Late last month, a few days after Russian missiles hit Kyiv and killed a Ukrainian journalist; a few weeks after the Russian troops besieged this city, my hometown; Two months after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded my homeland, I walked into a converted air raid shelter and laughed. A lot. And it felt great.
“It sucks that so many of us have to live with our parents in an evacuation,” Anna Kochehura told the crowd around me. “It’s like being a teenager again: your mother keeps asking you to tidy your room. Nowadays you never know when a Russian missile will hit your home. Do you really want the whole world to see your mess?”
I burst out laughing. So did the people next to me and everyone else too. For a moment I forgot the fear. Surrounded by so many young Ukrainians all laughing despite what we have seen and been through, I felt strong.
The last few months have been terrifying. Russia has brought us so much suffering, 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 have been damaged in our infrastructure, not to mention the cities wiped out, the occupied territories. We haven’t felt safe in a long time. At any moment, a rocket could end our days. War is present and all around us. The fledgling comedy club I attended — the Underground Stand-Up Club — was until recently a field kitchen where volunteers cooked meals for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces.
And so we laughed that night in a basement.
I think there are two types of people in the world. There are those who cry after a fall and those who pick themselves up and laugh. We Ukrainians are the second type. Our sense of humor is special. Finally, we elected a comedian to be our President.
But our sense of humor is murky – it has to 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 devastated 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 engineered in our US-sponsored biolabs. “Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian invaders are brainless,” said Sviat Zagaikevich, another comedian who appeared the night I went to the comedy club, “because a bullet goes in one ear and comes out the other. “
In fact, to some degree, our sense of humor has always been dark. Eneidaa poem by the 18th-century Ukrainian writer Ivan Kotliarevsky parodying Virgils Aeneid, commemorates the siege and destruction of Zaporizhian Sich by turning Virgil’s Trojan heroes into Zaporizhian Cossacks. The parallels to today are striking: back then, Catherine the Great’s forces attacked Ukrainian lands; today it belongs to Putin.
The sense of humor of modern Ukraine is probably defined by our choice of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019. His political satire show and his servant of the people sitcom were all-time television favorites. Of course, his election was no joke: Zelenskyy has proven to be a serious, capable president. Perhaps naïve at first, he is now a modern war leader admired by many western countries.
However, he seems to have brought his comedic sensibilities to the government. While the comedians at this basement stand-up club helped us use laughter as a defense, our leaders have used it offensively, attacking and undermining Russia’s efforts. Our country now sells postage stamps emblazoned with the words Russian warship, fuck yourself, commemorating the incredible response of our troops to the invaders. Our national Twitter account joking captions a photo of our Prime Minister standing next to the President of the European Council – two men who look strikingly alike – with ‘Our Prime Minister on the right’. When the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Moskva, was sunk after being damaged by Ukrainian forces, our defense minister said tweeted a photo of him diving, along with the text “We now have another dive site in the Black Sea.”
How can you not laugh, especially when Russian propaganda is so absurd? When the Moskva sank, the country first denied anything had happened, then claimed the warship did not sink, suffered a localized fire, but “remained buoyant.” Even when acknowledging the truth, Russia insisted that the sinking had been caused by fire and then storm. Admitting that Ukraine could land such a blow was clearly too painful.
Or what about the reported Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory? Moscow can’t officially blame us for claiming to have destroyed our flying capabilities, so Russian media instead describe explosions caused by our rockets and helicopters as loud bang of unknown origin. (“Russian propagandists are stealing my job,” Kochehura joked to me. “After five years of doing stand-up comedy, I still can’t make up some weird shit like that.”) For their part, Ukrainian officials blame karma – karma that they say that it will continue to influence Russia until its armed forces leave Ukraine.
The war has even created its own bizarre feedback loops. Among those serving in the armed forces is Serhiy Lipko, a comedian whose routine focuses on the desperation of the early days of the war, when so many Ukrainian men were desperate to join the military that he had to fight his way through. When his comrades discovered he was an insurgent, they constantly challenged him to make jokes. “They think if you can do it on stage, you can make jokes every two minutes in real life,” he told me. When they found out that he is quite a serious person in real life, they were disappointed. Still, he would try. Laughter, he said, devalues fear. “If you can write a good joke, it becomes your weapon,” he said. “I can, and that makes me a double threat — because I also have a gun.”
Every comedian I’ve seen 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 stand up night in a basement is a great way to get people to ignore the air raid sirens, get into a dugout, and spend a few hours somewhere safe,” Zagaikevich told me. “A good joke is the best way to relieve stress and boost your fighting spirit. There is no better way to deal with all the horror of our daily news.”
In this, these comics carry a sense of duty. “In the darkest of times, humor helps us stay sane and return to normal,” Anton Tymoshenko, another comedian, told me. “It’s the cheapest form of therapy.”
Tymoshenko is actually more than just another comedian. In 2016 he won a Ukrainian television competition in which the contestants had to make Zelenskyy – not yet president – laugh. He made our comedian laugh.
So maybe he has a better understanding than most of what’s at stake. “Ukraine is the best place to be a comedian these days,” he said at another stand-up gig in a bomb shelter. “Your career can go very high. If you are a good comedian in the US, you can have a late night show. If you are a good comedian in Ukraine, you can destroy Russia.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/russia-invasion-ukraine-stand-up-comedy/629850/?utm_source=feed Why Ukraine is the best place to become a comedian