MOSCOW, JUNE 29 -- Before "Star Trek IV" premiered here last weekend, Soviets thought of Chekhov as a writer of Russian short stories and Spock as a doctor for American babies.
In a country deprived of the first three "Star Trek" feature films, disentitled to two decades of reruns of the beloved American television series and thus rendered naked of so-called "trekkies," the Moscow debut ran the risk of losing a cult in translation.
For example, how would Soviet viewers understand that Pavel Chekov -- the caricatured Russian who wanders the set of "Star Trek IV" asking American policemen, housewives and other passers-by how to find the "nuclear wessel" -- is as much a matter of kitsch as national stereotype?
"My main concern in exporting the film was what to do about the jokes that have to do with language," said Leonard Nimoy, the "Star Trek" director and star better known to a generation of American filmgoers as the superhuman Mr. Spock. "How do you translate 'double dumb ass' and the 'hells' and 'damns' that are sprinkled into the dialogue? How do you translate jokes at all?"
In showings to select audiences here, however, it turned out to be the humor that turned Muscovites into would-be "Trekkies," despite the sudden transplantation of jokes from an American to a Soviet context.
Or maybe because of it.
"You are entering a very primitive and paranoid society," Spock says when his spaceship find itself in the contemporary United States, bringing the Russian crowd to the brink of hysteria.
A one-liner that fell flat before American crowds, for instance, took on a whole new meaning here and gave the Friday night crowd at Moscow's Dom Kino its biggest laugh: "The only constant in the universe is the bureaucratic mentality."
Overall, the movie drew the kinds of praise, giggles and ovations that touched off the Trekkie cult across the American continent.
Tatyana Sherbina, a young Soviet poet, summed up the Soviet public reaction by calling the movie "silly but adorable." Sava Kylish, a Moscow film director, agreed. "It was funny," he said, "something people here can relate to."
One reason is that the America of the late 20th century, where the U.S. starship Enterprise lands in the film, is equally alien to the real Soviet viewers and the fictional crew members. Another is that the movie's plot is based around a political movement increasingly popular in the Soviet Union: concern for the environment.
In the movie, the Enterprise crew leaves the 23rd century galaxy to return to the planet Earth to save humpback whales from certain extinction.
In the Soviet Union, a moratorium against killing whales was announced last month, at a time when issues like protecting Siberia's Lake Baikal and Siberian rivers from pollution are attracting a mass following. Nimoy said his Soviet interlocutors here were "very much in touch with ecology and the planetary question."
The Washington-based World Wildlife Fund used the Moscow premiere of the film to attract attention to the new Soviet position on whaling. Roger Payne, an international whaling expert, World Wildlife Fund Executive Vice President Tom Lovejoy and Nimoy held a press conference Monday to praise Moscow's decision to suspend whaling practices.
The biggest attraction of "Star Trek IV" for Soviets may be that it is an American-style adventure story without strong overtones of East-West conflict or even antagonism toward an unknown enemy.
Even the "Star Trek" protagonist Chekov, with his thick Russian accent and predilection for looking for nuclear arsenals on American soil, is easy enough for Soviets to swallow.
"He's obviously a stereotype," said Joseph Goldin, one Soviet viewer, "but he was funny and had a light touch. People laughed."
"Star Trek" did not always approach Russian themes with such a delicate glove. In earlier episodes, Chekov was "a bad joke," Nimoy said. "He was the guy who was forever claiming that everything had been invented by Russians.
"There were always people who interpreted the Klingons as being the Russians in space," Nimoy added, in reference to the enemies of the Enterprise crew. "But I thought that was a bit too cheap."
Nimoy, or the character of Spock, also proved a big draw for the limited crowd of Soviets who saw the film.
The parents of the 56-year-old actor grew up in Zaslav, a small town in the Ukraine. During his first visit to the Soviet Union, to promote the film and the conservation cause it espouses, he also reflected on his roots.
"We ate Russian," he said in an interview in his hotel room here. "I learned Yiddish at home and when my parents didn't want me to know what they were talking about they spoke Russian. It was the secret language."
Nimoy -- the name means "mute" in Russian -- plans to take a two-day trip to Zaslav at the end of the week here.
Nimoy started doing the "Star Trek" television series 22 years ago, and after a career as Spock seems to regret that it blocked him into a life as a creature from outer space.
"With the character of Spock," he said, "I was very much in demand, but more in a celebrity kind of way than an acting way. The character takes with it a certain amount of baggage. I have a lot of interesting kinds of work, but not the kind of work I had hoped for. Major roles in major films did not happen."
In recent years, however, he has used his skills as a director to branch out of the fantasy space realm and into earthly themes. Last week, for example, he finished directing a feature-length French production.
Reflecting on "Star Trek's" Soviet debut, Nimoy said the series has "never exported well," although he describes the essence of Spock as something "imminently translatable": "The root of the character is the universal struggle of people to balance logic and emotion. That, I think, is really universal and it translates."
This weekend's showings of "Star Wars IV" were a trial run on the eve of negotiations for distributing it here more broadly; it will also be shown at the upcoming Moscow film festival.
It is not the first time Nimoy has grappled with exporting the "Star Trek" phenomenon, however. Recently, he said, fans in West Germany complained that some essential points of the film were awkwardly dubbed, leading German dubbers to invite "Star Trek" fans to be part of the translation process.
"Star Trek IV" was subtitled in Russian to save money and time.
On a visit to Tokyo several years ago, a Japanese translator confronted him about the confusing relations between two of the the main characters.
"Star Trek characters are military," the translator said.
"Kirk is an admiral," he added. "McCoy is a commander. How do you account for the relaxed conversation between these two men? This is unacceptable for a Japanese audience. I have to change this dialogue."