international analysis and commentary

“All Funny on the Eastern Front”: war humor in Russia and Ukraine

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Ethnic jokes were very popular during Soviet times. Russians used to laugh at “minor” nations of the Empire, expressing a sense of superiority. In the book Taking penguins to the movies (1998), Emil Draitser gives an account of Russian stereotypes of neighboring countries through proverbs and jokes. Almost all the peripheral nations of the Soviet Empire were mocked for their poor level of Russian: the Tchuchkis – inhabitants of the Tchukotka region – for their alleged stupidity; Estonians for their lack of energy and sloth; Jews for their greed; and Georgians for their lack of manners. Rare were the jokes targeting Ukrainians and humor against them was not malevolent, as they were considered Russia’s “younger brothers”.

However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Kyiv’s position as Moscow’s partner began to crumble, Russian jokes became more politicized, expressing anger for Ukraine’s desire for self-government. Ukrainians started to be depicted as stingy and mischievous Russophobes, rural “lard lovers” with a ridiculous obsession for the modern West. The famous Russian proverb “Even if the night is quiet in Ukraine, it’s better if you hide your lard” directly depicts Ukrainians as thieves. Another famous joke from the 1990s mocks Kyiv’s fascination for Western lifestyle, resulting in a grotesque mix: the Ukrainian version of a Snikers candy bar would be “lard covered in chocolate”.

Post-Soviet political disagreements between Kyiv and Moscow were followed by the growing use of the pejorative terms of Moskal and Khokhol as reciprocal stereotypes. The first, indicating those coming from Moscow, was already used in the 12th century; the latter derives from the customary hairstyle, consisting of a single braid of hair on a shaven head, worn by Ukrainian Cossacks.

Victims of Moskal imperialistic jokes for thirty years, the Khokhly are now taking their revenge. Since the beginning of the war, Kyiv’s communication machine is using humor as a weapon to reinforce people’s morale and belittle the enemy. Ukraine’s humoristic strikes on Russia open another war front, little-discussed, the consequence of which – stereotypes – will likely last longer than military confrontation.

 

Ukrainians are Russians, but they forgot

The fall of the Soviet Union reopened the century-long debate about Ukraine’s position within Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian nationalism has traditionally maintained that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, beyond the tenet of fanatic warmongers. Imperialism is so rooted in Russian political discourse that even soviet or modern-day dissidents have difficulty recognizing the obvious: Ukraine is not Russia. For example Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1990 essay, Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiu? (How shall we build Russia?) insisted on the unity of the three Slavic nations (Belarus being the third) which, according to the author, had a common destiny. Russian political elites fully embraced this narrative. Kyiv’s pro-Western ambitions since 1991 have thus been opposed by the Kremlin and mocked by Russian discourse. Vladimir Putin’s 2021 article On the historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine are the pinnacle of this unitary vision.

“[…] when asked about Russian-Ukrainian relations, I said that Russians and Ukrainians are one people – one whole. These words were not motivated by short-term considerations or by the current political context. This is what I have said on many occasions and what I firmly believe. I therefore feel it necessary to explain my position in detail and to share my assessments of the current situation.”

Such political narrative has been reinforced in Russian popular culture: humor started to target what was becoming an independent, and worse, a westernized Ukraine. This joke, which was already circulating in 2007, well explains the state of mind:

A Khokhol caught a hare.
He brings it to his wife: “Roast it!”
She: “No gas!”
He: “Then use the microwave.”
She: “There’s no electricity!”
He: “Well, chop some wood, light the stove.”
She: “No wood!”
The Khokhol then throws the hare out the window in a fit of anger. The hare gets up, shakes himself, and shouts, “Long live self-proclaimed Ukraine!”

In 2014, during the Maidan events, Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky told a joke allegedly found on the internet:

Khokhly are strange people. They pray to the Europeans; they work under the Jews; they die for the Americans; and for all this they hate the Russians.

The basic message conveyed by humor focused more and more on Kyiv’s “betrayal” of Russia and the negative and ridiculous consequences that it entailed for Ukrainians themselves:

A reunion in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament:
“There are no Moskals?”
“No.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure. There are no Russians.”
“Perfect, we can speak Russian then.” 

“Do you know why Ukrainians celebrate their independence on August 24th?”
“Because during the winter they need Russian gas.”

A Ukrainian man dies and he finds himself before God:
“Lord, why did you give everything to the Russians – oil, gas, intellect, honor, history, poets, scientists – and to us Ukrainians nothing at all?”
God: “But I gave you all of this too.”
Man: “When?”
God: “When you were Russians.”

 

Post-Soviet imperialism through jokes: “Russia’s border does not end anywhere.”

