By Ilya Khineyko
On May 12 Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka finished second in the annual Eurovision Song Contest that was held in Helsinki, Finland. Had she won, it would have been the second time since 2004 that a representative of Ukraine had taken home the prestigious title. Then, a talented Ukrainian singer, Ruslana, won the contest. Her triumph was rightly perceived as a victory for Ukraine, and Ruslana Lyzhichko received various state awards including the title of People’s Artist of Ukraine. Reportedly, Verka Serduchka’s strong finish may bring to her creator, the man behind the mask Andriy Danylko, a similar type of recognition, such as the title Hero of Ukraine. There was also speculation that Danylko might become an honorary citizen of his native city of Poltava. Yet, such honors may not quench the controversy, which only in part stems from the fact that Verka Serduchka is played by a man in drag.
The story of Andriy Danylko is a rags-to-riches tale of a man who became one of the most successful show biz figures in the post-Soviet space. A talented but impoverished youth from the cradle of Ukrainian culture, Poltava, Andriy Danylko attained fame and wealth in Russia. There his gig quickly gained phenomenal popularity in the second half of the 90s after his SV-show (SV stands for Russian Spal’nyi Vagon, ‘sleeping train car’) began to be aired on Russian TV. Soon Danylko would be making most of his money not from regular performances but by appearing as Verka Serduchka at corporate events. Russian business and political elites have rarely exhibited a penchant for drag queens. In fact, the key to understanding of the Verka Serduchka phenomenon is to keep in mind that the cross-dressing act plays
(Source: newspaper Bul’var)
second fiddle to the social and ethnic connotations of the character. Originally conceived as a saleswoman, Verka Serduchka was introduced to audiences in Russia and Ukraine as a carriage attendant in the SV-show only to evolve over subsequent years into a general representation of the post-Soviet woman, albeit with a ‘local’ Ukrainian flavor.
Kitschy, corny, and vulgar, without a modicum of fashion sense, Verka
Serduchka became the East Slavic equivalent of ‘regular folks’. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economy, thousands of such women could be found traveling on trains to sell goods in open-air markets in provincial Russian and Ukrainian cities; hence Serduchka became the true vox populi of a silent majority. She can be simultaneously laughed at and with, delivering a message of unbridled optimism, reflected in the title of one her most famous song, “Vsyo budet khorosho” (Everything will be fine). The other realistic component of her character is the use of a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, the surzhik (Serduchka’s first name is often written as Вєрка rather than Верка Сердючка to underscore the character’s pidgin nature). It has been surmised with wry amusement that Serduchka’s surzhik has been received so well in Russia because it reinforced the existing Russian stereotypes about the Ukrainian language as a funny, yet entirely comprehensible dialect of the uncouth masses.
The decision to choose Verka Serduchka to represent Ukraine at Eurovision drew predictable criticism from Ukrainian nationalists and Ukrainian intellectuals not only because Andriy Danylko had publicly mused in 2004 that he would rather represent Russia than Ukraine at the contest. More important, Verka Serduchka defied every expected characteristic of a Ukrainian cultural icon, and thus could be perceived as symptomatic of a general malaise that has permeated Ukrainian culture. In 2004 Bronislav Hrynchuk wrote in Literaturna Ukraina [not available online] that
The appearance of such figures as Serduchka is possible only when a society is losing its own values – moral, economic, and political. Such figures usually pop up on the surface of societal life during times of troubles and turmoil, when one set of political principles is being replaced by another set of principles, values, and ways of life. In this sense, the appearance, and temporary existence, of the verka serduchkas is telling.
The head of the youth wing of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN) Vasyl Popovich lamented that “Verka Serduchka is a representation of the post-imperial complex of inferiority and Little Russianness which is still haunting some Ukrainians.” It is interesting to note that some of Russia’s refined intellectuals have come to the same conclusions. For example, Russia’s most famous rock music critic Artemii Troitsky had this to say about Serduchka:
If I were a Ukrainian woman, I would be offended at such a parody. She portrays them as being uneducated, obese, devoid of taste, and small-minded. If in Ukraine a similar character were created, let’s call him Vasya Moskalyov, he would be presented as a black-eyed, cursing drunkard, and our people would be indignant that Ukrainians were mocking Russians.
Yet, the roots of the Serduchka phenomenon can be found in Ukrainian literature. Serduchka is a modern reincarnation of the Mykhailo Starytsky’s Pronya from his play “Za dvoma zayatsiamy” (Chasing two hares) and the eponymous Soviet movie that made it famous. It appears Andriy Danylko is quite conscious of such allusions. He played a similar character in the 2003 remake of Chasing Two Hares alongside the veteran Russian/Soviet pop star Alla Pugacheva. The longevity of such characters is evidence that the search for a national identity still continues with many Ukrainians still caught mentally, linguistically, and politically between the ‘imagined community’ of ‘soborna Ukraina’ and the prospect of full assimilation into the all-Russian culture.
Whether Verka Serduchka continues to represent Ukraine on the Russian cultural market is an open question. There are signs that the Russian public may be losing interest in her act. It was alleged that during Serduchka’s performance of her chosen hit “Danzing Lasha Tumbai” at Eurovision, the words “Russia, goodbye” were spoken at some point. The guests of the popular Andrei Malakhov show on the first Russian TV channel were outspoken in their denunciation of this unforgivable sin. Calls to boycott Serduchka appeared in the Russian blogosphere. Some have speculated that the absurdly vitriolic attacks on Serduchka might have been prompted by the ongoing contract feud between the artist and the ORT channel. Others pointed out that Andriy Danylko may have fallen out of favor with Russian political elites after he supported the Orange Revolution. However, something larger might be at stake here. Since the turbulent days of the Orange revolution, Russia and Ukraine have been drifting apart not only politically but also psychologically. The post-Soviet unity of common people may no longer exist. Andriy Danylko can still milk the popularity of his character for another decade, but it seems unlikely that others will be able to follow his footsteps not only because there is a lack of talent but also because of the lack of a common ground between ordinary Russians and Ukrainians. In that way, Serduchka may finally return to her native country after all.
UPDATE: Verka Serduchka at Eurovision
(Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Zhdanov)