Like some kind of wacky sitcom character, Nikita Khrushchev once pounded a table with a shoe to proclaim that the Soviet Union would bury the U.S. Today, the late premier's countrymen are burying themselves in the first American sitcom broadcast in Russia: Grace Under Fire. Since the collapse of communism, erstwhile Soviets have enjoyed such star-spangled imports as Miami Vice, Zorro, and Rescue 911. But never have apparatchiks giggled along with Hollywood until last April, when Greis v og'ne (translation: ''Grace in the Fire''), starring Brett Butler as Greis, began airing five nights a week on TV6, reaching Russia, the Baltics, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and parts of Scandinavia.
Why did Grace slip past customs first? ''This is a show that travels well,'' says Paul Talbot, president of the Fremantle Corporation, which distributes Grace overseas. ''It's not difficult for Russians to see a woman in a hard hat. In Russian newsreels you saw women out working in the fields and on construction gangs. And Grace has a rather broad, strong, powerful personality that comes over very well.''
Or almost very well. Russian TV seldom provides lip-synch overdubbing for foreign shows, but instead slaps on a voice-over by a lone male, who handles all dialogue. Greis boasts the voices of both a man and a woman. Even so, Grace loses some of her sour, sarcastic edge, since her dry one-liners are delivered in bubbly, feminine tones. Which may explain why Greis has been drawing fire from viewers like Valeria Levchenko, a technical manager in her mid-50s who watched an episode without cracking a smile. ''Sometimes sarcasm just doesn't translate well into our language,'' she observed.
But Elena Vasilleva catches Greis regularly. ''It's a great stress reliever,'' says Vasilleva, 27, an unemployed Moscow art critic. ''Grace, my hero, is the master of her own life, and I can relate to the tremendous irony of life she feels.''
Greis does seem to have a collective of fans: Early ratings indicate the show draws 14 percent of the estimated 45 million viewers in the TV6 area. Still, that's only about half the number of people who tune in to Santa Barbara.
Butler herself has not seen the Russian Grace. Though she's impressed at the show's ability to cross borders Grace currently airs in 33 foreign countries it has complicated her vacation plans. ''I'm trying to go to a place where people wouldn't know me,'' Butler says. ''I got the list [of countries that air Grace] from the distributors and said, Jesus, there's no place I can go that isn't in Djakarta or something.''
Bret Watson, with additional reporting by Jennifer Warner