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« My ghost, we do no batshit »
Oksana Forostyna
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three

On the untranslatability of Ukrainian jokes

The Bavovna-meme

A rich, husky voice recites what is easily recognizable as Shakespearean rhythm, but with a slightly sneering tone. Someone laughs and giggles in the background, and one may speculate that the recording was made at some kitchen where a company of friends listened to Les Poderviansky, a key player in the Kyiv underground of the 1980s, reading his best-known play: Hamlet; or, A Phenomenon of Danish Katsapism.


My Ghost, we do no batshit.

All kike-masons we hate and loathe,

and daily

state anthems chant we

to balalaikas choir. Terror strike we

into the hearts of kikes and ching chongs;

strengthens prestige; mightily rises fat


in butter day by day. Churls are content,

sated are their mouths.

Less becomes faggots: like Geppetto they

labor their asses off

at chemical productions in Cherkasy.

Sent are all lesbians to Solovki.

The special thing about Poderviansky: he wasn’t a writer and became well-known not for printed samvydav (Ukrainian for samizdat: clandestine literature), but for audio records of him reading his plays. Literary scholars would later put him in the « Kyiv Ironic School », but in late Soviet times, Poderviansky merely entertained his friends by reading his absurdist plays, mixing the high style of well-known classics with an obscenity that would make a truck driver blush. The intense profanity sets him apart from even the edgiest works of contemporary Ukrainian literature, never mind the chaste Ukrainian canon. And it isn’t just the dirty words, but the sets, the situations, the way his characters communicate — everything is within an inch of being pornographic. Irresistibly funny. Totally untranslatable.

Poderviansky’s characters’ language is a good place to start if you want to understand Ukrainian humor (and who wouldn’t?), which means, first, that we should talk about Surzhyk. The characters of his grotesque plays are mostly of the Kyiv suburban underclass; their language is a broken Ukrainian with a lot of Russian words, the mix known as Surzhyk, sometimes compared (wrongly) to Pidgin English. (Poderviansky was not the first to write plays in Surzhyk. Mykhailo Starytsky used it first, but more about him later.) The profanity, the dirty words, are mostly Russian. That’s the usual practice for almost any area once influenced by Russia, but there’s a twist. Polish and Ukrainian intonations are distinctive from Russian, so these vulgar imports lose some of their aggressiveness and gain new prosodic features, new suffixes. There’s room to play with them.

Talking about Surzhyk means following the twists of Ukrainian-Russian exchange. Its mix of Ukrainian and Russian is not random, after all, but has something to do with the attempts of native Ukrainian speakers to switch to Russian: to leave their natural language habitat and adapt to the new one. Talking about Ukrainian-Russian exchange means talking about language and power in history. From the late eighteenth century, Catherine the Great’s heyday, Russian became the language of power, and subsequently of modernization: of bureaucracy, education, science, and literature. Surzhyk is at once an imitation of Russian and a Ukrainian that’s been distorted under Russian pressure. It is also a marker of a lower class: of someone coming from Ukrainian villages and towns, untrained in proper Russian and lacking the social capital one needed to stick to Ukrainian. Ukrainian, remember, was either officially banned or unofficially suppressed, so one had to be well-off, or rebellious, to speak it. For two hundred years, upward Ukrainian social mobility meant switching to Russian. Surzhyk marked one’s first step.

The nuances of linguistic power balance defy translation. For instance, Ukrainian speakers sometimes, with mocking sarcasm, insert a Russian word here and there. Russian speakers used to do the same with Ukrainian, but it leaves a bad aftertaste: it’s just not cool to mock those you suppress, while the suppressed, when using the words of imperial masters, have the upper hand in acid elegance. Is this easy to convey? No, but it punctuates literary history. Czesław Miłosz, the Polish Nobel laureate who was born in Lithuania (then in the Russian Empire), captured this dynamic in his memoir Native Realm (first published in France in Polish [1959], then in French [1964], but also in Italian [1960] and in German [1961], before its American release in 1968):

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At the dinner table at our shabby, miserable (as I know now) home, Russian had been the language to make jokes in, whose brutal-sweet nuances were untranslatable. […] Poles, it would seem, are able to get an intuition of « Russianness » mainly through the language, which attracts them because it liberates their Slavic half; in the language is all there is to know about Russia. The very thing that attracts them is at the same time menacing.

