A Russian reversal is a type of joke, usually starting with the words "In Soviet Russia", in which the subject and objects of a statement are reversed, usually to indicate living under a harsh or oppressive tyranny. The jokes are usually told in broken English, without articles, in the way that a native Russian speaker might, which makes such reversals easier. A Russian reversal is an example of both an antimetabole and a transpositional pun.
- In the US, you catch a cold.
- In Soviet Russia, cold catches you!
- In America, you break law.
- In Soviet Russia, law breaks you!
- In America, your work determines your marks.
- In Soviet Russia, Marx determines your work!
This type of joke has existed since at least the 1960s. In the 1968–1973 television show Laugh-In, a recurring character, "Piotr Rosmenko the Eastern European Man" (played by Arte Johnson), delivered short jokes such as "Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watches you!" This joke alludes to video screens that both reproduce images and monitor the citizenry, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The joke form is often credited to Ukrainian-American comedian Yakov Smirnoff, although he only rarely used Russian reversals. Much of his material, especially during the peak of his popularity in the mid-1980s, did involve comparisons between life in the United States and in the Soviet Union, but he did not often use that particular form of wordplay. One exception was a Miller Lite commercial he appeared in in 1985, in which he states, "In America, there's plenty of light beer and you can always find a party. In Russia, Party always finds you."
Later parodies of Smirnoff's act on various television shows did include Russian reversals:
- In a 2001 episode of Family Guy, "There's Something About Paulie", a car navigation system has a "Yakov Smirnoff" setting, in which it intersperses directions (in a Russian accent) with jokes such as "In Soviet Russia, car drives you!" (This may have been the first instance of such a joke with the exact "In Soviet Russia" phrasing.)
- In a 2002 episode of The Simpsons, "The Old Man and the Key", as part of his comedy revue, Smirnoff (voiced by an actor) states "In Soviet Russia, review watches you!"
- In a 2002 episode of Futurama, "Crimes of the Hot", Fry states, "That ice dispenser is so big, the ice crushes you! Yakov Smirnoff said that."