Whose Ukraine Is It Anyway? : Rough Translation Please, take our survey! At a Ukrainian comedy competition founded by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, can humor unite a divided country?

Whose Ukraine Is It Anyway?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken). Yeah.

WARNER: (Laughter).

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR.


WARNER: It's the day before the competition. Everybody's nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: We're in eastern Ukraine at the regional semifinals of the League of Laughter. It's a comedy competition founded by the guy who is now Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a legend on the comedy circuit. The winner of this battle will represent this eastern region, the region most affected by the war with Russia, in a televised national final that it seems like all of Ukraine is going to tune into.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yes, of course.


WARNER: Twenty-five-year-old Alex Bobkov (ph) and 29-year-old Vova Sivek (ph) and their teammates, they're here to represent the city of Mariupol.

ALEX BOBKOV: Yes, of course. (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: What did you say, Mariupol?

BOBKOV: Mariupol's our own city.

WARNER: Alex taps his chest, the universal symbol of represent.


BOBKOV: (Non-English language spoken).


WARNER: Mariupol is very close to the frontlines. The war there is still felt every day as an economic one. Ships that come through the Black Sea to the port of Mariupol are harassed and delayed by Russian inspectors. And all the factories and plants there that used to do trade with Russia, now, that trade has been cut off.

And for the guys on this team, a comedy career is not an easy thing to launch. Vova, who used to play comedy competitions in Ukraine and Russia, he is now repairing diesel generators. Alex moved to Turkey to play Captain Jack Sparrow on a pirate ship for kids' birthday parties. This competition is the first time in years that the whole team has reunited.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: To make it to the next round, what they have to do is write a sketch on the theme of a foreign country. Every team has a different country assigned to them. And maybe because this team is sort of the local favorite, they've been given what seems like the easiest country in this part of the world to make fun of, one that Ukrainian comics have been honing jokes about for 80 years...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...the U.S.A.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Now's their chance to test their material on two famous comedians, celebrity comics brought in at great expense from the capital, who are here more like coaches. Don't think Simon Cowell. They're not just here to criticize. They're supposed to help the teams improve.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Their sketch, I'm trying to follow it. It's like every American action film cultural stereotype mashed together. You have aliens and cornfields, the Statue of Liberty getting blown up...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Mimicking explosion).

WARNER: ...And John Travolta.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: After it's done, the celebrity comics seem underwhelmed. One says...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...The sketch, it's still uncooked. You have to fill it up with jokes.


WARNER: Afterward in the hallway, the team from Mariupol tells me it's even worse than it seems. This is their sixth attempt at a sketch that will work. Their team coach, Sasha Czerduk (ph), is helping them brainstorm.

Can I ask a question?

I'm conscious that I am the only American here. And I might be able to help.

What about, like, Trump and Zelenskiy? Trump, Zelenskiy or Biden?

BOBKOV: It's very, very, very many, many, many on television this joke.

WARNER: Wait. You mean everybody's talking about Trump?

BOBKOV: Yes. Everybody jokes about Trump and Biden.

WARNER: Trump...

BOBKOV: Everybody.

WARNER: ...Just too familiar.

I See. And Giuliani?

And Giuliani...

BOBKOV: We don't - not too many people know...

WARNER: ...Not a household name.

People may not know it here.

BOBKOV: We have our Ukrainian Giuliani - many, many Ukrainian Giuliani.

WARNER: We have plenty of our own Ukrainian Giulianis.


WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR, the show that takes you to far-off places with stories that hit close to home. In our last episode, we talked about the comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who became president of Ukraine by tapping into a rage against corruption. The thing that people find even more surprising here is not just that Zelenskiy won but that he won almost everywhere. He won in western regions, and he won in the east. As a humorist, he did what no modern Ukrainian politician has ever done. He got all sides of a divided country to back him.

And so when I was invited to the eastern city of Kramatorsk - best known for having one of Ukraine's largest metallurgical factories - to watch a regional semifinal competition of amateur comedians, I came with a lot of questions. Like, what does humor look like 50 miles from a war? And what is the role of comedy in a country united by a comedian but divided by so much else?


UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #1: So today is our last day to make it. And tomorrow we will show all the team.

WARNER: If you need any jokes about America...




I can think of some.

...Back after this break.


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WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. It might seem from the news cycle that Ukraine is a bleak place. But comedy is a thriving industry here. There are lots of comedy shows. Before Zelenskiy became the president, he produced and hosted many of those shows. And the stakes of this competition here in eastern Ukraine are high. The winner gets prize money and a national spotlight. Six teams are in the semifinal, and only four will survive the weekend.

Watching every sketch, I can confidently say that this theme of foreign countries, it feels like a trap, especially in a part of the world where ethnic stereotypes are the default. Try to guess this team's country...

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #2: (As character) James Bond.

WARNER: Yes, it is England. Here's another skit about Japan.

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #3: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: I'm not even going to talk about the team that has Africa - all of Africa. But then, I watch a team that seems to have figured out a way around this trap.


WARNER: They're called La Planeta (ph), an all-women's team. And their theme is Spain. But they're using that as a foil to joke about life closer to home. Here's an example. Vika Pitorna (ph) is playing a woman from the 17th quarter, the local skid row, and she gets magically transported to a city in Spain. And she has no idea where she is.


VIKA PITORNA: (As character, non-English language spoken.)

WARNER: So she's walking down the street, and she sees a guy. "Hey, look at that guy."


PITORNA: (As character, non-English language spoken.)

WARNER: "He doesn't have a black eye."

PITORNA: (As character, non-English language spoken.)

WARNER: "He doesn't have peregar (ph)," which is a word that means the gasoline breath of a person the day after a drinking binge. I don't think that word exists in English. Later, she starts rapping about all the knock-off brands she's wearing, like Louis Vuitton.


LA PLANETA: (As characters, rapping in non-English language).

WARNER: "I got shoes in the style of Dolce & Gabbana. The heel fell off. It was fixed by my mama. All these threads thanks to Jitomirskaya Fabric Factory (ph)."


LA PLANETA: (As characters, rapping in foreign language).

WARNER: This factory reference, it's strategic, aimed at the local audience. But this team, they are not local - not at all. They're college students from the capital, Kyiv. They took the train 400 miles out here to this regional competition, almost feels to me like major leaguers showing up at a minor league game for the easy win. But then I talked to one of the celebrity comics, Sergey Bedelov.

Tell me about the Kyiv women team. What are their strengths? What are their - what do they need to work on?

He is not so sure about this team's chances.

SERGEY BEDELOV: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: He explains that women's humor is very specific to women. He says he's not a sexist; it's just that women's humor is harder for the audience to accept. So his advice to the team has been to write humor that's interesting for men, too.

Here's where we were on Day 1 of the competition. I'd met two teams, both underdogs in their own way - the Mariupol team, the local favorites who just couldn't come up with enough good jokes about the U.S., and then the Kyiv team, interlopers from the city - young and sharper-edged - who might simply be the wrong gender for this crowd.

The teams head back to their rooms to practice. The other celebrity comic, Ilija Durmingiy (ph), says...

ILIJA DURMINGIY: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ..."Humor is going to be born tonight, and it's possible some of these teams are not going to sleep."


WARNER: The idea of representing your region through competitive comedy actually has a long history in this part of the world. One of the experts on that history...


...Is Alexey Simonenko (ph).


WARNER: He's a professor at Stockholm University in Sweden.

SIMONENKO: Studying humor...

WARNER: He's a self-described international humor researcher, which means he's often in the regrettable position of having to explain to one country what another country finds funny.

SIMONENKO: Sometimes, they are understandable. But this is the pain of the research. And then you just try to explain, this is the context here. This is that context that they refer to.

WARNER: And then nobody's laughing at that point.

SIMONENKO: Yeah, nobody's laughing because, you know, this is the worst thing that you can have to the joke when you have to explain it. So...

WARNER: I feel like I'm going to face that in doing this story, I'm afraid. But thank you for the words of encouragement.

SIMONENKO: Yeah, exactly.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in non-English language).