Miłosz recalls « a certain exercise which give me a good deal to think about », in which one first spoke a phrase slowly in Russian and then again in a speedy Polish: « take a deep breath and pronounce first in a deep bass voice: ‘Wyryta zastupom yama glubokaya,’ » (a deep pit dug out with a spade) and « then chatter quickly in a tenor: ‘Wykopana szpadlem jama głęboka.’ » The exercise suggested something about language’s music: « The arrangement of accents and vowels in the first phrase connotes gloom, darkness, and power; in the second, the lightness, clarity, and weakness. In other words, that was both an exercise in self-ridicule and a warning. »

Miłosz’s self-ridicule suggests a second (or third?) layer of irony: both Poles and Ukrainians could use Russian words to, say, undermine the status of what was said or who was mentioned, but also as a sort of self-mockery, aimed at the pretentions of their shallow redneck peers who used Russian words to refer to « serious » matters or institutions of power. Hence the more educated a person is, the more irony with which they’ll use Russian words. A minor sign of solidarity, almost invisible to outsiders, with those compatriots whose language buckled a bit under the pressure of Russian.

But back to Poderviansky, not his Hamlet but his Pavlik Morozov, the epic tragedy:


O, our wise prophet!

Let us, your filthy elders, go to their

miserable huts

So we could pray to Apollo,

Alionushka, to green demons, witches,

And keep matches on a shelf we will,

While waiting for the saints.

May they come and burn possessions

cherished fucking back and all,

May they knock out our teeth.

That’s even better for the needy elders,

As it is easier to enter the Apollo’s kingdom

For those who hath no teeth, beaten kidneys,

And bleeding holes instead of eyes,

And their sparse hair — the evidence of the

lives spent

in harlotry with sluts and lycéennes.

Another special thing about Poderviansky was that his plays resonated with the Soviet intelligentsia, too. Almost every sentence referred to cliches of Soviet propaganda, to the absurdity of official languages, of the Soviet school curriculum, its idols and heroes, the miserable everyday life. They also channeled what Soviet educated classes preferred, unofficially, to consume in 1980s: some works of the Western canon in censored translations, Russian Christian mysticism and messianic philosophy, some bits of New Age that slipped through the Iron Curtain, yoga. The Soviet intelligentsia (mostly Russian-speaking and almost totally Russian-reading) who listened to Poderviansky’s plays could thus laugh at themselves as much as they pitied the Surzhyk-speaking parvenus.

Good parody is an unpredictable icebreaker. Once you’ve heard a parody of Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy in Surzhyk, you might discover that there are good Ukrainian translations of those august works, and then there are interesting Ukrainian poets, and so on. Eventually you’re an enthusiast for non-conformist Ukrainian culture, visiting Ukrainian concerts and festivals. Two more decades, and you are on Maidan, ready to catch a bullet for Ukraine.

Poderviansky transformed from an underground legend into a more public personage in the 2000s, performing on new stages with new media attention. During the Maidan protests in 2013, he proposed to make Maidan a norm in the Constitution: every authority must report to the people gathered on Maidan, but only when there is « fuckton of people » there. Which meant « fuckton » would have to become a legislative term. He also managed to isolate the « Ukrainian national idea » (a subject about which much embarrassing ink has been spilled; Poderviansky’s contribution was given reluctantly, in an interview), and that that idea was: « Fuck off from us. »

Quotes from Poderviansky’s plays became a particular cultural currency: cross-generational passwords that got one « in ». Lines like « Oh, fucking Denmark! » or « Children, let’s all spit at this eagle-owl! » have become more than a subcultural jargon. These days there’s even a Facebook group called « Les’ Axiom » dedicated to the proposition that one can find a quote in Poderviansky’s plays for absolutely every situation in life. The Ukrainian critic and scholar Iaroslava Strikha once said — partly serious, partly not — that every Ukrainian should know three texts by heart: the anthem of Ukraine, « Testament » by Taras Shevchenko, and Hamlet by Poderviansky. Strikha also noted that different generations hear different things: younger generations miss the Soviet-era ironies. Inter-generational jokes confront other kinds of untranslatability, after all.

Verka Serduchka, the persona created by the drag queen Andriy Danylko in the early 1990s, known and loved by millions of Ukrainians. She is a Surzhyk-speaking, joyful, chatty, slightly bossy railway train attendant, a middle-age single woman. The type is easily recognizable to anyone ever travelled on Soviet and post-Soviet railways. As short clips and stand-ups appeared on Ukrainian TV, Serduchka’s popularity skyrocketed. Danylko later had his own TV-show and became one of the best-paid people in Ukrainian show business. Serduchka even started to sing, and represented Ukraine in the Eurovision song contest of 2007. She finished second, with a trashily senseless mix of lyrics. (« Me English nicht verstehen, let’s speak DANCE! »). Some of Verka’s Surzhyk phrases became, like Poderviansky’s, proverbial. Though the bohemian types preferred good old Hamlet, Serduchka provided rich material for cultural studies. Tamara Hundorova dubbed Serduchka « Lady Kitsch » in Кітч і література Травестії (Kitsch and Literature: Travesties [2008]), which traces Serduchka’s image back to Ukrainian folklore and nineteenth-century Ukrainian classics by the likes of Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky and Ivan Kotliarevsky.

