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'Russia keeps making the same mistakes' Ukrainian comedian Felix Redka on telling jokes to a war-weary country

Source: Meduza

24-year-old Felix Redka lives with his family in Sumy, Ukraine, near the Russia border. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Redka’s job was arranging Russian comedians’ shows in Ukraine; he would also perform himself. In late March 2022, when there were still Russian troops stationed in his town, Redka and two other comedians arranged a standup comedy show in a Sumy bomb shelter. These days, he spends his time touring around the country, trying to give his compatriots some catharsis as Russia continues to shell Ukrainian cities. Redka spoke to Meduza about what it takes to make a grieving country laugh — and what Ukrainians think about Russians who fail to speak out against the war.

Six months ago, Felix Redka was at a crossroads in his career. While his goal had long been to work as a professional comedian, he was having more financial success as a manager and show organizer for Russian comedians, who seemed to have the Ukrainian market cornered. At 25, Redka thought it might be time to leave his own comedy dreams behind. 

Then Russia began dropping bombs on cities throughout Ukraine. Many of Ukraine’s biggest pop musicians quickly left the country to give charity concerts abroad, leaving behind a live entertainment vacuum, while disappointed Ukrainian audiences lost interest in Russian comedians who largely failed to use their platforms to oppose the war. Meanwhile, a terrified Redka kept on telling jokes.

“After the war began, I realized something: if my psyche was still coming up with jokes, even in the worst possible conditions, that must mean I’m meant to be a comedian,” he told Meduza.

The war's early days, of course, were defined by shock and fear. Redka, like most other Ukrainians with Internet access, spent all of his time either reading the news or waiting in line for essentials.

“You’d see the empty shelves; when the food is disappearing before your very eyes, it’s fairly terrifying — probably even more than the explosions outside,” he said. “Then, in the evening, it was back to the news.”

Soon, though, he got restless — and tired of feeling useless. So he made a plan.

“If I were a mechanic, I would have gone out to fix cars,” he said. “But I’m a comic. What’s there for me to do? I had to organize a show. At first, […] people didn’t have time. They needed to figure out how to evacuate their families, or where to buy the things they needed. Later, though, when things had gotten into a rhythm, we found the perfect place [for a show]: the bomb shelter.”

the state of russian comedy

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the state of russian comedy

‘I have no moral right to joke about Ukraine’ Standup comic Denis Chuzhoy discusses threats, emigration, and how war shattered Russian comedy

Redka’s comedy show in the Sumy bomb shelter, which “seats” 150 people, has become the stuff of legend among comedians both in Ukraine and abroad. At least one Russian artist, Oleg Kuvayev, has credited the show with inspiring him to resume working after the war caused him to stop. But Redka told Meduza that going viral was never his intention.

“I wanted first and foremost to entertain myself, to give myself something to do,” he said.

Felix Redka is now in the middle of a comedy tour that will span most of Ukraine (excluding the areas under Russian control). He said he feels comfortable traveling for two reasons: first, because the fighting in his hometown, Sumy, has stopped, so he knows his family is fine, and second, because the whole country is at risk.

“In a country that’s at war, being in danger is the default. We’re fully aware that no place in Ukraine is absolutely safe right now. Which means we’re not taking a huge extra risk by traveling around,” he said.

Standup in a bunker (English subtitles)
Felix Redka

The appeal of standup comedy at wartime might not be obvious, but according to Redka, live audiences are more receptive now than ever before.

“People have stronger reactions [...] and laugh much louder than they did before the war,” he said. “[Comedy] serves as an outlet for people.”

Naturally, some topics are still sensitive; Ukrainian society has been through unimaginable trauma in recent months. But that doesn’t mean comedians have to walk on eggshells. In fact, Redka said, knowing what jokes are appropriate is really just a matter of common sense.

“Broadly speaking, you can joke about anything you want. But it all depends on whether you can find the right wording, intonation, time, and place for the joke. It’s fine to joke about Mariupol, probably, and about people who have died. But you have to be prepared for the fact that there’s a 99 percent chance you won’t find the right words, the right intonation, to make a joke that won’t offend people,” he said.

Russia’s 2022 invasion has changed the rules of what’s acceptable joke fodder in other ways, too.

“Jokes about dead Russian soldiers get very positive reactions right now,” said Redka. “It’s hard to imagine that being the case before February 24.”

