Just before the Russian invasion of his country, Ukrainian writer Andrei Kurkov posted a sardonic alert on Twitter: “Weather forecast Kyiv/Kyiv: +5°C, windy, chance of Russian attack 30%, feeling 95% “.
A few days later, he posted a photo of heavily armed soldiers by the side of the road and labeled it “Ukrainian mushroom pickers”. A photo of a building bombed on March 2 was labeled: “A school visit from Putin.”
This kind of wry, often dark humor defines Ukraine’s culture of resistance, says Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky.
“In Odessa it helped people cope with the Soviet times,” Kaminsky wrote in a brief interview I conducted with him via email. “It helped to have a language of its own, with its own jokes and intonations, quotes and echoes not always understood by the authorities.”
In a recent interview with Slate, Kaminsky pointed out that the most important holiday in Odessa is not Christmas: “It’s April Fool’s Day, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people take to the streets and celebrate what they call benevolent humor day. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor – think of the man who offered to tow the out of gas Russian tank back to Russia.
“Humor is part of our resilience,” he said.
War is no fun. Suffering, exile and dispossession are no laughing matter. And yet, humor has always been part of resistance movements. Why? What role should laughter play in times of oppression? Is humor just a safety valve or can it be the catalyst for real change?
Last year, these questions prompted me to propose a new course at Florida International University. I spent a year developing Humor as Resistance as a special subject course in our Writing and Speaking stream, and this semester 17 intrepid students signed up. We were exploring the subject together, when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine making the country’s comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a hero.
“I don’t need to be transported,” Zelenskyy reportedly told Americans who wanted to evacuate him at the start of the invasion. “I need ammunition.”
As the daughter of Cuban exiles, I understand how much humor makes life bearable. Living with despots, sometimes laughter is the only way to tell the truth. One of the first short stories I wrote, “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd,” revolves around a group of old men who tell jokes around the domino table to process the pain of exile. . I later bonded with my Slovak husband, over jokes shedding light on communist-era hardship:
The man rushes into a store. “I would like a roll of toilet paper.”
Merchant: “We went out. We are getting some next week.
Man: “I can’t wait that long.”
Satire has a long history in the West, of course, going back at least to Aristophanes. But as a form of resistance, it has a particularly strong tradition in Eastern and Central Europe, predating Soviet times. Isaac Babel, born in Odessa, was the master of this style during the old Russian Empire. And, for the Czechs, the great master of ironic resistance was “The Good Soldier Švejk”, the creation of the anarchist Jaroslav Hašek, an inveterate prankster whose hero, under a cloak of naivety, pierces all cultural pomp, in especially those emanating from the army. .
Many of these forms of humor refer to the literary carnivalesque (embodied by Rabelais and elucidated by the critic Mikhail Bakhtin). The tradition lives on in Europe, where the spirit inspired a series of humorous stunts of resistance from Poles who resisted state propaganda by taking their television sets for a walk during the daily newscast of the Otpor movement in Serbia which staged a “birthday celebration”. for Milošević with cake, card and gifts including handcuffs and a one-way ticket to The Hague.
With a few notable exceptions (including Majken Jul Sorensen, whose work guided my class), most traditional scholarly approaches to humor take a dim view of the power of laughter. Much of the earlier scholarly literature on humorous resistance is concerned with the question, “Is it just a way to vent or can humor really change the rules of oppression?”
The question represents a false choice. Resilience East resistance. Beyond the instrumentalist aims of humor, laughter is a philosophy, a lightness of life that has been famously captured, in our time, by writer Milan Kundera who told Philip Roth in an interview: “I have always been able to recognize a person who was not a Stalinist. , a person I don’t have to fear, besides he was smiling. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Since then, I’ve been terrified of a world losing its sense of humor.
I feel for my students. This generation has lived through a civil war in Syria (which has produced over 5 million refugees) and two years of a global pandemic to emerge now on the cusp of a war that could yet engulf the world. In a broken world, how do we survive?
Violence is its own total vernacular. And we know that a joke never stopped a bomb. But against the nihilistic darkness of Putin who suggested “why do we need a world if Russia isn’t in it?” we can offer the life-giving light of laughter. We can dismiss the absence of austere humor from the butchers of the story. And we can continue to resist by embracing all the things that make life worth living: friendship, love, and humor, even in the face of extinction.
“Putin died on February 24, 2022 at 5 a.m. Kyiv time,” Kurkov wrote on March 6. “He doesn’t know yet.”
Ana Menéndez is a writer who teaches at Florida International University. Her most recent novel, “The Apartment,” will be published by Counterpoint Press in April 2023.
This story was originally published March 22, 2022 2:50 p.m.