Andriy Danylko came from the city of Poltava — the Ukrainian heartland. The Poltava dialect, as anyone who ever went to school either in Soviet Ukraine or in independent Ukraine has learned, is the basis of modern standard Ukrainian. Poltava also produced Ivan Kotliarevsky, whose Eneida (1798), a parody of the Aeneid, is considered the starting point of modern Ukrainian literature. The Trojans are now Cossacks. Travestying the classics, including Virgil, goes back to the Renaissance, and really popped in the Ukrainian baroque; Kotliarevsky’s breakthrough was to use Ukrainian vernacular.

Eneida was funny, and then it became serious. In 1898, a century later, intellectuals and writers from both parts of Ukraine (then divided between the Russian and Habsburg Empires), gathered in Lviv to celebrate the one-hundredth Anniversary of the « resurrection of Ukrainian literature », hallowing Eneida as « pivotal for the history of national being of Ukrainian literature ».

Not that Ivan Kotliarevsky planned it that way. He came from the old gentry, and like many other Ukrainians of his class, he was politically loyal to the Russian Empire. But having been a teacher in his young years, he knew the Ukrainian province, and created in Eneida a witty vision of the people, traditions, cuisine, memory and language of the period of partial and delicate Ukrainian autonomy. Later he joined the imperial army and fought in the Russo-Turkish war. In 1812 he organized a Cossack regiment and fought Napoleon’s troops. He was quite comfortable financially, a philanthropist, director of Poltava theater, and like many decent people of the era, a Freemason. His Eneida, as Tamara Hundorova has put it, « reflected the amphibious imperial educated personality » of its author, fluent in both the « appropriate language » and the « plebeian dialect ».

Handwritten copies of the first three parts of Eneida were distributed among his friends and might never have officially founded modern Ukrainian literature had not Maksym Parpura, another loyal public servant of the same class, published it (without Kotliarevsky’s permission) in St. Petersburg. Then came two more parts, again in St. Petersburg, the third addition was approved by the author, and Kotliarevsky kept working on it for years. The last part was finished in 1822.

The twist: The modern Ukrainian literature that Kotliarevsky founded also gave way, ironically, to a mediocre provincial literature: his popularity brought forth a phalanx of imitators — Kotliarevism (Kotliarevshchyna in Ukrainian) — who would cement the stereotype of Ukrainian culture as bucolic, parochial, and backward, and of the Ukrainian language as useful only for songs and vaudevilles about drinking and dancing Cossacks and peasants.

Kotliarevshchyna merely extended an eighteenth-century political stance toward the modern world. On the cover of the first approved editions, it’s worth noting, Kotliarevsky didn’t even call the vernacular that he so revolutionarily used « Ukrainian »; he called it « Malorosian » (literally « Little Russian »). It was a neutral term in Kotliarevsky’s times (and dated back to the fourteenth century), but by the late nineteenth century it would become a pejorative, a term for the political ideas that mirrored the provincial aesthetic of Kotliarevshchyna. « Malorosian » came to mean pre-modern, and pre-national: a Maloros is someone loyal to the Russian Empire, who sees Ukrainian language and culture as only useful for domestic matters and low jokes, while Russian is the language of high culture, science, politics, and governing. Imperial authorities, both Russian and Soviet, claimed to love Ukraine in this cheap Maloros abridgment: as someone who serves them with songs, jokes, nice food, and horilka (Ukrainian vodka). The pejorative survives today: as Volodymyr Zelensky (who had trafficked in show-biz Kotliarevism at its worst) became president, one of his former political rivals called him a Maloros, and he lost his temper. It was a major offence.

Mykola Ghoghol / Nikolai Gogol — neither Ukrainian nor Russian yet both. His father wrote plays in Ukrainian, and might be even described as a Kotliarevsky epigone. Volumes have been written about Gogol’s dual identity; Gogol himself inaugurated the subject. Yet any Soviet kid learned in elementary school that all Russian literature « came out of Gogol’s Overcoat », a line Dostoyevsky didn’t in fact say. They will also have learned that Gogol became a successful Russian writer due to his « Ukrainian » stories — Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka — written in Russian with numerous Ukrainianisms and a short glossary of Ukrainian words appended. His early prose is rich with Ukrainian words, folklore, history, reality, and, of course, untranslatable Ukrainian humor. English translations reflect neither the distinction of his Ukrainianized Russian nor its playfulness.

