Jokes from the bomb shelter: Ukrainian comedians shine against grim backdrop of war

KYIV, Ukraine —Life was bleak in Ukrainian bomb-shelters in the early days of the war.

Shortly after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian missiles hit Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other major cities, and civilians across the country moved into metro stations and makeshift bunkers.

There was little more than quickly snatched canned goods to eat. Crowds of people were huddled together on floors of concrete. And most of these safe havens were just above freezing.

With missiles in the air and desperation underground, Anton Tymoshenko, a young comedian in Kyiv, started thinking that just about anything is funnier than this loss and misery.

So, he started telling jokes:

“In 1996, Ukraine gave away all its nuclear weapons to Russia. Now, Russia is threating to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. As far as I know, this would be the first ‘nuclear cash back’ in history!”

Ukrainian comedian Sviat Zagaikevich holds a sign that says "Underground Standup Club Protest."

Of course, Tymoshenko’s bomb-shelter intuitions are consistent with a long tradition of gallows humour: i.e., the deep-seated human tendency to laugh at death and tragedy.

Famously, Sigmund Freud described the mechanism behind dark humour as the release of nervous energy or pent-up anxieties. And in his influential study, “The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” Freud argued that humour functions as a natural or instinctual form of therapy.

Tymoshenko’s comedic intervention in a bleak Ukrainian bunker confirmed Freud’s analysis. “One minute, everyone was fearing for their life and safety, and the next minute, everyone was laughing and smiling.”

The joking worked as therapy for Tymoshenko, too. “Russia’s initial attack on Kyiv was terrifying, and I was as shocked and confused as everybody. But when I started joking, I inevitably felt better.”

As the Russian army retreated from the Ukrainian capital in April, Tymoshenko, Oleksandr Kachura, Sviat Zagaikevich and several other comedians from Kyiv’s Underground Standup Club began producing YouTube videos for all their fellow citizens to see. The reaction was extraordinary.

“Our videos were streamed by hundreds of thousands of people across the country,” Kachura said. As one of the founding figures in Ukraine’s growing standup scene, Zagaikevich claimed he’d never seen so many people interested in their comedy, and he described a rather moving message he received.

“The day after our first YouTube clip aired,” Zagaikevich explained, “I got a DM from Sacha in Donetsk. Sacha detailed the horror of living near the front line: constant shelling, intermittent electricity, no running water, few supplies. But then he said the contrast between his hearty laughter and immediate surroundings reminded him that things could be different, and this gave him hope.”

In April, Oleksandr Kachura, pictured, and several other comedians from Kyiv's Underground Standup Club began producing YouTube videos for all their fellow citizens to see. The reaction was extraordinary.

Comedy, it seems, is not simply therapeutic release. It can help people see the world in an alternative light.

In a subtle jab at the global wellness culture, Tymoshenko kids in a recent live skit:

“Stressed consultants around the world try to live in the moment. They try mindfulness mediation. They fly to Thailand and Bali. Stop it! Just come to Ukraine. Ukrainians always live in the moment because we might only have a moment to live!”

According to Simon Critchley, a philosopher at the New School, jokes rely on a set of accepted social practices, say, mindfulness meditation, and they are often funny because the punchline, “just come to Ukraine,” diverges from those practices and effectively calls them into question.

Jokes, for Critchley, often show “the sheer contingency or arbitrariness of the social rites in which we engage.” And “by producing a consciousness of contingency, humour can change the situation in which we find ourselves, and it can even have a critical function with respect to society.” In short, “humour is a form of liberation.”

Liberation is obviously on the minds of Ukrainians these days, and the comedians at The Underground Standup Club are doing what they can to contribute to the war effort.

“I’m making videos to raise money for my country,” Tymoshenko says. “This is such a strange feeling, because for the last 10 years I was raising money to have a flat in Kyiv. Now, I’m raising money to win a war!”

