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Renowned Ukrainian cartoonist Anatoliy Vasylenko dies at 83

by Daria Shulzhenko June 9, 2022 1:30 PM 5 min read
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Anatoliy Vasylenko had the rare talent of being able to transform Ukrainian politics, with its endless supply of corrupt officials and controversial events, into a laughing matter.

He spent most of his life with a brush in hand, drawing cartoons and illustrations for Ukrainian newspapers and books. For his achievements, he was awarded the title of National Artist of Ukraine in 2005.

Despite his declining health, Vasylenko was devoted to his craft to his last day.

In the early morning of June 8, Vasylenko passed away in his apartment in Kyiv at the age of 83.

He is survived by his wife, two children, and two grandchildren, as well as an abundance of his remarkable works.

"He was one of a kind," says Vasylenko’s granddaughter’s husband, Pavlo Yakimchuk, with whom the artist was very close.

"It was his work that kept him going for such a long time," Yakimchuk says.

The man behind one of Ukraine’s first comic strips in the 1960s, which were first featured in the Perets, a Ukrainian satirical illustrated magazine, had been drawing since he was a child. Vasylenko went on to master his talent at the Kyiv School of Applied and Decorative Arts.

Vasylenko worked for several decades at the Silski Visti ("Village News"), one of Ukraine's biggest newspapers, specializing in turning the mundane and the terrible into hilarious cartoons.

For Ukrainian youth, Vasylenko will always be remembered as the artist that helped bring to life the adventures in the iconic novel "Toreadory z Vasiukivky" ("Toreadors from Vasyukivka") by renowned Ukrainian author Vsevolod Nestaiko.

There was no limit to Vasylenko’s talent: In addition to having complemented hundreds of books with his drawings, he also authored children’s comics and published a book in 2020 titled "Vidma" (“Witch”), featuring his own writing and illustrations.

Yakimchuk says that Vasylenko did not have a favorite project, but rather simply enjoyed the process of creation.

"He was drawing until about a week before his death," he says.

A cartoon depicting corruption in Ukraine by Anatoliy Vasylenko for the former print edition of the Kyiv Post newspaper.

While he used neither the Internet nor a computer to keep up with the news, as he considered these technologies to be “for the youth,” Vasylenko always kept up with Ukraine’s fast-paced political landscape through local newspapers and television.

Almost every week since 2008, Vasylenko poked fun at Ukrainian politics through his satirical cartoons for the Kyiv Post. In November 2021, the whole editorial staff were fired from the Kyiv Post for defending press freedom. They founded the Kyiv Independent.

Vasylenko’s vast collection of works for the Kyiv Post include hundreds of light-hearted cartoons, featuring everything from Ukraine’s elections and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin to when a local marshrutka, or routed taxi, lost two of its wheels while in motion.

For this, his genius will live on, says Brian Bonner, former chief editor of the Kyiv Post.

"He livened up the pages of the Kyiv Post for more than 13 years, right up to the last print edition on Nov. 5, 2021," Bonner says, recalling the time when Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Sych recommended he collaborate with Vasylenko back in 2008.

"Since that time, coming up with ideas for Anatoliy to draw was a Wednesday ritual for the staff," Bonner says.

On Thursdays, the Kyiv Post's driver would deliver Vasylenko's sketches to the office in Kyiv for the team to devise accompanying dialogues and cutlines for the paper's print edition.

"Sometimes our ideas were brilliant, sometimes not so brilliant, but Anatoliy usually made them better," Bonner says.

"He will be missed, but he leaves a great legacy of political humor and social satire."

Bonner says that even the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Tefft, had one of Vasylenko's drawings in his office in Kyiv.

"It was during Wikileaks and Anatoliy drew Tefft sitting at his office with everything leaking – potted plant, coffee cup, water dripping from the wall onto Obama's portrait."

A cartoon by Anatoliy Vasylenko, depicting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine (2009-2013) John F. Tefft during the WikiLeaks scandal. Tefft had it framed in his Kyiv office.

"Anatoly was able to bring humor to what, for America — the leaks of their confidential documents — was a serious situation," Bonner says.

Above all, Vasylenko was a true patriot of Ukraine, Yakimchuk says.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Vasylenko, who could barely walk at the time, asked Yakimchuk to bring him some hand grenades so that, if Russian troops came to his apartment, "he could take them with him."

"It was a joke, of course, but if he could he would have given his life for Ukraine," Yakimchuk says.

The immense stress that inevitably came with Russia's war did not affect Vasylenko as much as did losing his job at the Kyiv Post in November, says Yakimchuk.

"He was very worried about (losing his job at) the Kyiv Post. He did not just lose his main source of income, but his main customer," Yakimchuk says.

During his interview with the Kyiv Post in 2015, Vasylenko said that he considered the concept of a retired artist to be "nonsense."

"I need to work, work, and work. Artists have to work and live until they draw their own finishing line," he said back then.

After losing his job, Vasylenko drew "something for himself, each time less and less," according to Yakimchuk.

As a true artist, he did not see himself without his craft, Yakimchuk adds.

"As long as he held on to a pencil, he held on to life."

Anatoliy Vasylenko photographed at his apartment in Kyiv. He will be buried at one of Kyiv's cemeteries on June 9. (UA Geek)
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