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Zelensky’s comedy partner slams campaign against Russian language

The Ukrainian president no longer listens to his old friends, Boris Shefir told US state media

The co-founder of Vladimir Zelensky’s former comedy troupe has condemned the Ukrainian president’s crackdown on the Russian language and culture, telling US state media that he “can’t watch Pushkin’s monuments being destroyed” in his country.

Boris Shefir co-founded the Kvartal 95 (District 95) comedy studio in 2003 with Zelensky and a group of their school friends. Most of these comedians and producers – including Shefir’s brother, Sergey – followed Zelensky into politics, taking prime positions in his administration after he was elected president of Ukraine in 2019.

Shefir was not among them. Speaking to the Ukrainian branch of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) outlet on Thursday, he said that he has had “no relationship” with Zelensky since the conflict with Russia began in 2022.

“For two years, I have not called or talked to him,” Shefir said. “He is working with other people now. He does not communicate with me, does not call me. My calls remain unanswered.”

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“Well, you see, I speak Russian,” he explained. “I love the Russian language, Russian culture…I can’t watch Pushkin’s monuments being destroyed in my country.”

During his election campaign, Zelensky portrayed himself as a peacemaker – promising to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and resolve the conflict in the Donbass region and to legally guarantee the language rights of Ukraine’s Russian speakers. Once in power, however, Zelensky abandoned the peace process in Donbass and passed a controversial law banning the use of Russian in most aspects of public life. As of this January, the law requires 90% of TV and radio content to be broadcast in Ukrainian. 

Since the conflict began in February 2022, monuments to Russian cultural icons have been torn down by the Ukrainian authorities, while streets honoring Russian and Soviet historical figures have been renamed, often after notorious Nazi collaborators.

While Ukrainian Culture Minister Rostislav Karandeev described this historic erasure as “the liberation of Ukrainian cities and Ukrainian culture from communist, Soviet, and Russian-imperial evil,” Shefir called it an exercise in “stupidity.”

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The Assumption Cathedral of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev.
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“We name streets after Beethoven, and we had a war with Germany,” he told RFE/RL. “We are at war with Putin, not with Russia.”

“I know the Ukrainian language, I communicate perfectly in it,” he told RFE/RL. “But my native language is Russian. Therefore, I am not going to give up this language. And what is happening now with the Russian language, I think is wrong.”

Shefir, who lives in Germany, predicted that “no winner” will emerge from the conflict with Russia. “There will be some agreement,” he said. “We will have to give in and they will have to give up something.”

In the meantime, any influence the old Kvartal 95 crew has on Zelensky is waning. Sergey Shefir was fired from his post as Zelensky’s first assistant last month, as was senior adviser Sergey Trofimov, who once worked as an executive producer at the company. The firings came amid a wider reshuffle of Zelensky’s cabinet.

April 05, 2024 at 01:49AM

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