When Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was asked recently about politics in the U.S that was stalling their funding, he quipped that his country would figure out a clever way to battle the Russians if they run out of weapons.
“We will fight them with shovels,” he quipped.
A scrappy threat, or woe-is-me coping mechanism?
Ever since Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, Ukraine has relied on humor to cope. There was the Ukrainian grandmother who shot down a Russian missile with a jar of pickles. There’s been copious references to cult movies and talking cartoon dogs. A limited-edition official stamp, which features a Ukrainian special forces fighter defiantly raising his middle finger to a Russian warship.
These jokes and satire fill memes and social media posts, tongue-in-cheek statements during press conferences and in interviews, jibes that are a response to Russian disinformation and propaganda. The goal: to boost national morale, promote unity, and offer a personal coping strategy.
When everyone is just too war-weary to laugh anymore
As the war in Ukraine drags on and sinks deeper into a messy deadlock some say the jokes are getting harder to pull off.
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“Humor is still a permanent thing in this war, but a lot of people, well, they are not as impressed by it as they once were,” said Yarema Dukh, who worked as a press secretary for former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Dukh is now a communications consultant in Ukraine’s private sector. He helped establish @Ukraine − the country’s official Twitter (now X) account in 2016, when it was deployed to, among other things, sardonically troll official Russian accounts about Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine humor these days, he said, “is not trending as much.”
That could be because attention spans − and social media algorithms − are notoriously fickle. Since October, the Israel-Hamas war has consumed global attention; the Ukraine war has faded from the spotlight.
But the fighting is still intense. Russia has renewed its onslaught of missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and towns that appear to indiscriminately target civilian infrastructure. One such attack, on Jan. 23, overwhelmed Ukraine’s air defense systems, killing 18 people and injuring 130 more.
Since the war’s outbreak nearly two years ago, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed, according to the U.N. Many have died as Russian missiles and drones have struck maternity wards, educational facilities, shopping mall, residential buildings, churches, business parks, storage facilities and parking lots.
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Ukraine’s government has meanwhile grown increasingly alarmed over whether it will receive billions more in weapons funding from the U.S. that has hit a political snag in Congress. Although there was some good news for Ukraine on Thursday when European Union leaders agreed to a new aid package for Ukraine that will help keep its economy afloat and some weaponry flowing from Europe to Kyiv.
Some military analysts say that without fresh U.S. aid, a stalemate that has settled on the frontlines in Ukraine’s eastern regions could be tipped in Russia’s favor.
Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, said that even if the U.S. and EU aid comes through, 2024 2024 will be a transition year for the war.
“Both Ukraine and Russia are trying to regenerate their fighting power.”
Exhausted from the war, too tired to smile
As the war has dragged on, humor has faded from the Ukraine government’s communication strategy.
One reason: people are exhausted from the war.
“People are tired,” said Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker. “They are really not very eager to smile.”
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Iryna Dobrohorska, a London-based Ukrainian who works in international development said that a comedic response to Russia’s invasion took off in the early months of the war. People were stuck in bomb shelters, and humor was one way of expressing and reflecting on the collective situation while demonstrating resilience.
“Today, it feels like maybe some of psychological resilience of the population is gone,” she said.
Standup comedy still thrives in Ukraine
However, Dobrohorska also pointed out that stand-up comedy shows in Ukraine that address the war continue to be highly popular. And, she said, that there remains a lot of humorous memes and social media posts about the war, mostly joking about Russia and its military. But that much of the focus has shifted to domestic issues.
There has, for example, recently been “a ton of memes,” Dobrohorska said, about a Ukrainian family who made a lot of money speculating on military procurements. In one, a picture of underwear is captioned: “Ukrainian corrupt person starter pack.” In another, the former wife of one of the family members paints a mural that states that there is nothing better in life than seeing her ex-husband’s family in a detention center.
“I’m sure Ukrainians will continue using humor,” said Olga Tokariuk, a Ukrainian political analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “It might just become more dark if the situation deteriorates.”
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Stand-up comedy that stands up to Russia
One person who does know a thing or two about what Ukrainians are laughing at is Anya Kochegura.
She’s a stand-up comedian who regularly performs at comedy clubs around Ukraine, in front of Ukraine’s troops, and at fundraisers and auctions where a percentage of proceeds go to the military.
Over the last year, she’s written new material.
It’s mostly about the war, but indirectly. It reflects how Ukrainians are continuing to deal with the day to day of going about their lives amid deep uncertainty while the fighting is still raging.
“My show is less optimistic, but more stoic these days,” she said.
“Sometimes I feel like some part of the audience doesn’t want to hear so much about the war. They want to hear maybe one or two jokes, then they want to relax. I got a cat last year. So I do jokes about my cat.”