By Andrew Cohen
When I was living in Moscow last year, I loved to watch reruns of a late-1960s Russian science-fiction TV show called "Kosmicheskaya Militsiya." The title translates as either Space Police or Cosmic Militia, though the show is usually called "Cosmos Patrol" in English. You could say that "Cosmos Patrol" is a lot like "Star Trek," but it would be more accurate to call it a bare-faced Commie rip-off.
Although Russia's science-fiction tradition predates Jules Verne, "Cosmos Patrol" is "Star Trek" in Marxist-Leninist drag. Consider the similarities: "Cosmos Patrol" takes place in the 23rd century aboard a large galaxy-cruising spaceship called the Red Adventurer (Krasny Avantyurist). Like the Starship Enterprise, the Red Adventurer is on a long-term mission of exploration on behalf of the Commonwealth of Independent Star Systems. Both ships are manned by some 400 brave and able crewmen and -women. Both ships encounter strange alien beings and bizarre celestial phenomena week after week. Both ships boast a dashing commander at their helm, with an overly intellectual first officer by his side. And both shows feature cheap special effects and odd velour uniforms.
The hero of "Cosmos Patrol" is the handsome yet avuncular Commander Vasily Dobraydushev; Comrade Commanderto his crew. His surname translates literally as Kind Soul. Consequently, fans of the show call themselves dushki, which means, approximately, dear little souls. Like much of Russian pop culture, the show oozes with sentimentality, up to and including tearful folk songs and lengthy toasts to the Intergalactic Brotherhood of life forms. And when Comrade Commander faces a difficult decision, he sometimes asks for guidance from the bust of Lenin in the ship's ward room.
At other times, Dobraydushev is assisted on the bridge by the coldly logical First Officer Oleg Nemetsov. Although the former U.S.S.R. was a multiethnic society, the crew of the Red Adventurer, unlike the U.S.S. Enterprise, is ethnically pure, consisting only of "true Russians." The exception is Nemetsov, whose name means German. To a Soviet TV audience of the late 1960s, this was shockingly broad-mindedthe closest thing to having an "alien" like Spock aboard. Russia has long had an ethnic-German minority, but based on the surnames of the other characters, I can assure you that the "Cosmos Patrol" crew is completely free of other ethnic minorities such as Armenians, Azeris, Balts, Chechens, Kazakhs, Tadjiks, Uzbeks, and Jews. To be fair, there may have been a couple of Georgians or Ukrainians aboard, but then I didn't see every episode.
The show is such a clone of Star Trek that there is even a character called Ensign Chekhov; this Chekhov, chubby Kolya, provides comic relief with his tall tales, or vranyo as the Russians call them. In about every other episode, he lets it rip with his surefire comedy catchphrase: "I'd rather eat a Kvassian bivalveand I have!"
Like most Soviet TV shows, "Cosmos Patrol" is first and foremost a propaganda vehicle. The implicit message is: be diligent in your studies, young people, and you too may one day honor the Motherland on the frontiers of Soviet achievement. On the show, there's a lot of talk about "scientific socialism" and "progressive technological collectivism." Science, progress, technology, bah, bah, bahit never stops. But the payoff comes with the amusingly retro scenes in which the crew members have a chance to view their spaceship from afar: they gaze at it with wide-eyed wonder, as if they've never before seen a pointy cardboard tube with fins.
Whenever I tell friends here about "Cosmos Patrol," they always ask me how to say "Beam me up" in Russian. Answer: I don't know, since the show doesn't have a "Star Trek"-style transporter. They just land that crummy fake-looking rocket wherever they have to go.
As on Star Trek, the "strange, new worlds" the Red Adventurer visits often seem ringingly familiar. Let's see: There's the Nazi Germany planet, the Gangland Chicago planet, the Ancient Greece planet, and the planet of the Militaristic Paranoid Fascists (the U.S.A. planet). And there's time travel, too: In my favorite episode, the crew somehow goes back to Zurich in 1917 to help Lenin get to St. Petersburg in time to start the Bolshevik Revolution.
Perhaps one of the weirdest borrowings from Star Trek has Dobraydushev and a reanimated Peter the Great challenging holographic supervillains Adolf Hitler and John D. Rockefeller in a chess tournamentto the death!
The one episode that left me completely baffled involves a planet where kimono-clad humanoids relax while robot "slaves" do all the work. Dobraydushev scolds the kimono people for not treating their mechanical servants as social equalscomrades," in his wordsand eventually convinces both sides to unite in fraternal harmony. I hadn't a clue about this oneuntil I learned this fun fact: the Red Army used to award medals for bravery to tanks and airplanes. Hey, machines are people, too, even if Jews and Uzbeks aren't.
When not on duty, Dobraydushev and his crew can be seen indulging in typically Russian pastimes: playing chess, drinking vodka, quoting from Pushkin. One memorably mind-boggling episode revolves around a shipboard "Mathematical Olympiad." Nemetsov served as quizmaster, but the competition was won by Cadet Valentin Volkov. He's the show's slide-rule-toting teen heartthrob, a role model for Soviet youth, and he has a mischievous pet monkey named Yuri. (You thought Wesley Crusher was annoying.)
At some point I had to wonder if perhaps Gene Roddenberry had seen "Cosmos Patrol" and borrowed from it to create Star Trek: The Next Generation. For one thing, Picard's frequent use of commands like "Engage!" and "Make it so" seems to echo Dobraydushev's "D'vai!" (We go now!) and "Eta Noozhna" (That is a necessity). Also, the Red Adventurer has a recreational facility somewhat akin to the holodeck, except that the crew only ever uses it to sip tea and listen to Tchaikovsky inside a virtual dacha.
Then-top Kremlin boss Leonid Brezhnev was a big fan of the show, and was even rumored to be responsible for its creation. Brezhnev was known for his enthusiasm for show business and the Soviet space program (and graft and booze and mistresses and diamonds and expensive foreign cars, but that's another story). A Russian friend remembers seeing a news photo in Pravda of a drunk and ill-looking Brezhnev visiting the show's set dressed in his own custom-made "Cosmos Patrol" velour uniform. If you've ever seen a picture of Brezhnev, then you know that cannot have been a pretty sight.
I'm sure there are a lot of Star Trek fans out there who might be upset at learning that their favorite show had been pitilessly exploited by mono-brow cultural commissars intent only on staging a politically palatable puppet show for a boozed-up party hack. I empathize with you. But to those people, I say this: at least you didn't have to see the Soviets' effort to create a wacky comedy about seven castaways trying to get rescued from a desert island.
ANDREW COHEN lives and writes boldly in Hoboken, New Jersey.