Gogol’s subversiveness is in the eye of the beholder. From the Ukrainian perspective, Gogol misused his genius to cement the image of Ukraine as archaic and parochial, or romantic and dead, a history. He is, in this account, Shevchenko’s counterpart, the latter having believed in Ukraine’s resurrection. As George Grabowicz put it, « neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians seemed to realize that kotliarevshchyna managed to deeply penetrate Russian literature in the person and works of Gogol. In effect Gogol carried this modality into the literature of the imperial ‘center’: through him, the literature of the canon became informed (or ‘infected’ as another perspective would have it) by the literature of the anti-canon. »

‘All my life I fought and hated Gogol, and now, being 62 years, I think: you won, you horrible Khokhol.’

Russians might not be aware of kotliarevshchyna, but many of them were aware of Gogol having penetrated the Russian imagination with something abhorrent. The conservative Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov was obsessed with Gogol, indeed blamed Gogol for the wrong course that Russian history had taken. Gogol’s influence was, in his view, worse than the Mongol Yoke. « That’s the devil’s laughter », Rozanov wrote in 1911. He thought the world of Gogol’s genius but believed it had poisoned Russian consciousness with a darkness and self-hatred that culminated in hellish upheaval. In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, which Rozanov unhappily lived to see (dying a year later), he wrote to the Russian émigré philosopher Peter Struve: « All my life I fought and hated Gogol, and now, being 62 years, I think: you won, you horrible Khokhol. »

Rozanov might be a weirdo (which is not to say that Gogol wasn’t), but it was Dostoyevsky, after all, who had called Gogol a « demon of laughter, » and described his « terrible power of laughter » as unknown to « any other literature since the Earth was created ». Nikolai Berdyaev backed Rozanov’s view. Even Vladimir Nabokov called him « Gogol the ghoul » in his 1959 study, Gogol, and contemplated Gogol’s « Ukrainian » works with gothic fear and wry disgust:

In his Dikanka and Taras Bulba phase […] Gogol was skirting a very dreadful precipice. He almost became a writer of Ukrainian folklore tales and « colorful romances. » We must thank fate (and the author’s thirst for universal fame) for his not having turned to the Ukrainian dialect as a medium of expression, because then he would be lost.

« Little Russian », i.e., Malorosian, is Nabokov’s preferred term of dismissal:

When I want a good nightmare I imagine Gogol penning Little Russian dialect volume after volume of Dikanka and Mirgorod stuff about ghosts haunting the banks of the Dniepr, burlesque Jews and dashing Cossacks.

Nor, Nabokov insisted, was Gogol the humorist very humorous. « When a person tells me that Gogol is a ‘humorist’ I know at once that person does not understand much in literature. »

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But popular culture — well, that’s another story. The first Soviet horror film — Viy, 1967 — is based on Gogol’s story from the early « Ukrainian » collection Mirgorod. (So was the first Russian horror film — also Viy, from 1909 — though no copy of it survived). It’s a horror tale set against a Ukrainianly bucolic background — a signature of Gogol’s early stories. One could note the influence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Romanticism, too, of course, but what makes Gogol unique is this precise combination of folkloric horror and vaudevillian Ukraine: a Kotliarevshchyna combination, as Ukrainians would say, of supernatural evil and rustic humor. Other Soviet screen adaptations of Gogol’s early works drank this cocktail, like the 1961 Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka: pure comedy with a petty demon driving the story.

Gogol transmitted into the wider world’s hearts and minds a Ukrainian culture that was visually rich and vibrantly humorous; he also cemented Kotliarevism, in which everything Ukrainian was funny, or horrible. It is not a coincidence that a banner project of the new Ukrainian millennium — a moment of growing Russian political influence and triumphant Kremlin soft power — was a co-produced musical TV-adaptation of Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas Eve, in which (of course) Russians played the more sophisticated characters and Ukrainians played the goofy Dikanka locals. Andriy Danylko, our Lady Kitsch, made the best of his supporting role.

