Missile tubes, an unfunny joke, my wife’s band sweatshirt: in Ukraine, this is how we fund our fight for survival

<span>Servicemen waiting for the train from Kyiv in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, 14 February 2024. <br></span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Servicemen waiting for the train from Kyiv in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, 14 February 2024.
Photograph: Reuters

Day 636 of the full-scale invasion. Kyiv, the House of Cinema, the venue for many premieres of films that have become classics. I am on the stage in front of a packed house. Today’s bill features the rock artist Anton Slepakov, who together with musician Andrii Sokolov has been keeping a poetic diary of the invasion. Now, they’re presenting a full-length recording of the album and have invited friends to share the stage with them.

Oleksandr Serdyuk, also known as Koulman, is one of them. Comedian, director, artistic director of the Horobchyk (“Sparrow”) Theatre of the Absurd – and now a professional auctioneer. In 2023, Koulman conducted more than 150 auctions. Since the invasion, there has been an charity auction at every concert, show or cultural event to raise money for our armed forces.

Koulman conducts the auction with the humour of a man who has not felt anything for a long time. He is holding a red sweatshirt. “What am I bid for this sweatshirt?” asks Koulman. “It survived the shelling of a townhouse in Hostomel, near Kyiv. It is said to be one of the few things that survived in that house. The starting bid…”

I have a panic attack, I can’t focus on his words. I know the history of this sweatshirt all too well.

* * *

A few weeks later, manoeuvring between the breaks in Koulman’s performance schedule, we meet in Kyiv to talk about charity auctions and the ways in which artists are trying to support the Ukrainian defence force.

Two days into the invasion, Koulman found himself in western Ukraine. Not having any military training, he said to himself: “The war has been going on for eight years. And for eight years, I haven’t volunteered. Now I have to catch up. And I will do it for at least eight years.”

Koulman went to the city council, to the office for humanitarian aid for displaced people. What is needed, he asked them. Everything, they said. They gave him a list and he spent half the money he had – about $300.

Next he headed to the office for humanitarian aid for the military and asked the same question. They too said they needed everything, and gave him a list. He spent the remainder of his cash, then began to borrow money to cover the urgent needs of both agencies.

When the money was all gone and the debt growing, he posted a report on the purchases made that day. In response, he received comments: “Give me the account number, we will support you.” And so every day from 9am to 6pm, he met the requests of the military and of the millions of displaced people. And that was the happiest time – clear requests and tasks, no unnecessary thoughts or doubts.

In December 2022, Koulman was invited to run a charity auction at a concert by the rock band Zhadan i Sobaky (“Zhadan and the Dogs”), fronted by the cult Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan. The auction went incredibly well, and he was invited to join the tour. At the time of our meeting, Koulman had held 77 auctions during Zhadan i Sobaky concerts. At the same time, a pool of other artists and bands had begun to form, all of whom wanted Koulman to host their auctions.

As time wore on he developed auctioning tricks. For example, a T-shirt with the signature of the former commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, is being auctioned. The stakes skyrocket – 10,000 hryvnias ($250), 30,000, 40,000. Finally, only two bidders remain. The final bid is 50,000 hryvnias ($1,300). At the last minute, Koulman takes out a second identical T-shirt and asks whether both participants will be comfortable if the winner gets the T-shirt for 50,000 hryvnias, and the second-placed bidder gets their’s for 48,000. Of course, both “finalists” are happy, and Koulman has 98,000 hryvnias ($2,500) for the armed forces.

Sometimes, someone wins an auction and says that it is more important to make a donation than to receive the lot itself. So at one concert, Koulman can sell the same picture or disc several times.

At the beginning of the auctions, the lots with a military theme did well – shot tubes from Manpads (surface-to-air missiles) or Nlaws (anti-tank weapons), later – captured uniforms, dry rations, Russian occupiers’ helmets. Koulman says that every self-respecting Ukrainian family now has a charity-auctioned Manpad tube in their home.

But now objects and experiences related to our favourite artists sell best at auctions. For example, Serhiy Zhadan’s personal belongings are being auctioned. It could be the backpack with which he travelled to the Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno’s homeland in Huliaipole. Or the shoes of a female character in a Zhadan and the Dogs music video. Of course, Koulman sold them separately – the left shoe was sold for 10,000 hryvnias and the right one for another 5,000.

Other items can hardly be called “things”. For example, an opportunity to donate a poem, which Zhadan will recite over the phone. And Koulman has witnessed how people receive such calls, unable to contain their emotions. The only “expense” is the poet’s time, but this project alone has raised about 400,000 hryvnias ($10,400) for charity.

