Last week I was in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, for the opening of an exhibition of political cartoons. I’ve been speaking at some universities and getting to know the people and the place.
Ukraine has 60% inflation here and seems certain to default on their substantial foreign debt as Russia continues to press a festering conflict in the east. Since the news about Ukraine is so terrible, I had expected to see some desperation here. Kiev is lovely and it seems like a normal, European capital. There’s no desperation evident.
My hotel is in the center of town where snipers killed more than one hundred people as the Ukrainians threw out their corrupt president, Victor Yanukovych in 2014. There are scattered memorials showing faces of the slain protestors, along with candles and flowers. One large, burned-out building on the central square is a reminder of the violence.
Yanukovych stole billions from Ukraine and fled to Russia. He built a crazy huge mansion for himself, which has been made into a national park and is now a tourist attraction. The grounds are vast, stretching for kilometers, with manicured gardens, a zoo, waterfalls, rivers, and a giant, pirate, party ship. The grounds are lovely, leaving visitors both charmed and cursing at scale of the of the corruption that could build such a fantastic complex. There was a wedding on Yanukovich’s fancy porch when I visited. It is nice to see these crazy digs preserved as a park rather than seeing it all torn down by an angry mob, as with Saddam Hussein’s mansions. Even the animals at Yanukovych’s giant zoo look happy.
I had dinner with my friend, Vladislav Kazanevsky, who has probably won more international cartoon contests than anyone else. That’s a photo of me with Vlad standing in front of his trophy case at this studio. There’s another photo of Vlad with his most recent cartoon of Obama, smiling out of his butt at Ukraine.
The world of international contests is very foreign to American cartoonists, who rarely enter these competitions, making us seem aloof and arrogant to the Ukrainian cartoonists. The international contest cartoons seem strange to American cartoonists, and I apologize for that – we don’t really fit in with the style, which is very foreign.
I’ve enjoyed the college audiences for my lectures here. I show them my cartoons where I have made Ukraine into a peasant woman character, which they tell me is “a little bit offensive” to them, “but only a little bit”. They ask why I picked this woman to represent Ukraine; why is she fat; why is she blonde? She should have black hair, I’m told, and she should not be fat. “We are not fat. Americans are fat,” I’m told, at each lecture.
The students always ask why I don’t draw Ukraine’s colorful leaders in my cartoons, and I have to explain that American readers won’t know who they are without an explanation. I tell them that Americans only pay attention to Ukraine when there is a revolution, when Putin invades, or when an airplane crashes here, and they all nod in agreement.
I had an excellent meeting with representatives from Ukraine’s cartoonists organization, who gave me some books and a copy of their Crocodile Magazine, a throwback to the old Soviet gag cartoon Crocodile Magazine. Kazenevski draws some western style editorial cartoons, but Ukrainian cartoonists are otherwise contest cartoonists, looking to collect trophies and awards to list on their CV’s. That’s the way it is for cartoonists in much of the world.
Thanks to my Ukrainian buddies, Tomas and Adam Lukacka, their cousin Matthew and loyal volunteers Alex and Brian for a great exhibition, also thanks to Eufurion and the Swiss Embassy, and the volunteers from Ukraine who are managing the show as it moves around the country.
My buddy, Martin “Shooty” Sutovec, the star editorial cartoonist of Slovakia, was also in the exhibit and traveled to Kiev for the opening along. The president of Slovakia was there too, which was a bit strange. I told the president that Shooty is Slovakia’s national treasure, and the president said, “many people do not think so.” This president is a little bit rude, huh?
There are some wacky sights to see in Kiev, and at the top of the list is the “Mother of Ukraine,” a colossal statue of a strong, Soviet woman, holding a shield and a fifty foot long sword in the air. Last year I visited a similar, but smaller statue that towers over Tbilisi, when the exhibition toured Georgia. I’m told that every former Soviet republic has a giant mother statue.
This mother is hollow, with a step ladder inside where fit and intrepid souls can climb to the top of her shield and open little portholes on the top of her shield, just big enough to poke a head out of, and take a photo. It was too much of an athletic feat for me to climb that ladder, so I was content to look up her skirt. The huge Mother of Ukraine is surrounded by a park and giant, metallic, heroic statues of Soviet, World War II statues. The national art museum in Kiev is full of thick, strong, Soviet proletarian hero paintings.
My Ukrainian cartoonist buddy, Vladimir, gave me a tour of downtown and explained that the big, handsome buildings were rebuilt by captured German soldier slave labor after the war. When he was in school, Vlad was taught that the Germans destroyed all the buildings in Kiev, but after the revolution he learned that the Soviets actually destroyed all the buildings, to keep the Germans from claiming anything of value as they took the city from retreating Soviet troops. What goes around comes around, I guess.
The Ukrainians certainly don’t like Vladimir Putin. Tourist shops sell Putin toilet paper. There are images of “Putler,” a combination of Putin and Hitler. I heard a crowd chanting about “Putler” at a rather large protest rally at the main square.
I asked the college students, “since you don’t like my Ukrainian peasant lady as a metaphor for Ukraine, what should I draw instead?” They always say, “Ukrainians just look like regular people – draw that.” And I say, “hey, these are cartoons, that doesn’t work for me,” and they nod in begrudging agreement. I think I’ll keep drawing the Ukrainian chick, the next time Ukraine suffers a new indignity – but now that I’ve learned so much more about Ukraine I’ll draw her with black hair.
Here are some samples of my cartoons with my Ukraine peasant metaphor lady, who suffers from Putin. Judging from the tourist souvenir junk, also pictured below, I think I got her right – but no, I’m told, she has to have black hair, and lose some weight.