Joke’s on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?

An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free he can stand in front of the White House and yell, “To hell with Ronald Reagan.’’ The Russian replies: “That’s nothing. We also have freedom of speech! I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too.’’

Most would not associate Belarus, known in Western media for its authoritarian regime, with comedy. And it’s true that the current situation is indeed more tragic than comical. Satirical accounts on Twitter and Instagram sharing jokes and memes get designated as “extremist” and a simple like or subscription can land you in jail.

However, this is where humour has an important role and dates back to a longstanding political tradition in the Soviet Union where satire and jokes were ways to bypass censorship, serve as an antidote to official propaganda and generally not let the reality around you get you down.

Probably the best-known book of political satire in the Soviet Union was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, published only after the author’s death in 1966 and promptly banned, which cast Stalin in the role of the devil. As Viv Groskop wrote in her excellent re-reading of classical literature called The Anna Karenina Fix:

“I sometimes wonder if The Master and Margarita explains many people’s indifference to politics and current affairs. They are deeply cynical, for reasons explored fully in this novel. Bulgakov describes a society where nothing is as it seems. People lie routinely. People who do not deserve them receive rewards. You can be declared insane simply for wanting to write fiction. The Master and Margarita is, ultimately, a huge study in cognitive dissonance. It’s about a state of mind where nothing adds up and yet you must act as if it does. Often, the only way to survive in that state is to tune out.”

Similarly, in 1980 the Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera said: “I learned the value of humour during the time of Stalinist terror. I could always recognise a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humour was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humour.”
In the Soviet Union Brezhnev jokes were especially popular, making fun of his stumbling, often incoherent speech, public mishaps and penchant for kissing other political leaders on the mouth.

Often he was made fun of as a totally useless leader. Take this joke that circulated at the time:

Lenin proved that even female cooks could manage a country.
Stalin proved that just one person could manage a country.
Khrushchev proved that a fool could manage a country.
Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all.

Or this:

With Lenin, it was like being in a tunnel: You‘re surrounded by darkness, but there’s light ahead. With Stalin, it was like being on a bus: One person is driving, half the people on the bus are sitting [“sitting” in Russian having a secondary meaning of doing time in prison] and the other half are quaking with fear. With Khrushchev, it was like at a circus: One person is talking, and everyone else is laughing. With Brezhnev, it was like at the movies: Everyone’s just waiting for the film to end.

This tradition has certainly continued in Belarus with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who likes to refer to himself as “bat’ka” in Belarusian or a “father of the nation”. People mock him both for his poor knowledge of Belarusian, which he uses in combination with Russian, and his wannabe macho appearances and pronouncements.

One of the most well-known Belarusian stand-up comics, Slava Komissarenko, went viral and became famous overnight when he made fun of Lukashenka’s Rambo-like appearance with a gun at the height of the 2020 protests, ready to defend the presidential palace from completely peaceful protesters who were just standing there. Lukashenka made a ‘heroic’ dash from the helicopter and then brandished guns, which he waived at the protesters before hurriedly disappearing inside flanked by security. Numerous memes emerged after to spoof the moment.

Komissarenko had himself joked about Lukashenka already, back in 2015. These often innocent barbs were still considered dangerous enough for state television to cut them out. Back then, for example, he said: “Recently we had presidential elections. Surprising, isn’t it? The fact that there are elections. Everyone thought it is a lifetime job. He got 85.3 %. I think he can do better. But it’s not his last time, only fifth.”

After his 2020 stand-up authorities evoked his licence (“I know from where the only dislike under my YouTube video came from,” he joked.) Later he was forced to leave the country. First he went to Kyiv and when the war started on to Warsaw where he is based now along with other politically critical comedians. It’s from there they run their shows. Komissarenko’s Instagram account is followed by more than 670,000 people and his YouTube videos routinely gather millions of views and likes.

