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Team Comedy: A Russophone Tradition

By A. Austin Garey | Published: January 10, 2022

Lesnoe Ozero counselors in silly masks acting as KVN Judges.
The Lesnoe Ozero KVN judges take their job
very seriously.

On November 8, 2021, young people throughout the former USSR celebrated an important 60-year anniversary. They gathered in restaurants, school auditoria and city performance halls for the occasion, posting pictures of smiling revellers on their social media pages. “Happy birthday, KVN!” the captions read.

KVN, oddly, is a team comedy competition that the Soviets created as a game show in 1961. Youth loved the game and, much like a dance craze, quickly brought the game to universities from Kiev to Bishkek. KVN remains one of the most popular extracurricular activities in the former Soviet Union, with millions of participants worldwide. In many towns, KVN occupies the same slot that Friday night high school football games do in the U.S.: communities come out to watch a (comedic) battle and students gain local prestige by participating.

The 2021 Lesnoe Ozero KVN Competition.

Last summer, Russian students at Concordia Language Villages performed in their own KVN competition. Since it takes a lot of time to rehearse material in Russian, one showcase team co-wrote and performed a skit in Russian, and all camp members participated in a series of KVN-style improvisational games in English. They poked sardonic fun at camp rituals, made inside jokes about individual cabins, laughed a lot, and generally had a good time.

This positive atmosphere—fun—motivates people to keep doing the activity. For it takes work to write and rehearse material, and it takes nerve to perform it. Campers at Lesnoe Ozero, for instance, rehearsed nearly every day for two weeks, struggling to speak, pronounce,, remember, and perform Russian phrases. All of this effort brought some lightheartedness to a camp evening. But it also brought campers culturally closer to their Russian peers, who often play KVN games at summer camps (or go to entire camps devoted to KVN!).

Summer camps, in fact, helped keep KVN traditions alive from 1972 to 1986, when the Soviet government banned large KVN competitions. At that time, officials decided students’ biting, funny, often political satire threatened the regime—at least in front of big audiences. The state fully supported small-scale, “educational” KVN, however, so school children and university students continued to play throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Since KVN was considered an intellectual game, officials deemed it a productive youth leisure activity. Classroom teachers also turned to KVN for many of the same reasons we at Lesnoe Ozero did: as a vehicle for focused “task-based learning” on particular themes.

A majority of Russians have played KVN at some point in their lives: in school, at camp or on a university team. Competitions remain popular on TV, too. The Language Villages’ Russian campers now also have training in an activity Russians call “the national game.”

About the Author

A. Austin Garey teaches English as a Foreign Language at Moscow Pedagogical State University and is a Writing Advisor at the University of Chicago. She wrote her PhD dissertation on Russian comedy (KVN) at UCLA and taught Russian at the Russian Language Village for the first time in the summer of 2021.

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