In a 2015 television show, Vladimir Putin was testing children’s world geography knowledge. Before leaving, he asked a child where Russia’s border ends. The boy began to answer correctly when Putin interrupted him and said: “Russia’s border does not end anywhere”. A joyful reaction to Putin’s punchline from the public took the child out of embarrassment. With this sentence, Putin revived what could be called imperialistic humor.

In fact, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, numerous jokes and memes started to circulate in Russia about Putin seizing back Alaska from the US while Western sanctions reinforced people’s nationalistic pride. Putin’s soft imperialism in Crimea was bearing its fruits.

With the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, “border jokes” backfired on Russia. In September 2022, the Kremlin celebrated the annexation of four Ukrainian regions to Russia through referendums, that not only had dubious legitimacy but did not even define clearly which territory was being seized. Putin signed the annexation as the Ukrainian counteroffensive was partially liberating the territories, up to the city of Kherson in November.

To cover up the military and political instability in which the referendum took place, Russia’s discourse was triumphalist. Rossiya zdes’ navsegda (Russia is here forever) was the slogan repeated by the official media. Giant signs were displayed in the annexed regions, like the one below photographed in Kherson.

 

The gap between Moscow’s triumphalism and reality was used by Ukrainians to create humorous material on the web. When Kherson was liberated and Russia pushed back, the same photo presented a cynical update: Rossiya zdec’ do noyabrya (Russia is here until November).

 

This other joke mocking Russia’s defeat started to circulate on social media:

Putin to Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister: “Did you take all of Kherson?”
Shoigu: “For now, only Kher.” (meaning “dick” in Russian)

The lack of transparent communication between Putin and his entourage is a widespread humoristic theme, as depicted in this popular meme:

Putin: “So, what are we winning?”
Shoigu: “How can we say that…second place.”

 

Watermelon against Putin

The Ukrainian communication machine and social media users have come up with another humorous theme, that went viral during and right after the liberation of Kherson. Watermelons are Kherson’s symbolic fruit. They have been allegedly introduced in the region by the Crimean Tatars centuries ago. The image of the watermelon as the city’s mascot was raised to represent Kherson’s struggle for freedom during the occupation. Several personalities shared watermelons on their twitter accounts, including Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. As reported by the BBC, President Zelensky himself visited the newly liberated city of Kherson and he joked that he was there because he “wanted a watermelon”. Several jokes and memes started to be shared by Ukrainian social media users.

 

“Bunker”: Ukraine’s resistance humor

The most remarkable humoristic blitz by the Ukrainians is a wartime comedy series called Bunker, available on YouTube. Broadcasted since October 2022, episodes follow war events and make fun of Russian authorities and the army.

Here’s an extract from the series synopsis, produced by media company Kvartal 95:

“Bunker” is based on real events taking place in the most hideous country on the globe-Russia. Russian authorities have the ambitious task of taking over Ukraine, although they cannot even cope with their own stupidity. Putin and Lukashenko, Shoigu and Konashenkov, Solovyov and Simonyan… Are they as scary as they are painted? The truth has never been so… funny.

In the series, pitiless Ukrainian comedians impersonate and make fun of Russia’s main politicians. An isolated Putin gives orders sitting on a suitcase-toilette, which is regularly changed by his entourage after every speech he makes. Medvedev, in his luxurious loft, is always drunk, writing aggressive, anti-Western tweets. He is bullied by his wife Svetlana who accuses him of having no character if sober. Shoigu is always interrupted by Putin’s calls as he is focused on some childish war-related activity (playing with toy soldiers, assembling with great effort a toy gun). He always lies to Putin about the war, hiding the numerous defeats of the Russian Army. Belarusian President Lukashenko is depicted as greedy, always asking Putin for money in exchange for his support.

There is also Vanja, a simple Russian soldier, video-calling his “beloved wife” to tell her about the special military operation. He thinks he is saving Ukraine from the Nazis but he is treated like a fascist by the population. He gets food poisoned because of Russia’s poor food supplies and is always close to being killed. Having little hope of seeing her husband again, his “beloved wife” is regularly in bed with other men.

Many other Russian politicians and journalists are mercilessly laughed at by Kyiv’s “resistance humor”, made even more effective as the show is played in Russian and Ukrainian languages and is available in Russia. As both countries speak the same language, resistance humor improves the morale of Ukrainians, and reaches simple Russians, potentially weakening the internal front and detaching people from the Kremlin’s discourse. After all, humor is a wake-up call to reality. As a dissident joke from Soviet times went:

A man is walking in the street with an arrow in his chest, but he shows no signs of pain.
A friend goes up to him and asks: “Wow, does it hurt?”
The man responds: “Only when I laugh.”