The Power of Laughing at Russia

‘If you are a good comedian in the U.S., you can have a late-night show. If you are a good comedian in Ukraine, you can destroy Russia.’

An illustration combining a laughing face and a tank
Getty / The Atlantic

Late last month, a couple of days after Russian missiles hit Kyiv, killing a Ukrainian journalist; a few weeks after Russian forces laid siege to this city, my hometown; two months after Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded my homeland, I went down into a converted bomb shelter and laughed. A lot. And it felt 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 mom keeps asking you to clean your room. You never know when a Russian rocket is going to hit your apartment nowadays. Do you really want the whole world to see your mess?”

I burst into laughter. So did the people next to me, and everyone else too. For a moment, I forgot about fear. Surrounded by so many young Ukrainians, all of us laughing in spite of all we have seen, all we have gone through, I felt powerful.

The past few months have been horrifying. Russia has brought us so much grief, death, and destruction. More than 2,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed. Millions have fled their homes. Russian soldiers have committed shocking atrocities in places such as Bucha. Tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage has been caused to our infrastructure, to say nothing of the towns that have been wiped out, the territory that has been occupied. We have not felt safe for a long time. At any moment, a missile might end our days. The 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 Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces.

And so, that evening, 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 pick themselves up and laugh. We Ukrainians are the second type. Our sense of humor is special. We elected a comedian to be our president, after all.

But our sense of humor is dark—it has to be, given 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’ve created in our U.S.-sponsored biolabs. “Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian invaders are brainless,” Sviat Zagaikevich, another comedian who performed on the night I went to the comedy club, said, “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. Eneida, an 18th-century poem by the Ukrainian writer Ivan Kotliarevsky, which parodies Virgil’s Aeneid, commemorates the siege and destruction of Zaporizhian Sich by transforming Virgil’s Trojan heroes into Zaporizhian Cossacks. The parallels with today are striking: Then, it was Catherine the Great’s forces attacking Ukrainian land; today, it is Putin’s.

Modern Ukraine’s sense of humor is probably defined by our election in 2019 of Volodymyr Zelensky. His political-satire show and his Servant of the People sitcom were all-time television favorites. Of course, his election wasn’t a joke: Zelensky has proved a serious, capable president. Perhaps naive at first, he is now a modern wartime leader whom many Western countries admire.

He seems, however, to have brought his comedic sensibilities to government. Whereas the comedians in that basement stand-up club helped us use laughter as a defense mechanism, our leaders have used it for offensive purposes, attacking and undermining Russia’s efforts. Our country now sells stamps emblazoned with the words Russian warship, go fuck yourself, commemorating our troops’ incredible response to the invaders. Our national Twitter account jokingly captions a photograph of our prime minister standing alongside the president of the European Council—two men who look startlingly alike—with “Our PM on the right.” When the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, was sunk after sustaining damage from Ukrainian forces, our defense minister tweeted a photo of himself diving, along with the text “We have one more diving spot in the Black Sea now.”

How can you not laugh, especially when Russian propaganda is so absurd? When the Moskva sank, the country at first denied that anything had happened, then claimed that the warship had not sunk, that it had suffered a localized fire yet “retained buoyancy.” Even when Russia acknowledged the truth, it insisted that the sinking had been caused by a fire, and then a storm. Clearly, admitting that Ukraine could land such a blow was too painful.

Or what about the reported Ukrainian attacks against Russian territory? Moscow cannot officially blame us, given that it claims to have destroyed our aerial capabilities, so instead, Russian outlets describe explosions caused by our rockets and helicopters as loud bangs of unknown origin. (“Russian propagandists are stealing my job,” Kochehura joked to me. “After five years in stand-up comedy, I still can’t make up such funny shit.”) Ukrainian officials, for their part, blame karma—karma that they say will continue to affect Russia until its forces leave Ukraine.

The war has even created its own set of bizarre feedback loops. Among the people serving in the armed forces is Serhiy Lipko, a comedian whose routine centers on the desperation of the war’s first days, when so many Ukrainian men were eager to join the military that he had to finagle his way in. Once his comrades discovered that he was a stand-up, they would constantly ask him to make jokes. “They think that if you can do it onstage, you can fire off jokes every two minutes in real life as well,” he told me. Upon learning that he is a fairly 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.”

All of the comedians I watched that night, and all those I’ve spoken with since the invasion, told me about the cathartic effect of comedy, of laughter, in such depressing times. “A stand-up night in a basement is a good way to get people to ignore air-raid sirens, come to a shelter, and spend a couple 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 cope with all the horror of our day-to-day news.”

In that, these comics carry a sense of duty. “During the darkest of times, humor helps us to stay sane and return to normality,” Anton Tymoshenko, another comedian, told me. “It is the cheapest form of therapy.”

Tymoshenko is actually more than just another comedian. In 2016, he won a Ukrainian TV competition in which contestants had to make Zelensky—at that point not yet president—laugh out loud. He made our comedian in chief chortle.

So he perhaps has a better grasp than most of what’s at stake. “Ukraine is the best place to be a comedian nowadays,” he said during another bomb-shelter stand-up gig. “Your career can rise very high. If you are a good comedian in the U.S., you can have a late-night show. If you are a good comedian in Ukraine, you can destroy Russia.”