How Competitive Comedy Forged The President of Ukraine : Rough Translation Vladimir Putin joined the KGB at age 23. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy got his early training in a no less Soviet institution–the world of competitive comedy. We update our 2019 episode about a high-stakes comedy competition in Ukraine.

Fighting Words In Ukraine


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In 2019, a comedy team rehearses their sketch at the Palace of Culture in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Gregory Warner hide caption

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Gregory Warner

In 2019, a comedy team rehearses their sketch at the Palace of Culture in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

Gregory Warner

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, is in the role of his life. It's not a role that he chose or wanted for himself, but his performance in the early days of the war seemed to flip the script on the role that Vladimir Putin had cast for him.

Zelenskyy's bravery–and his one-liners–have captured the world's attention, with his selfie videos from the streets of Kyiv, and his passionate appeals to Ukrainian people, Russian soldiers, and world leaders. He has mobilized support in a way that few predicted.

Today, we bring you an update on our 2019 episode "Whose Ukraine is it Anyway?" We visit the place where Zelenskyy first honed his political skills, a comedy competition that is played throughout the post-Soviet world.

Listen as two teams, both underdogs in their own way–one a men's group from Eastern Ukraine, the other a women's group hoping to be recognized as one of the few women's-only teams–compete for a cash prize, a national spotlight, and the chance to represent Eastern Ukraine to the rest of the country.

What can humor tell us about Ukraine's way of dealing with war? And how are these comedians still fighting back today?

For more Rough Translation episodes about Ukraine, listen to part one of our 2019 series here, and to a 2017 episode about Ukraine's battle with Russian disinformation here.

For NPR's on-the-ground coverage from the war in Ukraine, click here.

Additional Context

  • You can watch the first episode of Servant of the People, Zelenskyy's TV show, here.
  • The League of Laughter's website is here
  • Russian/Ukrainian speakers can hear the jokes here
  • Check out Enrique Menendez's organization is here.

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