking over the speech, I suggested that it be totally rewritten. Instead of telling the Soviet Union what they were doing wrong or what they should do, we should tell them about the freedoms and opportunities we have and if they choose they could have these too! And in that speech President Reagan choose to invite the Russians to laugh with him as we worked to solve our problems together.

The big joke I had written for President Reagan in this speech was in reference to Russian politicians. There was a new regime in town and they were trying to get the old politicians to give up their seats. President Reagan explained about how difficult it was to get politicians anywhere to give up their seats. He said it reminded him of the Russian folk story where when a child is born and if they're kissed on the forehead by an angel, the child is going to be really smart. If the angel kisses them on the hand, the child will be an incredible artist. If the angel kisses the child on the lips, the child will be an outstanding speaker. However, President Reagan didn't know where the angel kissed these politicians because they will not get off their seats.

President Reagan was narrating this joke to Soviet Politicians and when he finished, they didn't laughed. I was watching this on TV and thought it was time to move to another country again. Then I realized that they had to wait for the translation on their headsets...and then they went crazy with laughter. At that point, I went and changed my pants.

President Reagan told me that while he was in Moscow he heard this joke making the rounds. There was an argument between Reagan and Gorbachev over whose secret service agents were more loyal. So, as Reagan and Gorbachev are standing on the cliffs overlooking Moscow, President Reagan asks his secret service agent to jump off the cliff. His secret service agent says, "I'm sorry sir, I can't. I have a wife and 3 kids." Then Gorbachev asks his secret service agent to jump off the cliff. Immediately, the agent jumps over the edge. The American secret service agent rushes down the hill to the Russian secret service agent and says, "Why did you do that?" The Soviet secret service agent says, "Because I have a wife and 3 kids!" The amazing thing about this joke is that someone had actually shared it with the American President - I hope they didn't end up in Siberia.

President Reagan had a great understanding of the differences between the reality of Russian life and life in these United States. The first joke he ever told me was the story about the Russian who wanted to purchase a car. The factory manager told him it would take a long time, that they would put his name on the list and to come back in 20 years. The man said, "Do I pick it up in the morning or in the afternoon?" The factory manager asked, "What's the difference 20 years from now?" The Russian said, "Because the plumber is scheduled to come that morning."

The interpreter told me what happened during the summit. After two days of butting heads in negotiations, Reagan was fed up with Gorbachev. President Reagan got up and headed for the door, suddenly he turned around with a big smile on his face. He extended his hand to Gorbachev and said, "My name is Ronnie, can I call you Misha? Let's play." Gorbachev laughed and that was the end of the cold war. Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.

As I look back over the time that I was privileged to know President Reagan it still startles me to think how he reached out to the ordinary man like me and to people everywhere. He let us laugh with each other and through humor showed that we, the people, are not that different. The Great Communicator bridged the gap between the rigid fist of Soviet suppression and the open hand of American generosity. His ability to look at not just America with optimism, but to what other people in the world could have, set the stage for the Berlin Wall to come down.

And for freedom to ring loud and clear. What A President! What An American!

With Love & Laughter,


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