Another humorous X/Twitter account that recently caught the attention of authorities, who again deemed it “extremist”, is “Sad Kolya”, under the @sadmikalai handle. It impersonates Lukashenka’s son Kolya, who tweets about his daddy and the misfortune of being his son. “Papa called Prigozhin who assured him that he had been killed” one of the recent ones reads. Another: “I hope my dad runs out before my passport.”

During the protests it was a great source of comfort and relief to read these humorous one-liners. The avatar on the account has both Belarusian and Ukrainian flags in solidarity with Ukraine, and the cover photo features a real photo of Kolya standing between Putin and Lukashenka.

When the war started in Ukraine some of the memes that got incredibly popular made fun of Lukashenka and the statement he made on state TV, where he promised to show everyone “where Belarus was going to be attacked from” by Ukraine. One meme put him in various situations endlessly repeating this phrase to everyone’s exasperation. Another meme looked like a screenshot from a WhatsApp chat with the avatar of Lukashenka texting in the middle of the night as if to his girlfriend. “Are you asleep? Just wanted to show you where Belarus was going to be attacked from”.

The Belarusian stand-up scene is now mostly active in Warsaw and Vilnius, with occasional tours abroad. In Belarus those who stayed (about 30 stand-up comics) cannot talk about politics at all and the material needs to be sent to the Ministry of Culture for approval before the show. They stick to safer topics of dating and other things that make living under dictatorship more or less bearable. But the politics still can sneak in. Just recently Komissarenko himself unexpectedly became the subject of jokes when some details about his new wife’s saucy past were revealed.
“I feel for you” wrote one of the commentators on social media. “My friend recently married a guy and it turned out he likes Shaman [a nationalist Russian singer loved by the Kremlin]. So remember it could have been much worse!!!”

Fined thousands for a joke

If Rizal van Geyzel’s life has felt like a comedic farce recently, it’s best physically exemplified by the black paint that was splattered not across the door of his comedy club, but of the bank next door.

“They vandalised the wrong door! The bank’s CCTV picked it up. If you are going to throw paint over a door, at least pick the right one,” he laughs.

Van Geyzel is a Malaysian comedian who was the co-owner of the now closed Crackhouse Comedy Club in Kuala Lumpur, the site of the intended paint job. Days before the protest in July 2022, old clips of his stand-up were uploaded onto social media, a move which landed him in court, changed his life and inspired his recent show, Arrested.

“There were three videos overall. In one, I made a joke that despite having a Chinese father, I am what you would call a “privileged Malaysian”, those with government benefits usually entitled to people born to Malay heritage, which I also am.”

These videos were then investigated by police, and van Geyzel was arrested on suspicion of sedition. Spending the night in a jail, he quickly found himself hauled into Kuala Lumpur’s Cyber Crime Court, where sedition was replaced with charges under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. The act criminalises "improper use of network facilities or network services” and can result in a maximum fine of 50,000 Malaysian ringgits ($10,000) or imprisonment, or both. He plead not guilty to all charges and was allowed bail set at 12,000 ringgits ($2,500) with one surety.

“It was such a hassle. It was hard because comedy is my sole income. I’m a single father, and my father was clinically ill,” van Geyzel said. His passport was taken by the court, which he had to request if he had shows in other countries.

After a court mix up, further indicative of the farce-like element of his experience, he was also banned from social media for three months. “The judge said I just couldn’t post anything about the ongoing case, but the official court documents stated I couldn’t post on social media period. It took three months to resolve,” he said.

Looking for positives though, van Geyzel laughs about the ban: “I have to say, not going online then was a peaceful time in my life!”

Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 has its critics, who believe it’s being used to target writers, performers and the public in general for expressing their views on social media and in the press. Making it an offence to create ‘offensive’ material that could make its way online and ‘annoy’ viewers means the act is too open to interpretation, according to the Malaysian writer, poet, and former President of PEN Malaysia, Bernice Chauly.

She said: “It is so broad that any Malaysian can make a police report because they are ‘annoyed’, regardless of whether they are the intended recipient. There is no legal definition of what ‘annoyed’ means.

