Page 99 of my dissertation ends with a quote from a 2019 comedy festival, “KVN is, KVN lives, KVN will continue to live!” It sums up one of the strands of this research, which examines how a popular student game came to be both banned and supported by the Soviet state, both politically subversive and ideologically conservative, both grassroots phenomenon and media spectacle. KVN, an acronym for Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or “Club of the Cheerful and Clever,” is a Soviet-bloc team comedy competition. It began in 1961 as a televised improv show, but students across the USSR soon adopted the game in their universities, organizing interdepartmental competitions and city-wide leagues. Students grew to love KVN because comedy helped them, as octogenarian Ukrainian Eduard Chechelnitsky put it, ”get round” the censors: young people could critique the state nonreferentially, voicing sentiments no one would allow in direct speech. Most, though, simply wanted to laugh and make others laugh. While competitors made (and make) political jokes, and while many found value in a forum that let them speak truth to power, it is humor that attracted participants.
Jokes worried Soviet ideologues, though, and in 1972 officials banned KVN—at least on television. But by that time KVN had spread to schools, universities, and summer camps from Kiev to Bishkek, and people openly played throughout the fourteen-year period of the “ban.” In interviews, KVNshiki (as participants are called) stressed triumph and autonomy as they described the game: KVN is ours, they seemed to say, not the state’s.
KVN’s extra-state nature has been highlighted by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Although Ukrainians and Russians no longer compete against each other, as they had before 2014, KVN remains as popular as it ever has been in domestic Ukrainian competitions. KVN lives. That millions of young people still play a game that began as a hokey 1960s Soviet game show, despite prohibitions, despite border closures, means something, socially. A lot of KVNshiki, beyond liking to laugh, believe in the personally and politically transformative potential of comedy. Page 99 illustrates some of the ways they renew those principles in everyday practice.
Amy Garey. 2020. The People’s Laughter: War, Comedy, and the Soviet Legacy. University of California, Los Angeles, Phd.