'Russian liberals'

After a video of Redka’s bomb shelter comedy show went viral, he started getting interview requests from Russian media figures and outlets. He decided to make it his personal policy to grant every one of them, regardless of whether the interviewer had publicly condemned the war, because he wanted to raise awareness of Ukraine’s suffering.

Sometimes, though, it’s been too hard. When a request from a Russian comedian who had praised proponents of the war coincided with the first reports of Russian atrocities against civilians in Bucha, Redka chose not to grant the interview.

“Right when I was supposed to respond to [the interviewer], I started getting flooded with information about Bucha. By that evening, it started to become clear what had happened, and I was filled with such a strong wave of hate that I refused. I didn’t want to provide a comment to someone who hadn’t spoken out unequivocally,” he said.

And though he’s made a personal decision not to cut off Russians completely, Redka doesn’t blame Ukrainians who have done the opposite.

“The fact is that even in liberal circles, a lot of [Russian] people have turned out to have some pretty strange lines of reasoning [about the war] and some fairly imperialist views. [...] Lots of our people understand that there are many Russian journalists and Russians in general who don’t support all this. [...] But the odds of taking the bait and failing to recognize an imperialist who's pretending to be a Russian liberal have become so high that people don’t even want to risk it,” he told Meduza.

Two of the Russians Redka is closest to, Denis Chuzhoy and Alexander Dolgopolov, are comedians like him. He said that unlike the many Russian people whose anti-war advocacy was limited to making ambiguous social media posts after February 24, Chuzhoy and Dolgopolov have made their stance clear — and earned his complete respect.

“They left the country and signed an open letter to Putin. Could I wipe my ass with the letter? Sure, but at least it’s something. They’ve spoken out publicly and unequivocally. [...] Now they’re doing charity shows to raise money to help our refugees. I don’t have a bad word to say about them,” he said.

At the end of the day, according to Redka, Ukraine is turning away from Russia as an act of self-preservation. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has been waging war in the Donbas ever since; many Ukrainians, he said, spent those eight years wondering if perhaps things weren’t as simple as they seemed. “But when they started indiscriminately bombing our cities [in February 2022], everything became clear,” he said.

In Redka’s view, Russia is stuck in a destructive cycle that began not in 2014, but centuries ago.

“How do Ukrainians differ [from Russians]? We've learned from all of our misfortune. [...] There were the mass repressions, the 1937 massacre, the Holodomor [famine] in 1933 — my grandparents told me about a woman who ate her own child during the Holodomor. We’ve been through all of these tragedies. We’ve defined them for ourselves as a people, explained them, reached conclusions, and decided we don’t want to be in the same boat as you all anymore. Because we have a feeling that sooner or later, the next tragedy will come along,” he said.

But in Russia, he said, “it’s like history keeps giving you chances to reevaluate, work on your mistakes, and prevent them from happening again, but you keep making the same mistakes anyway.”

‘The funniest man I know’

As Redka travels around Ukraine giving comedy shows, his 46-year-old father is in a trench in the Donbas.

“If I get a message from my dad that he’s alive, I consider that great news,” he told Meduza. “Every day, we get that news again, and it calms us down until the next morning.”

At Redka’s bomb shelter comedy show, he talked about trying to find silver linings in horrific situations. For him, one silver lining of the war is that it gave Ukrainian society more of an appetite for jokes about dead Russian soldiers — something that his father had given him plenty of when he fought in the Donbas in 2014-2015, but that Redka felt was inappropriate for his standup routine until recently.

life in the donbas

Fear and hardship in the Donbas After years of frozen conflict, Donetsk residents describe life under constant shelling

life in the donbas

Fear and hardship in the Donbas After years of frozen conflict, Donetsk residents describe life under constant shelling

“It’s like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin gave me permission to use all this material on February 24,” he said. “Now, when I tell people a story my dad told me in 2015 — in its entirety, with all the details — the reaction is quite positive.”

Redka’s jokes may be a hit, but in his view, he’ll never be funnier than his father.

“Elon Musk developed some kind of super-router that can provide Internet access anywhere in the world,” he said. “So my dad goes, ‘They brought in the Starlink. Now we have Internet access in the trenches.’ I told him I was happy for him. Then he says, ‘Internet access is the last fucking thing I need. I’m sitting in the trenches getting shot at. Why the hell do I need to know that [Ukrainian singers] Dantes and Dorofeeva got divorced?’”

“How could you come up with a joke like that during peacetime?” said Redka. “You couldn’t.”

Interview by Natalia Gredina

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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