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Serhiy Prytula: ‘Flawed political system has not vanished, it has laid low until war ends’

June 19, 2022 4:46 pmby Anna Myroniuk
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Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, speaks to The Kyiv Independent in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

When Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, Serhiy Prytula, comedian turned politician, quit everything he was working on to fully devote himself to helping Ukraine.

Since then, his charity has crowdfunded over Hr 1 billion ($34 million), becoming one of the largest in Ukraine after Come Back Alive, which has raised around Hr 3 billion ($100 million).

“There is some sort of a competition for a donation,” Prytula, 40, said. “However, I have always been indifferent to it as I understand that us, the big and well-known funds, are all contributing to the same cause.”

Prytula’s fund has been focused on providing the Ukrainian military with vehicles, combat drones, thermal imagers, communication systems and equipment, and tactical medicine, something, he believes, is the most vital on the frontline.

Yet, becoming a full-time volunteer was not exactly on his to-do list. Prytula has spent over a decade staring in comedy films and shows across Ukraine’s top TV channels. He anchored many high-rating entertainment programs and created his own comedy show.

He also unsuccessfully tried to enter politics on several occasions. 

Prytula ran for parliament in 2019 with the Voice party, created by rockstar Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He then competed for the Kyiv mayoral seat in 2020, coming in third place. 

Yet, the party sank into internal disagreements and Prytula walked out, announcing the creation of his own political project just a month before Russia began a full-scale invasion. 

Now, he uses his popularity, like 1.1 million followers on Facebook, to help Ukraine’s military and civilians suffering from Russia’s war.

“I won’t lie, I do not care about politics, party building, or the party’s future (right now). I am not focused on any of that now,” Prytula told the Kyiv Independent.

Yet, in time of war, his volunteer activity naturally elevated Prytula and his young party to becoming one of the most popular political projects in the country.

According to a March survey by InfoSapiens, Prytula is now among the most trusted politicians in Ukraine.

Putting arms in soldiers’ hands

Prytula says his task is to get arms into soldiers’ hands so they can protect themselves and Ukraine from Russia’s assault.

“This is what we have expertise in and what is really needed,” Prytula said. 

He met with the Kyiv Independent in his office in central Kyiv. These premises were supposed to be the headquarters of his political party. Now it’s a volunteer center.

Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, shows medical kits that his charity supplies to the soldiers in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Since Feb. 24, his charity has crowdfunded Hr 1 billion, which is 20 times as much as Prytula was able to raise within the eight years of his volunteering activity.

But three months into Russia’s war and the donations are dwindling, Prytula said. According to him, there are two reasons for this. First, people’s savings are drying up. Second, there is an increasing feeling of war fatigue. 

“People have returned to Kyiv, and there are no sounds of a cannonade, or the city’s air defenses,” Prytula said. 

“There aren't that many people with machine guns on the streets, checkpoints have been dismantled, so there is an illusion of peace,” he adds. “When you do not see these horrors, it does not bother you as much.”

Because of that, Prytula is always looking for new ways to encourage people to donate. 

Together with Kalush Orchestra, a Ukrainian band, and the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest winner, Prytula launched an auction for the Eurovision prize, a glass microphone. 

They also auctioned off the iconic pink bucket hat of the band’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk.

Out of the $1 million Prytula’s charity aimed to raise for the military from the auction, they managed to raise $900,000. 

Earlier, Prytula’s fund raised $500,000 for a painting of Maria Prymachenko, a renowned Ukrainian artist who worked in the naïve art style. 

Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, stands next to a painting of a Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, his fund auctioned to raise money for the army in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Since money has become harder to raise, while the demand from the army only increases, tensions among charities are running high as well. 

Yet, Prytula says it doesn’t matter who raised the funds as long as they are allocated for the right cause.

“It does not matter which fund buys that tablet or drone or a thermal imager, the main thing is to provide them to those who need it,” he went on. “I prefer synergy to competition.”

Prytula has even encouraged his followers to donate to other big charities if they did not want to support him. 

“The logic is the following - not everyone likes me,” Prytula said. “If there are followers that want to help the military but do not want to do it through my charity, that’s okay, I call on them to give money to someone else, another respected volunteer center.”

He has quite a few haters, he acknowledged. He even takes time to argue with them in comments on social media: “It actually lifts my spirits a little.”

Talking politics

Being in the spotlight for over a decade, Prytula has always had his fair share of critics. When he decided to enter politics, their number only increased. Yet, he’s not planning to back down.

“When l announced plans to launch the party, it wasn’t impulsive, but based on a series of negotiations with people, whom I planned to create a shadow cabinet with,” he said. 

“All these arrangements and all these plans were thwarted because most of these people are now on the frontlines. And I just really want to wait for victory, so that everyone returns home alive, and then we can sit down and talk about what to do next,” he added.

Prytula says his main goal was to change the political climate in Ukraine, poisoned by corruption and by politicians working for the Kremlin instead of Ukraine.

Prytula says pro-Russian politicians are currently laying low.

Yet, Prytula says these politicians are tenacious. “(As soon as the war ends) I think there will be a reincarnation attempt. It’s just that they won’t be called pro-Russian, but Eurosceptic or something.”

