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CREES Lecture - "What is Ukrainian about Ukraine's Pop Culture? The Strange Case of Verka Serduchka"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
12:00 AM
1636 II/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Serhy Yekelchyk, associate professor and chair, Department of German and Slavic Studies, University of Victoria. Sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies.


A gender-bending, language-mixing pop icon from Ukraine, Verka Serdiuchka reached the heights of stardom in both Russia and Ukraine by 2007, when her provocative Eurovision performance forced everybody to take the artist seriously. Why did Ukrainians embrace the character that they previously viewed as a parody of their national culture? Why did Russians switch from hearty laughter directed at their country-bumpkin Ukrainian cousins to boycotting Serdiuchka? In this talk, the Serdiuchka scandal will be analyzed as reflecting larger cultural processes in the post-Soviet space.


Serhy Yekelchyk used the strange case of Verka Serduchka, a cross-dressing icon of contemporary pop music in Ukraine and Russia, and a prominent figure on Eurovision and other television competitions, to unpeel and analyze the contradictory layers of Ukrainian folk culture today. For years Verka Serduchka (the feminine artistic persona of a man, Andrii Danylko, from Poltava province) played along the boundaries of standard gender identities; of standard linguistic identities (moving between Russian, Ukrainian, and the mixture known as "Surzhyk"); and of standard political identities (with his/her songs first being used by the "blue" side during the Orange Revolution, but more recently taken up as an icon of the "Orange" -- Ukrainian -- cause).

The key question, for Yekelchyk, is whether one can imagine a national/folk culture for Ukraine that goes beyond the ossified vision of peasant dancers in embroidered shirts; could there be a form of national/popular art that is both loved and modern? Some of the other attempts, like Ruslana's Eurovision-winning song of 2004, "Wild Dances," failed, at least to Ukrainian ears, because of their particular (Carpathian) regional overlay. Why? The "real" Ukrainian folk culture of the central provinces is far more mixed, far more given to Russian and Surzhyk, far more ambiguous -- since patriots and symbols, such as the footballer Andriy Shevchenko, or the Klitschko brothers, or even the possible future president Yulia Timoshenko, either don’t speak Ukrainian or have learned it relatively late in life.

Yekelchyk thus argued that although Verka Serduchka might look like -- and is frequently denounced by both traditionalists and more educated nationalists as -- a grotesque parody that insults Ukrainian patriots, the songs actually are a (rare) living form of Ukrainian folk culture. People love them as an unexpurgated version of real village culture, with obscenities, humor, and irreverence. Only when in the 2007 Eurovision competition Verka offered a song, "Lasha Tumbai" (which despite being explained as a Mongolian phrase that meant "whipped cream," nevertheless sounded to many listeners suspiciously like "Russia Goodbye"), did he/she fall squarely on one side of the ethnic/social/linguistic divide in contemporary Ukrainian politics. This unaccustomed lack of ambiguity did not work well for Danylko, though, and he/she soon reworked identity once more into a new, "post-ethnic" version of Verka Serduchka -- one that Serhy Yekelchyk thinks likely will not last long, because it prevents Verka from plumbing the core of his/her popular appeal, which lies precisely in the cross-linguistic world of Surzhyk and the Ukrainian living village.

Discussion after the talk ranged widely, into the Soviet character of the symbols applied to Verka's sets and costumes; the team/entourage that helps prepare these shows and songs; the degree of intentionality in Verka's ambiguous self-presentation; and the possibility that Verka's success has created new spaces for gender and sexual minorities.

Summary prepared by Douglas Northrop, director, Center for Russian and East European Studies