From the Kremlin to Comedy: Olga Koch interview

Olga Koch talks moving from the Kremlin to comedy in her debut Edinburgh Fringe hour, Fight

Feature by Ben Venables | 01 Aug 2018
  • Olga Koch

One year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Olga Koch was born. "My sister is 12 years older than me," says Koch. "We were born in the same exact hospital, but she was born in Leningrad and I was born in St Petersburg."

Western culture poured into every detail of the family's lives. The traditional samovar competing with seemingly alien items like tea bags; Koch herself must have been one of the first babies in Russia to wear disposable nappies.

The mix of the old and new could make "living in 1990s Russia feel like living in someone else's house". Although for a child, "everything made sense because you don't know any different".

The family seemed to be living through a golden period as Russia re-styled its economics towards privatisation; a herculean task for which Koch's father was responsible. Alfred Koch was deputy prime minister under president Boris Yeltsin, and the reforms took a seismic shift in thinking for those who'd grown up in the pre-Gorbachev era Soviet system. "The currency of money didn't exist in the same way, and your value was more in your connections. The general manager of a food store, for example, would be a gatekeeper of those connections. I know a guy who knows a guy, so don't worry I'll take care of it – that's such a Soviet mentality."

As Vladimir Putin solidified his rise to power, Alfred Koch found himself a dissident to the Kremlin. With the family compelled to move, Olga enrolled at High School in suburban Surrey, though it was in attitudes rather than her surroundings for which she received the most culture shock. "I came from Russia being a very arrogant, very conservative child; even though I came from a very progressive family. But a progressive outlook at the time in Russia was that you would tolerate gay people."

Koch later trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York while at uni and credits those challenges to her teenage and conservative outlook as a reason for her eventually finding comedy: "When you're that arrogant, and that set in your ways, someone smarter than you telling you what to think isn't going to change your mind. I found comedy was the only thing that could change my mind about things because comedy mocked me and showed me these inconsistencies and hypocrisies."

Her own comedic style reflects a life far removed from the Winter Palace stories we might expect. There's a delightful silliness to her humour which conceals a compellingly acidic touch. "For the most part my comedy has nothing to do with history or politics. One of the challenges I've had with the show is when the people who come might be Cold War dads, whereas I've lived half my life in the west."

She adds: "I'm 25, I don't hang around in embassy corridors, so even though I have this background, for the most part, my experience is much more millennial. I don't sit around on Saturday night reading Bunin." But, her fascination with her origins and how they inform her show is set to make Fight an intriguing debut as she tries to recall a country that has changed beyond all recognition. "There's a difference between missing something and nostalgia, and the nostalgia I have for Russia is for a place that isn't there."

Olga Koch: Fight, Pleasance Courtyard (This), 1-26 Aug (not 14), 7.15pm, £6-9