“It is very disturbing that this provision is being used to silence dissenting voices in a punitive manner…and to target writers and others whose views are critical of those in power.”

Van Geyzel doesn’t speak about the act directly, but believes it’s had a negative effect on the comedy circuit in the country. While he feels comedians in Malaysia are comfortable making jokes about themes such as religious and race issues within the confines of a comedy club, the problem is when people start to record on mobile phones.

“The only paranoia or danger we should feel is what is put online,” he said. “People like to record and post on social media during a show, and this is where it gets dangerous because you don’t know which part they are recording. Fellow comedians will ask what we think about each other’s routines, because things can so easily be taken out of context.”

In July 2023, van Geyzel pleaded guilty to one charge of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, for the “privileged Malaysian” joke, and was fined 8,000 ringgits ($1,700). As a result, he faced no conviction record and no further court proceedings.

Why did he plead guilty if he thinks he did nothing wrong?

“I had to view it as a very expensive parking ticket as I couldn’t deal with the court proceedings anymore, and I faced no criminal record. I also wanted my passport to be free!”

Van Geyzel took the positives from his experience and decided to tell his story in a new stand-up show. Arrested is performed around Malaysia, and in August ran at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he enjoyed anonymity as a performer, unlike at home.

“In Edinburgh people had no idea of the situation, so I could easily talk about my comedy club being shut down, vandalised, how I was investigated for sedition, then picked up by the coppers, put in lockup for a night and had charges in court, all for jokes that appeared online.

“But then I also talked about how my government perceives stand-up comedy to be a dysfunctional Western import, you know, like democracy, and how easy it is for comedy and freedom of speech to come under attack. It does sound very heavy, but it is a fun show. “Come see how I got arrested for comedy!””

Van Geyzel’s case was so prominent in comedic circles that other comedians under fire for jokes contacted him for advice such as Jocelyn Chia, a Singaporean American comedian. She was heavily criticised online after a video went viral featuring a joke about Singaporean and Malaysian relations, as well as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. What did van Geyzel say to Chia?

“She asked if she should apologise. Despite what happened to me I said don’t, wait it out, in a few days people will move on to the next thing. Though I have a friend who ‘liked’ the video Chia was in, and he then got heavily abused online.

“When it comes to stand-up you should be able to joke about whatever you want, it’s proper freedom of speech. Unfortunately, though, once it’s online it’s out of your hands.”

For more articles about comedy and comedians under attack, read our new issue Having the last laugh here

How to celebrate Putin’s 71st birthday? At the Ukrainian festival telling him to ‘fuck off’

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  

Contents – Express yourself: Overcoming neurodiversity stereotypes

Contents

The Summer 2023 issue of Index looks at neurodiversity, the term coined in the late 1990s to identify and promote the positives of variation in human thinking which has become more widely used in the past few years. Are old stereotypes still rife? Has the perception of neurodiversity improved? If not, was this because of censorship? Using neurodivergent voices, we wanted to know about this in a global context.

The majority of the articles are written by neurodivergent people, as we wanted to put their voices front and centre. Many said they did have more of a voice, awareness had shot up and the word “neurodiversity” empowered and welcomed a growth in onscreen representation. However, at the same time it was clear that conversations around neurodiversity were playing out along society’s current fault-lines and were far from immune.

Up Front

Mind matters, by Jemimah Seinfeld: The term neurodiversity has positively challenged how we approach our minds. Has it done enough?

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in free expression news, from an explainer on Sudan to a cha-cha-cha starring Meghan and King Charles.

Features

Bars can't stop a bestseller, by Kaya Genç: Fiction is finding its way out of a Turkish prison, says former presidential hopeful and bestselling writer
Selahattin Demirtaş.

Don't mention femicide, by Chris Havler-Barrett: Murdered women are an inconvenience for Mexico’s president.

This is no joke, by Qian Gong and Jian Xu: The treatment of China’s comedians is no laughing matter.

Silent Disco, by Andrew Mambondiyani: Politicians are purging playlists in Zimbabwe, and musicians are speaking out.

