Terrible Political Jokes in Ukraine
When politics is a blood sport, the jokes just keep getting worse
There is a perfectly serious reason why a place like Ukraine would elect a comedian as president: if you can’t laugh at your country’s politics, you’ll cry. Or go to jail. Or be horribly disfigured in an acid attack. So, you laugh. It’s a grim sense of humor, I’ll grant you. It’s all little too fatalistic for the US where people’s main gripe is the existence of opposing opinions.
So Volodymyr Zelensky, the star of the rom-coms like Office Romance and Love in the Big City 1, 2, and 3 entered politics as a joke. The son of a cybernetics professor and an engineer, Zelensky got his law degree, but won enough comedy contests that he’s never practiced. His company, Kvartal95 produced the popular show Servant of the People, wherein Zelensky played a 30ish high school history teacher who is filmed by one of his students ranting against government corruption. Predictably, the video goes viral and the teacher is elected president Ukraine. As satire, this is about as bang-on as you can get: It’s an only slightly foreshortened description of how Zelensky himself got elected as the 6th president of Ukraine.
Now the unlikely leader of a country that has always existed as the plaything of greater powers finds himself in the middle of a slow-moving almost invasion and the impeachment scandal of the only ally willing to bail his country out of the soup. Judging by his face in the Paris meetings to hammer out a cease-fire with ex-Mother Russian, he’s no longer laughing.
Getting the joke on Ukraine’s troubles, and just why we should even care, goes back a lot further than a ham-handed summer phone call where President Trump was mooning around for political favors. When the country voted itself independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was the fourth time they’d done so. The only reason it stuck then was that Russia, not wanting to be stuck with just their non-Slav Asian satellites voted itself out of the Union a few months later.
The immediate problem was that what looks to race-obsessed Americans like a nation of tall first cousins isn’t really that unified. The nation is split more or less down the center by the Dnieper River. The Soviets loved to forcibly move ethnic groups around and dumped a lot of Russian speakers in Ukraine. This was appreciated by the locals about as well as you’d expect. West of the Dnieper, where the Ukrainians want to be part of Europe, they renamed everything as soon as they were free to do so and rebuilt the place in the Modern European Affordable school of design. In Kiev, the massive city center Square of the October Revolution was recast as the now famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti — Independence Square. Its Airport looks like it was built by Ikea and then used as a homeless shelter.
The Russian speakers tended to congregate in the east, near the border of the mother country. I asked Kiev businessman what to expect, “It’s nothing but empty, outdated factories. Let Russia have it.” To judge by the chatter in the papers, television and social media, he wasn’t alone. There may have been some Western sneering going on, but he wasn’t that far off either. It’s hard to blame them; most Americans wouldn’t oppose the breakaway Republic of Detroit either.
East of the Dnieper, the world is very Soviet with the old street names and monuments and those gigantic soulless buildings that take up a city block. The flair is contained to the Kharkov airport, about 20 miles from the Russian border, which looks like someone built a budget reproduction of Peter the Great’s Winter Palace. And then used it as a homeless shelter.
POLITICAL PARTIES HERE are a joke – they don’t lean to the left of the right, but to the East or the West. The split is so bad that former president Victor Yanukovych ran on a platform, at least partially, of “unifying Ukraine.” Yanukovych may have been pro-Moscow in his sentiment, but a unified Ukraine is exactly what Putin did not want.
In what was basically a dry run for the 2016 US Presidential election, Putin set his intelligence people about with all that huffing and puffing about economic grievances actually being ethnic. Unlike the American Social Justice Warrior, though, Putin was a Soviet apparatchik and mid-level KGB officer, and is fully aware that identity politics are a vividly successful means, but not an end.
Cloaked in vodka-fueled visions of revivalist Imperial glory, Putin’s motives where a hell of a lot more practical: Borders. Stationed in Berlin when the borders were opened between East and West Germany. This and ultimately led to what he famously called the “greatest catastrophe of the century”, the end of the USSR. Soon waves of ex-spooks were explaining to both British SIS and the CIA that the USSR had never really a great modern military power. Mother Russia had heaps of cannon fodder who (and this really is the key to good cannon fodder) thought they patriotic heroes. There was a nuclear arsenal, a lot smaller than we believed and their ability to hit a target was iffy at best. What the Kremlin did really well, better than London or Washington could ever hope to – was convince the West that they had the ability to tear the planet up and just might.