But back to Surzhyk. One of the Soviet movies about Ukraine that almost everyone could quote was Chasing Two Hares (1961), an adaptation of an 1883 play by Mykhailo Starytsky. In fact the original version of the film was in Ukrainian, and the satirical main characters mostly spoke Surzhyk (as in Starytsky’s play); but the version for distribution was dubbed into Russian, such that the movie’s Kyiv Ukrainian city dwellers, ideologically approved « common people », spoke Russian with a heavy Ukrainian accent. Chasing Two Hares’s main character is the Kyiv impostor Holokhvosty — a bankrupt barber, a shallow social climber, a Ukrainian wannabe cosmopolitan — who speaks Surzhyk. As do the other characters, following the similar path. Let’s glance at a scene from Starytsky’s original. Holokhvosty is about to ask Pronia — the daughter of newly wealthy Kyiv burghers, as much a wannabe is he is, though without debt — to marry him (he desperately need her parent’s money), and Pronia flailingly calls her Khymka, her no-nonsense maid. I’ve mangled the sound a bit, to simulate the Surzhyk:

Pronia [desperately]: God, is everything in place? Is it fashe? Oy, dear me, I forgot to wear a bransolet! [Runs to a closet.] A shawl or a mantilla? Don’t know what fits me best?… Or maybe both? Yes! Let him see! Oh, how come no book! Exactly when I need one! Phew, God, how my heart is pounding. Even the pouqueton my chest bounce!… [Thinks, looking at the mirror] How to meet him: should I be walking around, or be erect, or be sitting? Nah, it’s better to lay down, as our madam in the pensionnat used to meet her swain. [Takes a book and lays on a sofa.] Hey, Khymka, call!

     Khymka: Call for what?

     Pronia: Call in the gentleman!

     Khymka: You gotta say exactly so! [Gone.]

     Holokhvosty [enters graciously; in a hat, gloves and with a cane]: I have the honor, like grandis happiness, of introducing meself in yourn ouen edifice! [Pronia is silent.] There is nobodi here! […] I’m afire, on fire fram happiness and stuff like that, cutesy damozel, and to see you on your ouen flor …

     Pronia [turning her eyes]: Ah, that’s you? Bondjour! And I was so absorbed by the book! Merci that you came…

Neither Kotliarevsky nor Gogol had any national projects for Ukrainians in mind, but Starytsky did. He wrote a play based on Gogol’s Night Before Christmas Eve and a libretto of Gogol’s Taras Bulba, but his broader mission was unambiguous: as a devoted and hardworking member of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, he was filling Ukrainian gaps. He even translated Hamlet (the real Hamlet, that is — it wasn’t actually the first Ukrainian translation, nor the best one). Starytsky was the first to use Surzhyk as a vehicle for satire, deliberately mocking those compatriots who were trying to reinvent themselves as Russians. In the original play, Surzhyk captures the shallowness of their social and cultural aspirations, and the miserableness of their pretense.

The play’s Ukrainian-speaking characters, meanwhile, are just being themselves. But dubbing the movie into Russian gave the Soviet audience a different story: Holokhvosty was still a Surzhyk-speaking impostor, but with Russian, not Ukrainian, as the respectable, non-ridiculous, normal language. And the popularity of the 1961 movie meant that Les Poderviansky and Verka Serduchka would feel, when they emerged onto the scene a few decades later, familiar to the Ukrainian public: their pedigree easily traced back to Pronia and Holokhvosty. In 1999, a monument of the couple was erected in Kyiv, near the site of a famous scene from the movie.

One could judge a culture by the fictional characters who are given public monuments. There’s another such monument in the Kyiv city center, within a mile of Pronia and Holokhvastov, and it was put up the year before. Mikhail Panikovsky, another Kyiv fictional impostor, a character in Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s novel The Golden Calf, a popular Soviet classic. Ilf and Petrov were from Odessa. If Gogol’s Russian is funny due to a « Ukrainian » influence, then both Ukrainian and the Russian dialect used in Ukraine derive some of their comic punch from Yiddish, and it was mostly writers from Odessa who channeled Yiddish humor into mainstream Russian literature. Isaac Babel, for instance, was barely published after his death and became popular during perestroika, but Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf entered the Soviet canon in the mid-1950s — in later film adaptations, too.

One could judge a culture by the fictional characters who are given public monuments.

Odessa became the late Soviet and post-Soviet « capital of humor », the headquarters of a humor-industrial complex: stand-up, vaudeville, theater, TV actors telling jokes with fake Jewish accents. Mostly disappointing, tacky even, but Odessa’s local urban culture and its citizens did possess a special translation-defying wittiness. « Odessa speak » was a point of pride: a Russian language heavily influenced by Ukrainian phonetics and a Yiddish syntax, recognizable if you know some German.