When the Russians came, by Alina Smutko, Taras Ibragimov and Aliona Savchuk: The view from inside occupied Crimea, through the cameras of photographers banned by the Kremlin.

The language of war and peace, by JP O’Malley: Kremlin-declared “Russophobe foreign agent and traitor” Mikhail Shishkin lays out the impossible choices for Russians.

Writer's block, by Stacey Tsui: Hong Kong’s journalists are making themselves heard, thanks to blockchain technology.

The Russians risking it all, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Forced to sing songs and labelled as extremists, anti-war Russians are finding creative ways to take a stand.

The 'truth' is in the tea, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Spilling the tea on a London venue, which found itself in hot water due to a far-right speaker.

Waiting for China's tap on the shoulder, by Chu Yang: However far they travel, there’s no safe haven for journalists and academics who criticise China.

When the old fox walks the tightrope, by Danson Kahyana: An interview with Stella Nyanzi on Uganda’s latest anti-LGBTQ+ law.

Would the media lie to you?, by Ali Latifi: Fake news is flourishing in Afghanistan, in ways people might not expect.

Britain's Holocaust island, by Martin Bright: Confronting Britain’s painful secret, and why we must acknowledge what happened on Nazi-occupied Alderney.

The thorn in Vietnam's civil society side, by Thiện Việt: Thiện Việt: Responding to mass suppression with well-organised disruption.

Special Report: Express yoruself: Overcoming neurodiversity stereotypes

Not a slur, by Nick Ransom: What’s in a word? Exploring representation, and the power of the term “neurodiversity” to divide or unite.

Sit down, shut up, by Katharine P Beals: The speech of autistic non-speakers is being hijacked.

Fake it till you break it, by Morgan Barbour: Social media influencers are putting dissociative identity disorder in the spotlight, but some are accused of faking it.

Weaponising difference, by Simone Dias Marques: Ableist slurs in Brazil are equating neurodivergence with criminality.

Autism on screen is gonna be okay, by Katie Dancey-Downs: The Rain Man days are over. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay star Lillian Carrier digs into autism on screen.

Raising Malaysia's roof, by Francis Clarke: In a comedy club in Malaysia’s capital stand up is where people open up, says comedian Juliana Heng.

Living in the Shadows, by Ashley Gjøvik: When successful camouflage has a lasting impact.

Nigeria's crucible, by Ugonna-Ora Owoh: Between silence and lack of understanding, Nigeria’s neurodiverse are being mistreated.

My autism is not a lie, by Meltem Arikan: An autism diagnosis at 52 liberated a dissident playwright, but there’s no space for her truth in Turkey.

Comment

Lived experience, to a point, by Julian Baggini: When it comes to cultural debates, whose expertise carries the most weight?

France: On the road to illiberalism? by Jean-Paul Marthoz: Waving au revoir to the right to criticise.

Monitoring terrorists, gangs - and historians, by Andrew Lownie: The researcher topping the watchlist on his majesty’s secret service.

We are all dissidents, by Ruth Anderson: Calls to disassociate from certain dissidents due to their country of birth are toxic and must be challenged.

Culture

Manuscripts don't burn, by Rebecca Ruth Gould: Honouring the writers silenced by execution in Georgia, and unmuzzling their voices.

Obscenely familiar, by Marc Nash: A book arguing for legalised homosexuality is the spark for a fiction rooted in true events.

A truly graphic tale, by Taha Siddiqui and Zofeen T Ebrahim: A new graphic novel lays bare life on Pakistan’s kill list, finding atheism and a blasphemous tattoo.

A censored day? by Kaya Genç: Unravelling the questions that plague the censor, in a new short story from the Turkish author.

Poetry's peacebuilding tentacles, by Natasha Tripney: Literature has proven its powers of peace over the last decade in Kosovo.

Palestine: I still have hope, by Bassem Eid: Turning to Israel and Palestine, where an activist believes the international community is complicit in the conflict.