Memetastic! How Ukrainian memes keep the county’s fighting spirit

Ukrainians have always been a nation whose essence was defined by a sense of humour. It is widely known that humour helps people to cope during the most challenging times. In desperate situations, the ability to crack a smile and find something funny is often a matter of keeping sanity and fighting spirit. Ukraine, subject to various trials and tribulations during its history, has developed a unique sense of humour. Ukrainians face troubles utmost seriously but are always ready to laugh at them. In this article, we will explore the history of Ukrainian comedy and explain it with examples of Ukrainian meme culture that has risen on Twitter after the full-scale invasion. 

One of the most distinctive features of Ukrainian humour is the ability to be ironic about everything: enemies, one’s situation, or the world around them. As noted by Olha Dorogokuplia, a postgraduate of the Department of Ukrainian Literature at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Luhansk, an ironic worldview is characteristic of the Ukrainian mentality. That is why it is reflected in national literature. Ukrainian literary critic, essayist, philosopher, and political prisoner of the Soviet regime Yevgen Sverstiuk said, ‘on the Ukrainian continent, humour settled together with trouble. Each of them might not have taken root, but together they create a national climate.’

With the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukrainian meme culture produced memes almost daily. It is important to note that these memes do not make fun of war victims, civilian victims, or the destruction of Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian Twitter jokes mock the moral baseness of the enemy’s army, politicians who want to profit from war, an amorphous part of world society, or outright enemies of Ukraine who desire the country’s destruction. 

On the 4th of November, Hungary honoured a national day of mourning to commemorate the anniversaries of anti-soviet apprising, brutally suppressed by the Soviet regime. On the anniversary of this day, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, made a post on his Twitter where he omitted to name the perpetrators of the tragedy. Viktor Organ is a famous European pro-Russian politician and has close ties to Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian creators immediately made a meme, where ironically, they ridiculed the meanness of a politician who cannot directly call the Soviet Union an aggressor in the past and Russia in the present.

A meme from @uamemesforces Twitter page mocking Viktor Orban’s vague phrasing

Another prominent example of Ukrainian comedic sense is the so-called ‘gallows humour.’ Gallows humour is jokes or remarks about unpleasant or worrying subjects such as death and illness; often, it includes irony and sometimes the elements of fatalism. As writes Thomas L. Kuhlman, author of ‘Humour and Psychotherapy’ book, gallows humour fulfils essential psychological and sociological functions and provides an emotional language. 

Ukrainian culture is no stranger to gallows humour. For instance, the respected Ukrainian author and the victim of the Soviet regime, Ivan Bahrianyi, talks about the torture that Ukrainians go through in soviet prisons in his book ‘Garden of Gethsemane.’ The name of this book is an allusion, as, according to the Bible, the Garden of Gethsemane is the place of death agonies and prayers of Jesus Christ. Ivan Bahrianyi describes political prisoners’ dreams and fiction about their release in the book. Prisoners’ fantasies about being released become a kind of game, a way to distract from reality: ‘And I would if I were released… I would!… All the way, all the way to Kholodna Hora itself… peas… on the pavement … I would blow my nose!.. Through the whole of Kharkiv!’ says one of the characters. This game of escaping reality, perceived as somewhat ironic and unrealistic, is an example of Ukrainian gallows humour. 

Then again, it is essential to state that Ukrainian gallows humour is not aimed at admitting defeat and laughing at the bitter fate. No, quite the opposite. Laughter in the Ukrainian context is a powerful tool that helps to entertain hearts in the darkest times. It helps remind people of the blatant injustice of the phenomena they laugh at. Therefore, for Ukrainians, even laughter is a weapon of resistance and agitation of the people’s movement. One of the crucial Ukrainian historical figures, Hryhorii Hrabianka, said, ‘how is it that we live in a free land, but we have no free will?!’ His words, full of painful irony, still resonate with Ukrainian people today and help them fight.

Modern examples of Ukrainian gallows humour would be processing and understanding by Ukrainians of the genocide committed by the Russians. This tragedy and this pain became a weapon. Through anger, gallow humour, and irony, Ukrainians draw the attention of their compatriots and the whole world to the moral and social problems that this war revealed. And this is done with the help of memes, which are easy and (which is very important) quick to perceive. Such a strategy helps to mobilise many users in Twitter’s fast-moving network and attract more people to the Ukrainian side.

A meme from @uamemesforces Twitter page telling about the hypocrisy of genocide deniers

Throughout history, humour has always been important to Ukrainians. Satire flourished in Ukraine as a mechanism for overcoming difficulties or a cheer of social attitudes. Ukrainian people are defined by their ability to laugh at themselves when the situation is justified and mobilise their spirit as a weapon to strike enemies. After all, jokes and irony are excellent tools to expose all the wrong in the world. By making someone laughable, you make them weak.

The ability to smile in the face of evil is an essential skill that Ukrainians possess. It can be seen everywhere: from classical national literature to quotes of important historical figures, from jokes told on frontlines to memes in social media. Ukrainian attitude to humour is perfectly illustrated in the words of a genius Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka, ‘In order not to cry, I laughed.’

The tears Ukrainians shed are bitter. One can only endure so much suffering before one starts to shred. Ukrainians learned to live with this pain and transform it into something bright, something to laugh about. After all, you can live on and fight if you can crack a smile during the darkest times. That is what Ukrainians have always been doing and are doing right now. No amount of torture and pain can kill the brightness in people’s hearts.

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