Among the notorious pro-Russian politicians he mentioned was Yevhen Murayev, who according to British officials was Kremlin’s main candidate to lead Ukraine if Russia were to seize Kyiv, and Yuriy Boyko, a pro-Russian lawmaker who came fourth in the 2019 presidential elections.

The parties of Murayev and Boyko, Nashi and the Opposition Platform, together with eight others, were banned by the National Security and Defense Council in March.

Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, speaks to The Kyiv Independent in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Yet, Prytula believes that despite Ukraine being a democracy, people like Murayev and Boyko should not take part in deciding Ukraine’s future after the war ends.

As for pro-Russian politicians who turned pro-Ukrainian after the full-scale war broke out, Prytula isn’t buying it: “I think it’s just an instinct for self-preservation.”

He is, however, less adamant about artists who worked in Russia, but now publicly support Ukraine.

“It is possible that if there were no such circumstances, they would not have changed their stance, but they (still) have changed,” Prytula said.

New political elites

The war, he said, has already changed Ukraine’s political landscape dramatically. “New stars have lit up, who were not previously involved in politics.”

He mentioned Oleksiy Arestovych, an aide to the president's office, who Ukrainians have jokingly labeled as the country’s “sedative” for his not always factual but calm statements about Ukraine soon winning the war.

Another “rising star” Prytula noted was Vitaliy Kim, Mykolaiv Oblast governor, who became popular for his frequent videos and a sense of humor during the country’s darkest hours.

“I do not know whether he has ambitions (to go into politics), but if he does, the public will support him, I promise you,” Prytula said.

He name-dropped another popular public figure, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. According to the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet, Volodymyr Zelensky’s office sees Zaluzhnyi as a political competitor

Like Prytula, Zaluzhnyi also launched a charity dedicated to helping the military. 

“If Zaluzhnyi remains commander-in-chief at the time of our victory, he will be cherry-picking what party he wants to be in, not waiting to receive an invitation from anyone,” Prytula said.

Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, speaks to The Kyiv Independent in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Despite being all for building new political elites, Prytula criticized Zelensky’s 2019 push for “new faces,” which ended up bringing to power a number of questionable people, widely seen as corrupt. 

As an example, he cited the notorious Oleh Tatarov, who Zelensky appointed deputy head of his office in 2020. Tatarov was a top-rank police officer during the reign of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. He was charged with bribery in December 2020.

“The flawed political system has not vanished, it has just laid low until the war ends,” Prytula said. “When the war is over, I hope key (administrative) positions will be filled after a fair job competition instead of appointments, something the president once promised.”

Prytula adds that Ukraine's new “elite” should be able to speak with their European counterparts and have similar vision and values.

He also believes the West’s attitude toward Ukraine must change: “Western politicians, on their end, should perceive us as equals and thank us for defending them.”

“The world respects the strong. They simply didn’t know about the strength of the Ukrainians before,” he said.

Hope

Talking with the Kyiv Independent in a volunteer center packed with volumes of military equipment, Prytula says that the love that he feels for his country, people, and family encourages him to keep going with his volunteer work.

“When I see such sincere love around and what people are doing for their country, and one another, it inspires and touches,” he said. “I have never seen so much love around, as I did after Feb. 24.”

A bunch of boxes with body vests and medical kits arrived at his office as he was speaking. The donation was anonymous.

Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian comedian, politician, and volunteer, unpacks boxes with aid for the military in his office in Kyiv on May 27, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

“What also inspires me,” he said with tears in his eyes, “is the extent of people’s sacrifice I have never seen before. I saw some displays of it in 2014-2015, but it is incomparable to what is happening now.”

As an example, Prytula mentioned people giving away their last to help others. “Every donation matters,” he said. The banner appeared on his phone saying that his charity’s account had been topped up with 30 hryvnias ($1).

He also spoke highly of people letting in their homes strangers who fled from the war as well as those who took arms to defend their country.

Among such people was Roman Ratushnyi, a 24-year-old activist who defended Kyiv’s historic Protasiv Yar against construction tycoons. He then joined the army in February and was killed in Kharkiv Oblast on June 9.

Prytula truly chokes up when he speaks of children suffering amid war and those being raped and killed.

Prytula, the father of three, said he sees his own family only once a month due to his busy schedule. It is difficult for him to be far away from his loved ones and his biggest desire is to reunite with them when the war is over.

“I don't want to imagine my future separated from my family as it has been for the last three months,” Prytula said.

Yet, he added that he has plenty of work trips to the Donbas ahead and that he understands that today work comes first.

“I know who I am risking it all for.”

Anna Myroniuk
Author: Anna Myroniuk

Anna Myroniuk is the head of investigations at the Kyiv Independent. Anna has run investigative projects on human rights, healthcare and illicit trade. She investigated presidents and oligarchs. She has written for New York Times, Washington Post, Coda Story and OCCRP. Anna holds a Masters in Investigative Journalism from the City University of London. She is a Chevening Scholar, a finalist of the 2020 Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, an honoree of the 2022 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Media & Marketing list, and the runner-up in the investigative reporting category of the 2022 European Press Prize.

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