Laughing at Russia: Ukraine’s Secret Weapon

As well as buoying public spirits, humour has become a key element of the information war.

Laughing at Russia: Ukraine’s Secret Weapon

As well as buoying public spirits, humour has become a key element of the information war.

Digitally altered photo of a road sign that has been replaced with profanities directed at Russian forces.
Digitally altered photo of a road sign that has been replaced with profanities directed at Russian forces. © The State Agency of Automobile Roads of Ukraine, ukravtodor.gov.ua
Tuesday, 22 November, 2022

Ukrainian comedian Andrii Luzan thinks his country might have a secret weapon to resist Russia’s invasion.

"If the war was fought with memes, we would definitely win," said the stand-up, who has begun to introduce jokes about the conflict into his live act.

At first, this was a hard sell. But Luzan maintains that laughing at the crisis is vital to sustain Ukrainian morale and ensure victory.

"Humour is a weapon that supports and inspires,” Luzan said. “Jokes can be used to deconstruct, and therefore devalue, the image of the enemy.”

He argued that it was no accident that President Volodymyr Zelensky – a comedian before he entered politics – had proved to be a creative and inspirational wartime leader.

“After all, a comedian constantly asks questions - looks at the situation from a different angle," Luzan concluded.

From the first days of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians have found reasons to laugh at gruelling situations, with memes spreading fast on social networks, ridiculing an invading army that declared itself the second strongest in the world.

As well as buoying public spirits, this has become a key element of the information war.

The defiant response – “Russian warship, fuck off” - of the Ukrainian border guard on Zmiiny Island at the start of the war provided inspiration for memes, jokes, songs and T-shirts.

Road signs in some regions of Sumy region, which borders Russia, were quickly replaced with faux directions reading, “Fuck, fuck off, fuck off back to Russia.

Almost every statement from the Kremlin inspired new jokes.

When Russia accused Ukraine of preparing a so-called dirty bomb, one meme showed a grandmother busy mopping a missile, grumbling, "The bomb is dirty for them.”

One popular meme following the mobilisation announced in September 2022 showed Russian President Vladimir Putin waving off a soldier with the words, “It’s time to die Vanya,” while another shows a wistful recruit with the caption, “I don't want to leave the military unit. It's so good here, like home.”

Gamlet Zinkivskyi, a Ukrainian artist from Kharkiv known for his street art and illustrations, expressed delight at this proliferation of memes.

"When Putin announces mobilisation and it seems that we should all be afraid, instead social networks are full of jokes. And because of this, the enemy burns with anger even more."

Humour – often extremely dark– had also become an important everyday coping mechanism, he continued.

Zinkivskyi recalled travelling to Izyum with a group of Polish volunteers and journalists at the beginning of October to visit the mass burial site discovered in the forest nearby.

It was very hard to be confronted with such, Zinkivskyi continued. As they left, silent and consumed by what they had just seen, a large dog appeared nearby, turned around and went into the forest.

"I look at the Polish journalists, nod my head in the direction of the dog that went into the forest and say, 'It seems that someone will have breakfast now,'" Zinkivskyi said.

Horrified, his comrades rebuked him. But later in the evening they returned and thanked him for a black joke that served to jolt them out of their paralysis and continue with their work.

"Yes, it's sad, the war is terrible, but we have to live on and do what we can," Zinkivskyi said, arguing that humour was a normal psychological reaction to fear.

"There are situations when everyone is scared, but a good joke makes everyone laugh. Our reality is now so scary that taking it seriously is dangerous for the psyche. And it's great to have a good laugh at this situation."

Military psychologist Andriy Kozinchuk agreed that amidst active conflict, dark and tasteless jokes were an important means of self-care.

"For a normal person, this humour should be disgusting, but humour depends on external circumstances,” he said. “That's why black humour prevails at the front."

Kozinchuk recounted a time when he lost his temper and shouted at a soldier.

"The next day, I come to my classroom, where I conducted classes for fighters, and I see a condom taped to my desk,” he said. “This is the message left by the fighter I yelled at. He could not tell me this, because he is my subordinate, a soldier, and I am an officer. But he did that, and I think - how nice. I was very pleased that I have such intelligent soldiers who know how to joke, they have a sense of humour. And he knew I was smart enough not to be offended."

Zinkivsky argued that humour was a Ukrainian national trait, recalling the legendary 17th century letters supposedly sent by Zaporizhian Cossacks to Mehmed IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, mocking his arrogance.

The letters – although believed by some to be forgeries – involve a slew of insults with Mehmed IV variously described as the “footstool of the Greeks, cook of Macedonians, locksmith of Babylonians, wheelwright of Jerusalem, drunkard of Assyria, swineherd of greater and lesser Egypt, sausage of Alexandria and dog of Armenians”.

"It is a historically confirmed fact that the Cossacks had a sense of humour," Zinkivskyi said.

However, he continued, it was important to distinguish between cynicism and black humour. The former was callous, while the later was a reaction to pain. Zinkivskyi recalled an instance when he received a phone call informing him that a good friend had died on the front line.

“And I thought - every time he was offended that I did not congratulate him on his birthday, now he will not be offended,” Zinkivskyi said. “My position is to not pay attention to death, because if I take it seriously, I will not get be able to pull myself out of depression.”

Psychologist Kozinchuk said that humour, however dark, served as an important safety valve in times of acute stress.

"People without humour are too close to reality, and this reaction can be violent,” he said. “And if they can't stand it, it's very important to ask for help. Because these people often pretend that I am strong, I will endure. Be smart, not strong - because a smart person knows who to ask to solve a problem or overcome difficulties.”

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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