That same syntax, while I’m at it, may also be detected in Western-Ukrainian jokes, due to the Habsburg-era influence of German. Lviv, as multicultural in its way as Odessa (and with, once, a substantial Jewish population) also made its contribution to this essay’s canon of untranslatable humor. Consider the batiary, the interwar local hooligans, a subculture of young men, mostly of working class, known for their small hoaxes, petty crimes, and urban folklore. They too spoke a local dialect, popularized throughout interwar Poland via national radio show Wesoła lwowska fala, created by two Polish actors and their personas: the Lviv batiars Szczepko and Tońko. The Lviv batiars, as a social group, didn’t survive World War II, but their folklore did, and so did the tradition of the local humor, which won’t be that funny if it’s not in dialect:

The wind of change blowing from the north

The country became so funny as at was


Everybody converted, not to be recognized

And even the throne of Communist Party


Well, you praised it, you do it.

And I got a box for a rainy day with

Forty packs of Verkhovyna.

See? That’s from the rock band Braty Hadiukiny, which didn’t sing in Surzhyk but in a western dialect of Ukrainian, mimicking local peasant speech — spiced, of course, with some Russian, which was still the official language when the band started out in the late 1980s. In fact their front man, Serhiy « Kuzia » Kuzminsky, was from a Russian family: his grandfather came to Lviv with the Red Army « liberators » after World War II.

Here we have to get further into the fine twists of accents and linguistic power balances, and the histories that twisted them. Braty Hadiukiny’s Lviv was quite different, on this score, from Poderviansky’s Kyiv. In Kyiv, the capital with a longer history of Russification, the line between a Russian-speaking elites and Surzhyk-Russian-speaking former peasants was blurred, but in western Lviv it was obvious. You could barely hear Surzhyk there. In the 1980s, if you heard Russian on a Lviv street, it would likely be proper mainland Russian, as in Moscow or Leningrad, since most of the Russian population in Lviv had come from Russia: as a part of Soviet army, the KGB, Communist bureaucracy, academics, factory engineers (mostly producing military equipment, often high-end and thus classified). Back in the early 1950s, in fact, Lviv was mostly Russian speaking because so much of its pre-war population was either killed or deported. The region was a dangerous place for the newcomers, with an insurgent army still active. After the resistance was suppressed, urbanization of the 1960s opened the city for the people from the surrounding towns and villages. But while in Kyiv and other big central and eastern Ukrainian cities, the newcomers switched to Russian right away (or tried to), they didn’t do that in Lviv or in other cities in the west. Which meant that Russian in the west was the language of a sort of segregated colonial elite. In most cases they despised the language of the aborigines and had no intention of using it. They mocked redneck Ukrainian speech (as they did in other parts of the country), but here, at least, there was no Surzhyk grey zone, but only Russian and Ukrainian. And the Ukrainian was itself divided, between the pointedly « posh Ukrainian » of the intelligentsia, and the regional dialect, with its signature sibilants and vowels.

That dialect is what Braty Hadiukiny mocked in their lyrics, adding other markers of the underclass — shallow idioms and Russian words. Kuzminsky had, in fact, immersed in that world: he’d worked at a military factory, played at weddings and restaurants, and spent two and a half years in prison for drug possession.

The people he mocked, instead of being offended, admired him — or most of them did, enough to enshrine Braty Hadiukiny as the founding fathers of Ukrainian rock. Kuzminsky, for his part, was surprised. « I was like doing rock-n-roll and sang songs about zhlobs for the sophisticated rock-n-roll crowd, » he recalled in a 2005 interview for the Ukrainian art-magazine Nash (zhlob, here, is slang for ethnic Ukrainian, a synonym of « rustic »), and « all of a sudden I [found myself] in Berdychiv or Kolomya with only zhlobs in the audience… Could I be that good that they thought I’m one of them? »

By this point, Kuzminsky had overcome his addiction and moved to Moscow, reinventing himself as a DJ, doing only electronic music. He died of cancer in 2009. Almost every Ukrainian rock star took part in the tribute concert, singing Hadiukiny songs — even the rock-band Komy Vnyz, well-known for their far-right politics.

It’s a trap of teleology to think that a comedian as a head of Ukrainian state was only a matter of time. Few politicians have been so lost and found in translation as Volodymyr Zelensky, and most foreign commentary has failed to grasp the currents of humor from which he sprung.

In The Servant of the People (2015-2019), he played a modest school history teacher whose ardent classroom speech against corruption goes viral, catapulting him to the presidency. The show paved his way to the real presidency and named his political party.

