In the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, profound changes occurred in the economic, political and cultural spheres of the former Soviet republics that went their independent ways. New social groups emerged. One of them was dubbed "New Russians." At first, this phrase described nouveaux riches in all the post-Soviet states, but later it was used to describe only Russian parvenus. In Ukraine, the phrase "New Ukrainians" has been coined to describe a group of people who have recently and suddenly risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth or power and have not yet gained the manners, dignity or prestige associated with it. In fact, most of the "New Ukrainians" are hard-working businessmen who do not flaunt their wealth. But some do, with a total lack of taste and manners. These have become the butts of innumerable jokes, caricatures, comic strips and TV shows. The typical popular image of a "New Ukrainian" is something along the following lines: he drives a very expensive, fancy-looking car; he carries around a mobile phone and talks loudly of trivial matters; he wears a red coat with shiny metal buttons, padded in the shoulders, and a thick gold chain around the neck (with the shirt unbuttoned for everyone to see the chain). And he is blissfully ignorant of what culture is; he is vulgar, ill-mannered, boorish, impertinent, convinced that there is nothing that can't be bought for money. Very dumb, too. Jokes, someone observed, can reveal more truth about an epoch or a nation than volumes of scholarly works would. It seems to be a correct observation.
In the Soviet times, jokes were, probably, the only outlet for people to express their attitude to the regime and its leaders. There were thousands of caustic jokes about the Soviet leaders, revolution and its heroes, Soviet institutions and Soviet way of life. In the early eighties, for example, when Leonid Brezhnev, the ageing communist party secretary general, began to show signs of senility, one of the jokes described his dotage in this manner: Brezhnev addresses a sitting of his politburo: 'Dear comrades! I'm gravely concerned about ill manners of our top leaders. For example, yesterday, at the funeral of our dear politburo member, prime-minister Kosygin...errr...By the way, where is he? Why is he not present? So, back to the funeral when the music started playing, I was the only one who remembered to invite a lady for a dance.' Jokes about "New Ukrainians" are no less spicy than jokes of the Soviet times. A "New Ukrainian's" child has been born. At the maternity ward the child's father is told: "Congratulations. You've got a son. Three seven hundred [the nurse means 'the baby weighs 3 kilos and 700 grams']." The happy father pulls out a wad of dollars and says: "Yeah, all right, here, take four grand and don't bother with the change." Two former classmates run into each other in the street; one of them is a "New Ukrainian" and the other one is a jobless failure. "Well, who are things, buddy?" asks the rich man. "Not very how. Haven't eaten anything for two days running." "That's no good, brother. You shouldn't starve yourself.
Make an effort, make yourself eat!" Two "New Ukrainians" are on the plane returning from abroad. "Look, I've bought this here jacket for five grand." "That's silly of you, man. I've bought me a very similar one for twenty grand." A "New Ukrainian" has bought a live crocodile and now keeps it in his swimming pool. To make the animal look even more fancy, he decides the crocodile should have gold teeth. Now the nasty creature refuses to eat either meat or fish since it has got accustomed to feeding on dentists. A "New Ukrainian" looks through the bills his company must pay for services and goods purchased; the bills have been brought to the boss by his accountant: "....scanner, printer, plotter... And what's this: 'mat for a mouse.' You must be out of you f....ng mind! Next maybe you gonna buy napkins for roaches?" Two "New Ukrainians" talk over the phone: "And where's your missus?" "She's at the f....ng auction." "Really? You think they're gonna pay a good price for her?" The son of a "New Ukrainian" comes home from classes in school. "Well, sonny, how's school?" "Fine. My teacher's praised me for my pen'man'ship," the boy says proudly and distinctly. "Has she? That's cool, man, though I don't remember giving you no fancy pens. And I don't dig that bit about 'ship'." Also, "New Ukrainians" are said to: drive fast so as not to forget where they are going; get from Kyiv to Lviv in eight hours, and back in thirty two. Why? Because driving a car in reverse is a slow business; keep smiling during thunderstorms when lightnings flash: they think they are being photographed; want to buy a new car every time the ashtray in the car overflows with cigarette butts. But with the passage of time the numbers of "New Ukrainians" of the kind we have described are dwindling, and soon they, hopefully, will become "an endangered species." In 1998, I had a good luck of being able to attend a concert of the incomparable Monteserrat Caballe. When I was on my way to my place in the back row, I saw installed in the seats of the front row, where the price for the tickets was astronomically high, several "New Ukrainians." They were for real, they looked like actors who were dressed to play "New Ukrainians" in scenes from life: they did wear golden chains round their necks, suits of garish colours, flashed precious stones from the rings on each finger, talked loudly discussing the value of the watches they had recently bought (prices in five digits), guffawed for no reason, chewed gum and made comments in their specific slang, hardly understandable but evidently impertinent. But they grew quiet when the prima donna began to sing, thanks God. In the intermission, I met them in the hall. They stood in a group, talked in subdued tones, with the expressions on their faces totally transformed: softened, even dreamlike. They even seemed to be sort of embarrassed to be wearing their suits, which looked among evening dresses and formal suits of other spectators completely out of place. In fact, stripped of their "New Ukrainian" trappings, I'm sure, they would turn out to be quite nice young people.

By Andriy Hlazovy