WARNER: The origin of competitive comedy in the Soviet world was a game called KVN, or Keh-vuh-en (ph) in Russian. It stands for the club of inventive and funny people. It was launched by student actors in Moscow in the 1960s, shut down by Soviet authorities in the '70s, then reborn in the '80s during Perestroika as must-see TV.

SIMONENKO: Especially in the '80s, that was the place to find the most up-to-date jokes where people were experimenting and, you know, pushing boundaries.

WARNER: Through the '90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and former republics became independent countries, those countries still sent teams to Moscow for the Keh-vuh-en finals. And people rooted for their team. For example, this is the finals of 1997. Who is onstage for Ukraine?


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: It is the future president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, then a 19-year-old college student from a small industrial town in Eastern Ukraine. And when Zelenskiy's team wins...


WARNER: Ukraine celebrates. It is a win for the country.


WARNER: The contestants I meet at this comedy competition in Ukraine - they all talk about comedy as a team sport.

DAVID OLMOCHENKO: Yeah. (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: A contestant here named David Olmochenko (ph) told me this story, and I heard versions of this story again and again.

OLMOCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Growing up, he kind of thought of himself as funny. But then at age 14, he was tapped by a high school team. Suddenly, he was travelling to competitions and imagined himself on Russian TV.

OLMOCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: All these dreams of young Ukrainians participating in this vast game ended abruptly in 2014. When war began between Ukraine and Russia, Keh-vuh-en was pulled off the Ukrainian airwaves. And Ukraine stopped sending teams to Moscow. Zelenskiy who, by then, had his own entertainment company in Ukraine, rushed in to fill the gap.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in non-English language).

ZELENSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: He started the "Liga Smeha," the "League Of Laughter"; the Ukrainian version of Keh-vuh-en.


ZELENSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Last year, his channel launched a women's-only event showcasing women comedians.

How long have you been doing...

PITORNA: Three years.

WARNER: Vika on the Kyiv women's team - she remembers that women's-only show.

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She says she realized a girl can be funny when she's not afraid and feeling comfortable on the stage - so different than her experience of being on coed teams, where the guys muscle in with their bruh (ph).

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).


WARNER: One thing she says she loves about comedy in Ukraine is what makes it different than so many other industries here. You cannot bribe your way to the top. You're funny or you're not.

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She says the people voted for Zelenskiy not because they liked him so much but because they could see he was working hard. He earned their respect by being such a professional. And that's what she sees comedy as for her; a platform to prove herself.

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She kept saying, you can set yourself free. You can start something new - a show, a start-up, something not even related to humor; something of her own. But that means she's got to leave this town with a win.


WARNER: A little bit later, all the teams gather to hear a pep talk from the sponsor of the league - a Ukrainian guy named Enrique Menendez (ph). That's not a joke.

ENRIQUE MENENDEZ: My grandfather was born in capital of Spain.

WARNER: The story is that Enrique's Spanish grandfather fought on the communist side of the Spanish Civil War and then ended up in the Soviet Union.

MENENDEZ: So that's why I have such strange for Ukrainian name - Enrique Menendez.

WARNER: Enrique is a writer. He runs a think tank, and he's got his own reasons for funding this comedy league. I've met Enrique before on previous reporting trips to Ukraine because he's an outspoken advocate for this eastern region that we're in; the part of Ukraine closest to the Russian border and most affected by the war called Donbas.

MENENDEZ: We see on our TVs only the war in Donbas, only the problems, catastrophe.

WARNER: Enrique is sensitive to how his region is perceived and how the views of people here can be dismissed. For instance, a lot of people here feel that Ukraine should negotiate more with Russia. That can be seen as...

MENENDEZ: Treason - yeah, it's betrayal of national interest.

WARNER: There's also a language divide. People here in the east speak Russian as their first language not Ukrainian. But since the war with Russia, there have been a lot of new laws that make Ukrainian the sole language of schools and government offices. With all these divides in the country, Enrique has a lot of hopes for what sketch comedy might achieve. In his pep talk to the teams, he tells them, all of you have the talent to, one day, be on TV. And then he says...

MENENDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Our job here is to show that the Donbas region...

MENENDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...Is not just alcoholics, machine guns, marginals and the 17th Quarter. We must show all of Ukraine, he tells them, that the people of Donbas are young, normal and talented.


WARNER: Here was the sponsor of the league telling the team to showcase their talents so that his region will be respected in all of Ukraine. That may be a good pep talk for a sports team, but this is comedy; this is not a game of looking proud or dignified. Just before the show, I catch up with Alex of the Mariupol team.

BOBKOV: One minute - one minute because we need to change again and make it...

WARNER: OK. Where are you at right now? You have three hours until the performance. What - how do you feel?

BOBKOV: Now a little bit nervous because we must still make a lot of things to make it good.

WARNER: We have a lot of changes, he says, and a lot of things to think about. When I talk to Alex and his teammates about the city that they say they want to represent...

BOBKOV: (Laughter).

WARNER: Well, what do you want to show about Mariupol?

The answers they give me, they're oddly bland. Vova, who's done years on the comedy circuit, tells me...

VOVA SIVEK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: We want to show our little town in the best possible light, as happy and cool. There's been a lot of changes in our region, but we have good people.

SIVEK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: When they talk about their hometown, they sound less like comedians, more like politicians. While the women's team from Kyiv, they're embracing the very stereotypes that Enrique warned them against. They play alcoholics and outcasts from the 17th Quarter, that local bad neighborhood here in Kramatorsk.

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: And what really makes the women's team so much more edgy for this audience is that Vika, on stage, is speaking, not Russian, not Ukrainian, but a kind of Spanglish mashup of the two called Surzhyk.

MENENDEZ: It's a terrible mixture of Russian and Ukrainian.

WARNER: Educated Ukrainians, like Enrique, hate Surzhyk.

MENENDEZ: Yeah. And it's terrible.

WARNER: To him, it's the sound of Russian speakers forced to speak the national language and mangling it. It's the sound of being a second-class citizen in your own country. For Vika...

PITORNA: It's my soul. Yeah, I like.



PITORNA: It's - I like Surzhyk. I like - on the stage...

WARNER: Vika, by the way, speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian. She only speaks Surzhyk in the show because it's shocking and a little taboo to hear someone speaking Surzhyk on stage. It's a good way to make people laugh.

PITORNA: She talked Surzhyk. Oh, my God.


WARNER: I asked Alexey, the humor researcher, how did Zelenskiy do it? How did he walk this line of making fun of Ukraine, where he's from, but at the same time, representing Ukraine on the international stage?

SIMONENKO: Yeah, I mean, it didn't represent - this is probably not the word - but that they exploit this identity.

WARNER: He exploited stereotypes of Eastern Ukraine, made them funny for the rest of the world.

SIMONENKO: But that was not the problem at that time, you know, in the '90s. That became a political question now, I mean, since 2014, of course.

WARNER: Since 2014, meaning since the war with Russia. It's harder to make fun of yourself when the other side is using those same stereotypes against you.


WARNER: So showtime, Sunday evening - six teams are competing; only four will advance to the final round. Vika will tell me later...

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: We had them at hola.

PITORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: All the jokes find their landing. The women get a perfect score, tied for first place with the team that has Africa. And then the other four teams battle it out in a lightning improve round. The game is to fill in the first part of a sentence. The second part of the sentence - it's a little bit Soviet - is, that's why there is no heat. The teams all huddle. And then Mariupol team comes forward.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: The Mariupol team makes a joke about the local mayor filling up his bathtub with the hot stuff, which could mean moonshine or hot water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

WARNER: And that's why there is no heat. The crowd loves it. They make it to the next round, maybe because in this round, they finally poked fun at their own lives. And afterward...

But why so sad? You guys don't look happy. You just won.

BOBKOV: Because after 25, 29 days, it's final, and we must make it again.

WARNER: The final is five weeks away. All the guys are headed back to their jobs. Alex is getting on a plane back to Turkey. And that's where I left them, in October. But that final, it just happened last Friday. What happened there? After the break.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Hi, mom. How would you say please donate to public radio in Marathi?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (Speaking Marathi).

