Late last month, days after Russian missiles hit kyiv, killing a Ukrainian journalist; a few weeks after Russian forces besieged this city, my hometown; two months after Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded my homeland, I descended into a converted air-raid shelter and laughed. A lot. And it was great.
“It sucks that so many of us have to live in evacuation with our parents,” Anna Kochehura told the crowd around me. “It’s like being a teenager again: your mother keeps asking you to tidy up your room. You never know when a Russian rocket is going to hit your apartment these days. Do you really want the whole world to see your mess? »
I laughed. The people next to me too, and everyone else too. For a moment, I forgot the fear. Surrounded by so many young Ukrainians, all laughing despite everything we’ve seen, everything we’ve been through, I felt powerful.
The last few months have been horrible. Russia has brought us so much grief, death and destruction. More than 2,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed. Millions have fled their homes. Russian soldiers have committed shocking atrocities in places like Bucha. Tens of billions of dollars of damage have been done to our infrastructure, not to mention the cities that have been wiped out, the territory that has been occupied. We haven’t felt safe for a long time. At any time, a missile could end our days. War is present and all around us. The fledgling comedy club I visited – the Underground Stand-Up Club – was until recently a field kitchen where volunteers cooked meals for the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces.
And so, that night, in a basement, we laughed.
I think there are two types of people in the world. There are those who cry after falling, and those who get up and laugh. We Ukrainians are the second type. Our sense of humor is unique. We elected a comedian to be our president, after all.
But our sense of humor is dark – it must be, considering what we’ve been through. We laugh when Russian soldiers accidentally detonate their own mines. We laugh at Chechen fighters filming TikToks in our destroyed city of Mariupol, only to be killed by Ukrainian snipers. We laugh at Russian propaganda that claims we train birds to identify Russians and infect them with diseases we created in our US-sponsored biolabs. “Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian invaders are brainless,” said Sviat Zagaikevich, another comedian who performed the night I went to the comedy club, “because a bullet goes in one ear and comes out by the other”.
In fact, to some extent, our sense of humor has always been dark. Eneidaan 18th-century poem by Ukrainian writer Ivan Kotliarevsky, which parodies Virgil’s work Aeneid, commemorates the siege and destruction of Zaporizhian Sich by turning Virgil’s Trojan heroes into Zaporizhian Cossacks. The parallels with today are striking: then, it was the forces of Catherine the Great that attacked Ukrainian soil; today it’s Putin’s.
Modern Ukraine’s sense of humor is likely defined by our 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelensky. His political satire show and his servant of the people sitcoms were all-time favorites on television. Of course, his election was no joke: Zelensky proved to be a serious and capable president. Perhaps naive at first, he is now a modern warlord that many Western countries look up to.
He seems to have brought his comedic sensibility to the government, however. While the comedians in that basement stand-up club helped us use laughter as a defense mechanism, our leaders used it offensively, attacking and undermining Russia’s efforts. Our country now sells stamps bearing the words Russian warship, fuck you, commemorating the incredible reaction of our troops to the invaders. Our national Twitter account joking captions a picture of our Prime Minister standing alongside the President of the European Council – two men who look strikingly alike – with “Our Prime Minister on the right”. When the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, was sunk after being damaged by Ukrainian forces, our Minister of Defense tweeted a photo of himself diving, with the text “We now have another dive site in the Black Sea”.
How not to laugh, especially when Russian propaganda is so absurd? When the Moskva sank, the country first denied that anything had happened, then claimed that the warship had not sunk, that it had suffered a localized fire while “retaining its buoyancy”. Even when Russia admitted the truth, it insisted the sinking was caused by a fire and then a storm. Obviously, admitting that Ukraine could deliver such a blow was too painful.
Or what about the reported Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory? Moscow cannot officially blame us, given that it claims to have destroyed our air capabilities, so instead the Russian media describes the explosions caused by our rockets and helicopters as loud bang of unknown origin. (“Russian propagandists are stealing my job,” Kochehura joked. “After five years in stand-up, I still can’t come up with such funny bullshit.”) Ukrainian officials, for their part, blame karma – karma which they say will continue to affect Russia until its forces leave Ukraine.
The war even created its own set of bizarre feedback loops. Among those serving in the armed forces is Serhiy Lipko, a comedian whose routine centers on the desperation of the early days of the war, when so many Ukrainian men were eager to join the army that he had to cut his teeth a path. Once his comrades found out he was a stand-up, they constantly asked him to crack jokes. “They think if you can do it on stage, you can also crack jokes every two minutes in real life,” he told me. Upon learning that he is quite a serious person in real life, they were disappointed. Still, he would try. Laughter, he says, devalues fear. “If you can write a good joke, that becomes your weapon,” he said. “I can, and that makes me a double threat, because I also have a gun.”
Every comedian I watched that night, and everyone I’ve spoken to since the invasion, has told me about the cathartic effect of comedy, of laughter, in such depressing times. “A night up in a basement is a good way to get people to ignore the anti-aircraft sirens, come to a shelter and spend a few hours in a safe space,” Zagaikevich told me. “A good joke is the best way to reduce stress and fuel your fighting spirit. There’s no better way to deal with all the horror in our daily news.
In this, these comics carry a sense of duty. “During the darkest times, humor helps us stay sane and get back to normality,” fellow comedian Anton Tymoshenko told me. “It’s the cheapest form of therapy.”
Tymoshenko is actually more than just a comedian. In 2016, he won a Ukrainian television competition in which contestants had to make Zelensky – at that time not yet president – laugh out loud. He made our head comedian laugh.
So he may have a better understanding than most stakes. “Ukraine is the best place to be an actor these days,” he said at another stand-up gig in a bomb shelter. “Your career can go very high. If you’re a good comedian in the United States, you can have a late night show. If you are a good comedian in Ukraine, you can destroy Russia.