War Isn’t Funny: But Humor Helps Ukrainians Deal With Trauma

KYIV, Ukraine — Because he will soon be deployed as a soldier on the battlefields of Ukraine, Serhiy Lipko and Anastasia Zukhvala have chosen to marry first, like a growing number of war-torn couples with Russia.

Like others, their nuptials were rushed and smaller than they would have been in peacetime, with only a few dozen close friends and family. She wore a simple crown of blue flowers in her hair. And then, because laughter can be medicinal and because Lipko was building a comedy career before his country’s defense was called, they headed to a stand-up comedy club in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. .

There, with his new wife watching from the sidelines, he took the stage in olive green fatigues and quickly had the crowd laughing with bone-chilling humor about the military and married life. He joked that military training with NATO instructors had been a great opportunity for him to practice his English and how nervous he was about handling expensive military equipment for fear of it. to break.

War is not funny at all, but Ukrainians are learning to laugh at the horror of it all. Not necessarily because they want to, but because they have to – to stay sane amid the brutality that has killed tens of thousands and upends Ukraine, millions of lives and world order as it rages on the front lines in the east and south of the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his troops, especially the dead and wounded, are favorite targets of Ukrainian dark humor during wartime. But there are red lines: Ukrainian deaths are no laughing matter and the darker battles, including the brutal siege of Mariupol and the port city’s Azovstal steelworks, are far too raw for jokes. So are the atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere.

“Tragedies cannot and never will be the subject of humour,” said Zukhvala, who also works as a stand-up comedian, as she and Lipko hugged with newlywed tenderness after her show and picked up armfuls of bouquets, wondering aloud how they’d find a space for them at home.

“It’s an absolutely crazy time, beyond the ordinary experience,” she said. “Our life now is made up of paradoxes, and it can even be funny.”

Ukraine’s most famous comedian is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, now the country’s president, elected in 2019. In the TV comedy series “Servant of the People”, the former comedian and stand-up actor played a lovable teacher of high school who accidentally becomes president – before he later becomes one for real. But Zelenskyy hasn’t had much cause for fun since the February 24 invasion propelled him into the role of warlord. His daily video addresses to the nation are often dark and energetic.

But as he struggles to rally international support and soldiers fight with tanks, artillery and tons of Western-supplied weaponry, Ukrainians far from the front line use jokes and humor as weapons – against wartime anxiety and gloom, against Russia and to feel as one, laughing and crying together in their grief and anger.

Yuliia Shytko, 29, said she felt in a much better mood after giggling loudly with the rest of the crowd through routines by Lipko and other comedians in the basement comedy club, the big majority of their jokes revolving around war-related themes.

“Laughs and all that, that’s how we get away with it,” Shytko said.

Lipko and Zelenskyy crossed paths in comedy before the war completely changed their trajectories. The future president, then still an entertainer, was a sworn in 2016 in the game show “Make a comedian laugh”. Lipko was a contender. He wore camouflage fatigues because he was in the middle of military service and made jokes about his experiences in the military. He made Zelenskyy laugh by saying he would buy a PlayStation if he won the top prize, which he eventually did. They spoke then in Russian; they both stick to Ukrainian in public now.

Lipko still scoffs at army life, even as he prepares in days to leave his wife behind to fight. The Army gave her a day off to get married, a quick back-and-forth from a wedding office where their comedian friends ruffled the clerk’s feathers in jest.

“We laughed a lot,” said comedian Anton Tymoshenko, who was present and also performed later that night at the club.

Lipko’s nickname in the army is “the comedian”. During his routine, he joked that some things his fellow soldiers say and do are so funny that he can’t help but use them as fodder for his stand-up, despite telling them that he wouldn’t. Afterwards, he said his comedic outlook should help him endure the battle.

“I’m a comedian turned temporarily into the military,” he said. “I have creative plans and projects for post-war. There are things to live for.”

Zukhvala said she told herself “we’re going to win and everything will be fine”. She wants a big wedding party when peace returns.

Tymoshenko said he and their other comedian friends would take care of her while Lipko was away.

But he has his own worries: he tries to persuade his parents to leave their village in the south, which he considers too close to the Russian advance. Much to his dismay, they laugh at the danger. Her mother joked that if Russian missiles destroyed her potato plot, it would save her the spade work.

“My mother never joked before the war,” he said. “They’re using my weapons against me…and it’s unfair.”