The plot looks, when translated, like keen political satire. But the humor in the show was far from sophisticated, and the cultural roots of Servant of the People lay, in fact, in Soviet cinema: Zelensky’s character, Vasyl Holoborodko — a divorced middle-aged man living with his parents, an honest and unpractical loser — was a familiar figure for the show’s elderly audience. Indeed Zelensky stirred just enough Soviet nostalgia for the audiences susceptible to it, and just enough Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington good-guy populism for Western columnists. The former was his first core audience, having made his way up in the 1990s as part of KVN: a tradition of a comedy show dating to Soviet television (the acronym means « Club of the Funny and Inventive»).

In Soviet times, KVN was a live competition, in which student teams parried jokes. It was a species of stand-up comedy effectively controlled by Komsomol, a youth branch of the Communist Party. The jokes were safe enough for broadcast. KVN reemerged during perestroika, and eventually became a show-business machine. Zelensky and his friends used it as a springboard and soon started the show of their own on Ukrainian television, more fit for the local context. They were also popular in Russia, enjoying both the rewards of the large Russian market and the political freedom at home. They’d mock Ukrainian politicians on their shows, which only encouraged those politicians to come on the shows and be in on the joke.

Zelensky had many ambitions; becoming a 21st-century Churchill was not one of them.

Zelensky’s Studio 95 Kvartal was more careful when mocking pro-Russian politicians, and sharper when mocking the anti-Russian and pro-Western ones, such as former president Viktor Yushchenko and his allies. During and after Zelensky’s presidential campaign, in fact, he was criticized for offending the ethnic and religious Ukrainian base. Zelensky’s Ukrainian characters were, mostly, kotliarevshchyna at its worst: dumb peasants, mustaches, sharovary. In his defense, one may say that he just followed decades of tradition, and that his audience (including members of parliament) embraced it.

The point is that Zelensky and Poderviansky were cut from different comedic cloths, with very little audience overlap, and Zelensky’s audience was much, much bigger. Poderviansky’s audience knew who Zelensky was (everybody did), but Zelensky’s didn’t necessarily know Poderviansky. But in January 2019 Poderviansky surprised his audience by publicly supporting a politician for the first time: before the elections, he showed up at the forum of Zelensky’s rival, the post-Maidan president Petro Poroshenko. He was brief, saying just 56 words, and none of them obscene, though he did hint at one. When Zelensky became president, he tried to convey Servant of the People’s common-man message, and to cater both to the Soviet nostalgia of his parent’s generation (rhetorically), and to the aspirations of the young voters.

Zelensky had many ambitions; it’s unlikely that becoming a 21st-century Churchill was one of them. It is one of our era’s great ironies that Zelensky has become a global celebrity, addressing Cannes and the Golden Globes, not as a comedy impresario but as the leader of a nation at war, protagonist of a grand drama, the hero of what might be the West’s tragedy. All of his serious speeches and ever-rarer jokes are now perfectly translatable.

The « You’re fucked! »-meme.

Literally it reads « Vagina comes for you! »

And the others?

Gogol hovers between « foreign literature » and « Ukrainian literature », at least in the estimation of Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, which, in recent years, has proposed that schools assign Taras Bulba in Ukrainian translation.

The veterans of Braty Hadiukiny, now in their sixties, performed together with Serhiy Zhadan, the Ukrainian poet (and a rock star in his own right), in Kharkiv, the city devastated by war. They are among the legions of Ukrainian celebrities raising money for weapons and relief. Les Poderviansky is frequently on tour in suffering cities, too.

Andriy Danylko, aka Verka Serduchka, performed for Ukrainian troops in a Kyiv metro in June 2022 (now a familiar stage in a capital under almost constant attack), and has made charity tours in Ukraine and abroad. Back in 2007, the title of Serduchka’s Eurovision song was a gibberish phrase — « Lasha tumbai » — that sounded like « Russia, goodbye! », though Danylko denied it. He now sings « Russia, goodbye ». In November, he sold his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 1974, previously owned by Freddie Mercury, at Sotheby’s for 250.000 pounds, donating the sum to the construction of a rehabilitation and prosthesis center for the injured.

They are Gandhi’s formula translated into Ukrainian (though Gandhi didn’t actually say it, so): first you laugh at them, then you laugh with them, then you fight for them. And then you win, you horrible Khokhols.

