How to celebrate Putin’s 71st birthday? At the Ukrainian festival telling him to ‘fuck off’
Next weekend, Kyiv's hipsters will be fed a diet of stand-up comedy, music, fashion and food as they raise a finger to their aggressive neighbour
02 Oct 23

The war grinds on, the cemeteries grow bigger by the day and comedy as a critical engine of power has ceased to exist in Russia. Not so in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin’s 71st birthday will be celebrated – that isn’t the right word – on 7 October by the second VPDFO festival. The letters stand for Vladimir Putin Do Fuck Off, a phrase that Index readers won’t tremble to read but the digi-lords at Meta/Facebook don’t favour. In Cult Motive, an old grain warehouse in Podil, the Shoreditch of Kyiv, people will be treated over the weekend to the very latest in Ukrainian bands, fashion, cuisines, stories about the war – and jokes.

Our two-day festival will do its best to reflect Ukraine’s unique sense of humour, anthracite-black as it is. Bleakness is all. For example, two soldiers, Dima and Vova, are discussing who is sending the best kit to Ukraine: the Americans, the Swedes, the Germans, the British?

Dima: “The British stuff is best.”

Vova: “But the steering wheel is on the wrong side.”

Dima: “Yes. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. So the Russian snipers shoot the passenger. What’s not to like?”

The festival will feature stand-up spots from four top Ukrainian comedians, Bohdan Vakhnyc, Ramil Yangulov, Max Vyshinskyi and Andrii Berezhko.

With soldiers dying at the front, the lion’s share of the humour will be directed at the Russian killing machine, at the tyrant who sent it to Ukraine and the Kremlin’s useful jellyfish in the West. Donald Trump will get it in the neck, the buttocks and the front bottom too but it’s bad form to write out comedians’ jokes in print.

Ukraine’s democracy is being forged in war and a robust honesty about the failings of civil society, from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people around him down, comes as standard. Zelensky was a comedian, or, better, a comic actor before the big war. It is, to put it mildly, unlikely that whoever takes over from Vladimir Putin in Russia will have the same CV.

It’s hard to define Ukraine’s sense of humour but it’s a combination of Jewish and Yiddish themes of self-deprecation under terror, a Soviet or post-Soviet love of irony written in cement and a wonderful, anarchistic fuck-you-ness. Even in the darkest days of Russia’s war against Ukraine, when the Kremlin’s heavy metal was just 12 miles from the centre of Kyiv, jokes blossomed, memes about Ukrainian tractors stealing Russian tanks flooded the internet. A year ago, when fears of a Russian nuclear strike against Kyiv were at their height – Putin won’t send nukes to Ukraine because the Chinese have told him not to – the word was that the moment the nuke birds were in the air, there would be a massive orgy on an unpronounceable hill in Kyiv. The beauty of the hill’s unpronounceability is that it would defeat Russian spies from gate crashing the orgy. And, it has to be said, British journalists too.

If you wish to support the festival, go to VPDFO.ORG  

By John Sweeney

John Sweeney is a writer and journalist who has investigated Russian interference in the US elections and Scientology