Then the gig was up. The catastrophe was that Russia had lost most of its “hard” border. Russia now has some 12,000 miles of shared borderland that is prairie flat – it doesn’t have nearly the army to man the border as it stands, much less to be a modern, highly mobile fighting force. The Soviets had addressed the problem of the endless border by conquering everyone around them and using their natural borders – mountain ranges and rivers – and failing that, heaps of people living in the satellite states a buffer zone. Which explains why those former speed-bumps hate their former imperial masters.
Compounding the issue is that the military does have is the better part of a generation born into the country’s near fatal heroin boom. To put this in terms an American can understand – consider a million-man army made up of mostly crack or meth-babies. Not only are they not an effective fighting force, that they have the capacity to become one is debatable.
So Putin needs to extend the border of Russia to more defensible ones. You have to give this to the Russians, or at least the ones that haven’t gone full slum junkie: those guys can think 14 moves ahead. Chess is a national sport. Putin was never a master spy, but he was something of a fanboy of the secret service, the disinformation and propaganda. So the Kremlin went to work stoking ethnic grievances of half the country, telling them that they’d been left out of Ukraine’s prosperity, such as it was. And then he waited.
A NATION’S SCREECHING COWFLOP can tell you a lot, but generally to get to the tipping point of revolution, you need something a little more concrete. All of the intrigue of the 2014 Ukrainian elections masked a looming $17 billion debt the country couldn’t hope to pay. Coming off its staggering success in setting the Greece’s finances in order, Brussels offered a trade deal, bail-out money and an austerity plan to set the economy right. Yanukovych hinted that be might break rank from Mother Russia and join the EU. The Kremlin, after letting the ole guy twist for a while made a last-minute offer of $15 billion and gas prices slashed by 40%. Yanukovych agreed.
Voters west of the Dnieper thought that the deal was too good to be true — they wanted to know what, exactly, they’d given up for the loan. It wasn’t just Black Sea naval bases they were worried about. On three previous occasions Ukrainian independence from Russia had been a fleeting thing. Now Russia had all their nukes as part of a 1996 disarmament deal (the one wherein both the US and the UK agreed to come to Ukraine’s defense should Russia decide to be its regrettable self, and then promptly forgot about it). Protestors gathered in the same Independence Square where they’d launched the “Orange Revolution” ten years earlier thinking the West had their back.
Having been ousted once, President Yanukovych wasn’t about to let it happen again. The police went full Soviet, beating young protestors who dug in and fought back. Yanukovych fled into Russian-speaking Crimea. The fact that the ousted President didn’t even have to flee the country speaks volumes to its fractured culture. In the east, support for a new vassalage of the Russian state ran high as it always had.
Back in Keiv, the government voted Yanukovych out of office, but he predictably carried on as president-in-exile, eventually making his way to Moscow. There he gave an interview to the BBC where he said Russian troops would not be welcome. But Moscow’s man at the UN produced a document, that appeared to be signed and dated by Yanukovych the next day, asking Russia for military intervention. Was it a forgery? Authentic? Who knows and now it doesn’t even matter. The deed was done.
How much Imperial might Putin was flexing in his annexation of Crimea and whatever it is we’re calling that foolishness in eastern Ukraine is debatable. It is very easy to occupy a country that wants to be occupied. Just look at Hitler in the Sudetenland or ISIS is northern Sunni Iraq.
AND THAT IS THE MESS our Rom-Com star has inherited and reportedly really can’t see the humor in any of it. It hard to argue that the poor guy had much of a choice in this comedy of errors. The US has released the needed aid money without the distasteful favor; there is still the billions in debt the country simply can’t pay; and the fact that Ukraine gets most of its energy needs from Russia, the same country that has annexed one part of the country and occupied another swathe. Zelensky – an anti-corruption crusader - is still shell shocked by his part in the American political corruption scandal that has led to the impeachment of the most powerful man in the world. He also must know that the only ally that could have saved his beleaguered country would now rather forget him – and will.
So, Germany has stepped in to broker the cease-fire between the rom-com star and the new Russia Czar. It bears pointing out that Germany gets most of its energy from Russia too.