The Bavovna-meme

Bavovniatko by artist Svitlana Olevska

On 27 August 2022 the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine put out a tweet with this image of « Bavovnyaktko », by the artist Svitlana Olevska, and the text: « Bavovnyatko is a ghost animal. Fluffy and restless. At night, Bavovnyatko quietly comes to the occupiers’ bases, depots, airfields, oil refineries and other places full of flammable items and starts playing with fire there. » Ukrainians use a word « cotton » (« бавовна / bavovna ») as one of the symbols of Ukrainian victory. Moreover, in 2022 cotton flowers captured a part of the flower market: they are now a fashionable (yet hardly understandable for an outsider) choice for a bouquet. Their popularity emerged from a meme that appeared only thanks to an online translator, most likely Google Translate. Starting from 2018, Russian media (heavily censored or self-censored) started to use the euphemism хлопоĸ (khlopok, meaning « a clap », « a bang ») for « explosion ». (An earlier usage of the word appears in technical texts related to Chornobyl catastrophe). When Russian media reported about an explosion at an oil depot and military base in Bryansk, Russia, in April 2022, they used exactly this word. A Ukrainian Telegram channel used an online translator and it translated « khlopok » to Ukrainian as « cotton » (bavovna): « a powerful cotton was heard ». The news was copy-pasted by numerous third-rate news aggregators, a popular blogger noticed, and a meme was born. It is now used for all explosions at military bases, oil depots, etc., in the occupied territories of Ukraine and in Russia.

The « You’re fucked! »-meme

This was April 2022, nothing was certain yet. The message says « You're fucked! », the wording is obscene, street talk. Literally it reads « Vagina comes for you! » « Пизда » is a very, very rude word for vagina in Ukrainian and Russian, and it also means a threat of violence and abuse, an ultimate defeat, and even a « doomsday ». (There is a problem with this picture: the outline of Russia also includes Kazakhstan.)


« Katsap » (кацап) is a slur for Russian, used by Ukrainians for centuries. Nowadays posts that deploy the term on social media won’t last long.

Tamara Hundorova. The Post-Chornobyl Library: Ukrainian Literary Postmodernism. Krytyka, Kyiv 2005.

Les Poderviansky, Pavlik Morozov, the epic tragedy. In 2019 the play was included to the list of 100 Notable Books in Ukrainian by PEN Ukraine: https://pen. org.ua/en/vid-skovorody-do-sogodennya-100-znakovyh-tvoriv-ukrayinskoyu-movoyu.

Тамара Гундорова. Кітч і література: Травестії (Київ: Факт, 2008).

Perhaps Kotliarevsky should assume at least a share of the blame. The scholar George Grabowicz noted that « kotliarevshchyna » was « introduced by Panteleimon Kulish, who applied it not to the epigones, but to Kotliarevskyj himself — in a clearly negative sense. Soon, however, it came to be applied exclusively to the imitators. » George G. Grabowicz, « Subversion and Self-Assertion: The Role of Kotliarevshchyna in Russian-Ukrainian Literary Relations », in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004), vol. 1, p. 402.

Mykhailo Nazarenko, architect of the alternative anthology of nineteenth-century Ukrainian literature Besides « Kobzar », considers at least one of Gogol-Yanovsky’s plays superior to Kotlierevsky’s.

Grabowicz, « Subversion and Self-Assertion ».

Khokhol (хохол) is Russian pejorative for Ukrainians. It was widely used in Russian media and TV long for decades, despite Ukrainians find it offensive. In Ukrainian context it sometimes used as a synonym of maloros.

Some translator’s notes are in order. Fashe: an anachronism, of course, as I found it on Urban Dictionary. Pensionnat: I’ve used French word for the « boarding school », an academy for girls in this context. The normal Ukrainian and Russian word « pansionat » is adopted from French, but Pronia’s version sticks out in the original, something like the way a French word would stick out in English. Damozel: a broken « mademoiselle » in the original. I picked the old form used by Spencer. « Bondjour! », too, is in the original. (Oy, meanwhile, may seem Yiddish, but it is also Ukrainian.)

Verkhovyna were the cheapest non-filtered cigarettes in Soviet Ukraine.

Another term for Ukrainians used in the interview was cherti, or demons. His interviewer, an open Russian chauvinist, also mentions Serduchka and others who started out by mocking zhlobs, and he observes that « zhlobstvo appeared to be a dangerous decease, contagious as schizophrenia, it’s dangerous to play with it. »

Since the late twentieth century, the more widespread (and much stronger) word for kotliarevshchyna is sharovarshchyna. Sharovary means the traditional wide pants worn by Ukrainian Cossacks, the familiar stage costumes of folkloric dance ensembles. Sharovarshchyna conjures the worst form of « Ukrainian » kitsch.