This, he admits, is “very difficult.” But not being one to pass on an opportunity for fun, he adds: “Actually, I’m not sure what’s more difficult, because flats in Kyiv were very expensive. Maybe now I’ll get a discount.”

Fundraising for the Ukrainian army via YouTube and new live shows is not the only way comedians in Kyiv are fighting for their country. Most of their jokes these days involve lampooning the international community, skewering Russian civil society, and attacking the Russian state.

Alluding to the Nazi invasion of Ukraine and swiping at the snail’s pace at which German weapons are being delivered today, Tymoshenko quips:

“The funniest country in Europe is Germany. When we ask for weapons, they say they don’t have enough to share … But, come on, Germany! My grandmother said you have a lot of weapons … Or at least, you can create them very quickly! She remembers that …”

In a personal joke that speaks to the intimate but extremely strained connection between Ukrainian and Russian people, Tymoshenko says:

“I have a friend who was very depressed before the war. She even thought about suicide. So, I asked her how she is doing in this difficult situation. She said, ‘I feel much better.’ I asked her ‘Why?’ and she replied, ‘I no longer think about suicide. Instead, I think about how to kill Russians!’”

He continues:

“Wow, thank you Putin, you’ve saved my friend! But here’s the punchline: My friend, Yulia, is from Russia. So, I tell her, ‘Yulia, you’re so lucky. You can always kill at least one Russian: Yourself!’ ”

Tymoshenko hastily adds that Yulia approves of the joke, and he insists the real point of the story is that Ukrainians have something to live for: Putin’s death.

This brings us to the primary target of the Kyiv comedy scene: the Russian regime and their invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia says it came to Ukraine to fight fascism,” Tymoshenko explains in one of his skits. “But have you seen the Russian army? They have the letter ‘Z’ and letter ‘V’ inscribed on everything. Their message is, ‘Ukraine is not a country. Ukrainians are not a nation.’ ”

He goes on:

“What was the plan? To catch fascists, you have to think like a fascist. Maybe become fascist. If Russia wants to destroy fascism, it can destroy itself!”

Tymoshenko’s scorn understandably provoked an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, and his use of derision to elicit cheer is as old as God himself:

“The kings of the earth stand ready, and the rulers conspire against the Lord and his anointed king,” we read in the Book of Psalms. But “the Lord who sits enthroned in heaven laughs them to scorn; then he rebukes them in anger, he threatens them in his wrath.”

Scorn and derision epitomize the joy we feel when we direct our hate at those who deserve it. And judging by the crowd’s response to Tymoshenko’s scathing critique of the Russian army, derogatory comedy simultaneously provides Ukrainian civilians with a release of pent-up energy and a sense that they are directly involved in the fighting.

Although comedians in Kyiv are clearly boosting the morale of their fellow citizens by providing much needed relief and orchestrating verbal attacks on Putin’s regime, no comic in history has been a match for the Russian army. And even those who believe in the critical and transformative power of laughter acknowledge its limits.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas thought jokes could be used to expose oppressive social forms, but she also believed joking was “frivolous in that it produces no real alternative, only an exhilarating sense of freedom from form in general.”

That said, the Ukrainian people are hoping to defy the laws of history and overcome comedic frivolity with their comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“My colleague Zelensky,” Tymoshenko jests in a YouTube clip, “is now performing all over the world. He has some specials in different parliaments.”

And Tymoshenko continues:

“Zelensky was even invited to the Grammy’s, but not the Oscars. That’s good because comedians at the Oscars were punched in the face! But then again, if Russia can’t beat Zelenskyy, Will Smith doesn’t have a chance!”

Sitting in an underground shelter in Kyiv, it’s hard not to laugh at Tymoshenko’s jokes or share in his hope. And if Zelenskyy’s appeal to parliaments around the world proves successful, then there may be some truth to Arthur Koestler’s bold claim that “dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”

Aaron James Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto. He is the editor of the New Statesman’s philosophy series, Agora, and he tweets @aj_wendland.

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