What is « Ukrainian humor »? Is translation possible? Ivan Kotliarevsky’s Eneida (1798), a parody of the Aeneid, is considered the starting point of modern Ukrainian literature. The Trojans are now Cossacks. Kotliarevsky’s breakthrough was to use Ukrainian vernacular. From there to the present is a road that twists through several languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Surzhyk), many writers (some funnier than others), and more than a few comic careers in Soviet and post-Soviet popular culture.
Take Les Poderviansky, a key player in the Kyiv underground of the 1980s, lines from whose best-known play, Hamlet; or, A Phenomenon of Danish Katsapism, would serve as cross-generational passwords that got one « in ». (« Oh, fucking Denmark! » « Children, let’s all spit at this eagle-owl! ») Or Verka Serduchka — Lady Kitsch — 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. Serduchka 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! »).
Or Volodymyr Zelensky: Few politicians have been so lost and found in translation, and most foreign commentary has failed to grasp the currents of humor from which he sprung. It’s a trap of teleology to think that a comedian as a head of Ukrainian state was only a matter of time. Zelensky had many ambitions; becoming a 21st-century Churchill was not one of them…
« 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.