WARNER: Hey, here's that link one more time - donate.npr.org/translation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (Speaking Marathi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Just by the way, Mom, you're being recorded.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: We are back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. The finals of the Donbas League of Laughter happened this Friday, this time in the city of Mariupol. Four teams battled it out to represent the entire eastern region in the national final.


WARNER: The winner was Mariupol.

Oh, Sasha. You have a few minutes...

So I called up Sasha Czerduk, the coach of the Mariupol team.

So what happened? So did the team do something different, a new strategy?

SASHA CZERDUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: So he said, everything started as before, with a sketch, and there was one team that was clearly the best, and it was not Mariupol.

CZERDUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: It was La Planeta, the women's team from Kyiv.


WARNER: The Mariupol team watched their sketch, they saw how well it was going over, and they huddled nervously backstage. We are in trouble, someone said. Just do the routine, said another. And Sasha told them...

CZERDUK: I told him, no, no, no.

WARNER: We are going to go out there, we're going to make people laugh, and we're going to do it without relentlessly poking fun at Ukraine's problems.

CZERDUK: No stereotypes, please. No, no, no. Come on. Let's do it - sarcasm but not stereotypes.


WARNER: Sasha explained his reservation about stereotypes. It was not because of what Enrique Menendez, the sponsor, told them, about casting the region in the best light. And it wasn't because the war has made everything more sensitive. He says it's because joking about Ukraine's problems is just too easy.

CZERDUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: He tells me there's a formula when a team comes from out of town. He's done it himself. You ask three questions of the local town to come up with your material - what's the roughest neighborhood, the seediest nightclub, and what is the public construction project that's been stalled the longest?

CZERDUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: We've been joking like that for 30 years. I'd rather Ukraine solve its problems than keep laughing at them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: So Mariupol gets on stage to do their sketch. And it was rough. They messed up lines. They missed words. Even Sasha admits it was pretty unfair that they got the same score as the women's team.

Was there a little bit of - the fact that this is the local team, did that help?

CZERDUK: Yes, of course. It helped because all people absolutely applause.

WARNER: This Eastern Ukrainian crowd, they were screaming their name.


WARNER: But Sasha says on the next round, the improv round, it was a fair fight. The Mariupol team has years of experience playing off each other as a team, and that helped them catch the wind, he says.


BOBKOV: Hello?

WARNER: Alex, so congratulations - champions. When I called Alex Bobkov, the Mariupol team leader, he was not in a celebratory mood.

BOBKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: He told me it felt like they got to the top of a very tiny mountain, only to see the giant mountain they have yet to climb - because this February at the national finals, they'll face off against some of the funniest people in the country. They know that everyone there only knows the bad stuff about their town - the polluted factory air, the massive unemployment and the war.


WARNER: So they're going to have to start off making fun of some of that, just as a kind of hello. And then they're planning to drop the cheap jabs and just try to be funny.


WARNER: That's it for this episode. We have a lot more stories about Ukraine in our feed. You can check out Part 1 of this series. And of course, don't forget to take a few minutes to fill out our survey. That's at npr.org/roughtranslationsurvey. There's also a link in the episode description right there on your phone.


WARNER: Today show is produced by Autumn Barnes, Nick Fountain and Mitchell Johnson. Julia Barton edited the episode. Also, thank you so much to those who listened to the episode and made it better - Alex Kleminoff (ph), Lu Olkowski, Sana Krasikov, Bryant Urstadt, Jess Jiang, Nadia Lewis, Bianca Jaqubonai (ph), Darian Woods and Robert Smith.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION high council is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed the music for our show, scoring by Mike Cruz and Aviva DeKornfeld. Erin Register is our project manager. And a special thanks to our intern, Mitchell Johnson, who has done an amazing job these past three months.

I know I always say this, but if you want more stories like this in your podcast feed, here's what you can do - give us a rating and review an Apple Podcasts. It really helps people find the show. Or just tell someone about the show. And drop us your thoughts - we always love to hear from you - at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter at @roughly.

I'm Gregory Warner. Have a great New Year's, and we'll see in January with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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