‘I have no moral right to joke about Ukraine’ Standup comic Denis Chuzhoy discusses threats, emigration, and how war shattered Russian comedy
Standup comic Denis Chuzhoy denounced the war against Ukraine on the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. In return for speaking out, he started receiving death threats on the phone, and audience members at a show in Vologda approached the stage and presented him with a funeral wreath. Chuzhoy left the country more than two months ago, but he’s returned to Russia several times for performances that he scheduled before February, donating part of the proceeds to charities helping Ukrainian refugees. Meduza spoke to him about threats, emigration, and what kind of career in comedy is even possible today for Russians.
Denis Chuzhoy tells a joke about getting a hostile call from members of the so-called “Men’s State” (a nationalist-patriarchal movement that’s been banned in Russia). “They asked me what I think about the situation in Ukraine but immediately started swearing at me before I could answer,” Chuzhoy says in his standup, before adding, “It was offensive, but — in fairness — the Men’s State is the first state that actually asked about my opinion.”
Audiences love this joke, he told Meduza, explaining that there’s a shared sense among many Russians that the Kremlin never asked them if they wanted war with Ukraine.
On trips back to Russia since emigrating to Turkey, Chuzhoy’s homeland no longer feels like “home,” he told Meduza. Returning for shows in Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Novosibirsk was a financial necessity more than anything; tickets had been sold and cancelling would have been costly.
Early in the invasion, Chuzhoy joined more than 250 Russian comics in a public denunciation of the war. (The text spread within the community like a “chain letter,” he told Meduza.) The signatures on the letter also served as a “readymade list of people to harass,” says Chuzhoy.
He acknowledges that his detractors — the folks who called to swear at him and the soccer fans in Vologda who delivered a funeral wreath — are not his “target audience.” “They’re busy with their idiotic bullshit, thinking that they’re doing some service to the Motherland,” he told Meduza. “They’re under the impression that they’re helping the country, cultivating patriotism in citizens. I don’t get how it works, but they have this sense that society needs it.”
The danger of breaking one of the country’s many prohibitions on speech can make comedy in Russia a risky legal endeavor, as well. Before a performance in Cherepovets, for example, a friend told Chuzhoy that agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service would be in the audience. “I cut 10 minutes from that material, removing some of the strongest stuff,” Chuzhoy admits.
Though he says “everything has changed forever” in Russia’s independent comedy scene, Chuzhoy told Meduza that audiences differ; some people seek pure distractions, not the catharsis of tackling taboos. He recalled how the Moscow comedy club “Stand Up Patriki” hosted an event immediately after the invasion where the comics didn’t mention the war at all. And it was a hit. “They drank every drop of liquor in the bar.”
Chuzhoy’s own fans have demonstrated greater interest in current events. When it comes to self-censorship, however, he’s stopped joking about Ukraine for ethical reasons. “Right now, I feel I have no moral right to mention Ukraine in a comedic way,” he explained. “We [Russians] no longer have the right to refer to it as part of our reality. I assume I’ll never be able to perform again in Ukraine simply because we’ve allowed this [war] to happen.”
In late March 2022, on the 24th day of the invasion, Ukrainian comic Felix Redka delivered a standup set in a bomb shelter in Sumy. On YouTube, the performance (which features English-language subtitles) now has almost 600,000 views. “You watch and you think: This is what standup is supposed to do. Performances like Felix’s will go down in history. He’s working with people, processing their fear, and giving them comfort,” Chuzhoy told Meduza. “In peacetime, you’re just background noise, but now you can be useful if you learn to do it the right way and well.”
Chuzhoy’s own efforts to grow as a comic have led him to translate some of his material into English. Before beginning the transition, he says he performed at four small charity concerts in Turkey where the jokes were tailored so narrowly for the Russian diaspora that nobody bothered even to record the show on video. “It felt like a farewell speech. Like you were saying goodbye to the very idea of performing in Russian,” said Chuzhoy, crediting a mix of “inertia” and respect for the craft with sustaining his comedy career in Istanbul.
When he spoke to Meduza, Chuzhoy said he’d written about 15 minutes of new material in English and 40 minutes of Russian material in the two months since he got to Turkey. One of his professional role models is American comedian Mike Birbiglia, whom he describes as a “little Buddha” who’s mastered his own style and worked to help younger comics. “From the outside, it looks like a very happy life,” says Chuzhoy.
For now, he’s trying a new approach designed to have broader international appeal. “You come to an open mic [in Istanbul], and there are people from Serbia, from Algeria, from America, and somebody from Russia, and you can no longer rely on whatever national cultural code,” Chuzhoy explained, though he says that “death and suicide” work well in any language. “The Serbs really like jokes about suicide. The Turks, not so much. I guess they’re a happier bunch.”