Koulman enjoys creating experimental lots with the band Latexfauna. One of their most famous songs is called Lime. Koulman sold a lime (price 8 hryvnias, $0.20) for 18,000 hryvnias ($465) as an opportunity to eat this lime together with the band after the gig.

On another occasion, the Latexfauna guitarist told Koulman a disastrously unfunny joke before a show. Koulman advised him to never tell it to anyone again. That same evening, during the auction, he suddenly remembered the joke and told the audience: “Right now the guitarist will whisper in your ear an unfunny joke that was tested on me. Starting price is 1,000 hryvnias.” In a second, the bidding soared to 3,000 hryvnias, and suddenly a voice from the crowd confidently said: “30,000 hryvnias.” Koulman asked if this was a joke. The voice replied that everything was serious. “Sold!” The guitarist came on stage; the auction winner came up to him, listened to the joke, and laughed.

The real experimentation began at an auction during the rock festival Faine Misto (“Cool City”) in Lviv in summer 2023. Koulman sold the C note played by the guitarist with a popular band. He sold the opportunity to smoke a depressing cigarette with the rap star Palindrom after the show (three people each paid 40,000 hryvnias, $1,000, for this). He sold the chance to shave the moustache of the lead singer of his beloved Latexfauna. The winner paid 40,000 hryvnias. But Koulman didn’t stop there and sold the opportunity to watch for 30,000 hryvnias.

Koulman’s latest idea is to do a concert-auction where the audience votes with their donations for the songs to be played next. His most successful auctions have raised between 350,000 hryvnias ($9,000) and 460,000 hryvnias ($12,000) in an evening.

Koulman refuses to star in entertainment content for YouTube. What would I tell them, he asks. About Bakhmut or the situation in Avdiivka? He can no longer joke, with one exception – when he is auctioning. Then his humour is a tool for a successful event. The most important thing is collecting money for the armed forces, and the concert is just a bonus.

I ask him what he thinks about fundraising. For him, there is a negative side: in addition to collecting money and communicating with army units, you must be creative. You have to make people laugh, collaborate with celebrities in order to break the social media algorithms. Koulman says it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet audience expectations.

He hopes to tour the US and Canada with Latexfauna this year. He will conduct successful auctions. He will help defenders. And it still won’t be enough.

* * *

Ten years into the war, approaching the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion, journalists again ask me how the lives of Ukrainians and my family have changed. I say this is a war of destruction and attrition. Russia is striving to normalise the war in Ukraine, so that a terrible missile attack will just be called “another one” and it will no longer be news to anyone.

But simply put – we are living the routine of a nightmare. Daily, shelling destroys our civilian infrastructure and homes. The shelling is routine and methodical. It is so massive that every time it happens, one of my friends tells me that their old school or former home has been hit.

I tell them that on Valentine’s Day, Russia hit the town of Selydove. Russian propaganda claimed that hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. In fact, they fired at nine apartment buildings and a hospital. Three people were killed; 13 were injured, including four children.

I still can’t figure out a few things. Why are there still areas where sanctions have not reached? Why is it that after the announcement of the “toughest package” there are always opportunities for even tougher sanctions? Why does the world continue to listen to Vladimir Putin?

I am talking about my heroic friends who have been killed by Russians.

I am talking about Koulman, who has found his purpose and is in the second year of his eight-year volunteering journey.

I am talking about my parents, 70-year-old professors of literature who spent almost three weeks under occupation in Bucha. I am talking about the house where my wife Olena and I lived in Hostomel, which was destroyed by a Russian shell in the first week of the invasion. About 100 neighbours survived the Russian occupation in our residential complex. Five were killed.

I’m talking about a red sweatshirt, from a past life, before the invasion. A sweatshirt with too many memories. A merch sweatshirt from a band Olena and I loved so much – our friend Anton Slepakov’s previous band – that we went to every one of their concerts in Kyiv. A sweatshirt that survived the shelling of our house and to which Anton later dedicated a track. Had the manufacturers known, his words went, they could have made the red sweatshirt fire-resistant so that it would serve as a bulletproof vest, and “take revenge for all the losses”.

An artefact of pain and memory that has now become a lot at a charity auction.

Koulman sold it for 25,000 hryvnias ($650) that evening at the House of Cinema. The total raised by the show was 200,000 hryvnias ($5,200) in aid of the armed forces of Ukraine.

And right now there is nothing more important.

Translated by Oleksandr Gon

  • Oleksandr Mykhed is a writer and member of PEN Ukraine. His book Language of War won the George Shevelev prize in December 2023 and will be published by Allen Lane in June 2024

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