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The Excerpt podcast: In Ukraine, one secret coping strategy is humor. Can it last?

On a special episode (first released on January 31, 2024) of The Excerpt podcast: As the Russian war in Ukraine approaches the two year mark, for Ukraine’s 40 plus million citizens there appears to be very little to be hopeful about. US and EU weapons funding has stalled while civilian casualties have topped 10,000, and counting. What’s the secret coping strategy Ukrainians use to deal with all this? According to one journalist, it’s humor. Ukrainian journalist and fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, Olga Tokariuk joins The Excerpt to discuss the way humor has become a force for unity and resilience among Ukrainians.

Read USA TODAY World Affairs Correspondent Kim Hjelmgaard's story here.

Hit play on the player below to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript beneath it.  This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

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Kim Hjelmgaard:

Hello, and welcome to The Excerpt. I'm Kim Hjelmgaard. As the Russian War in Ukraine approaches the 2-year mark, for Ukraine's 40 plus million citizens, there appears to be very little to be hopeful about. US and EU weapons funding has stalled, while civilian casualties have topped 10,000. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes continue to pummel city centers across Ukraine. What's the secret coping strategy Ukrainians use to deal with all this? According to one journalist, it's humor. Here to help us dig into it is Ukrainian journalist and a fellow at London-based Think Tank,= Chatham House, Olga Tokariuk. Olga, thanks for joining me.

Olga Tokariuk:

Hello, Kim, and thank you for having me,

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Olga, you recently wrote an article for the Reuters Institute to entitled From memes to morale: Decoding Ukraine's comedy arsenal against disinformation. First of all, Olga, what is Ukraine's comedy arsenal? And secondly, how is it helping to fight disinformation?

Olga Tokariuk:

Yeah, that's a very good question. I think Ukrainian resistance and resilience to Russia's full-scale invasion has caught many by surprise. Very few people in the West expected Ukraine to hold against a much bigger, a much stronger enemy, at least as that's the way that Russia was perceived initially. But almost 2 years into the invasion, we see that Ukraine is still holding, Ukraine is still there, Ukraine had some successes on the battlefield in the past 2 years, and the Ukrainian spirit is still unbroken. And I would argue that one of the secrets of why its resilience is so strong is the ability of Ukrainians to use humor even in this very tragic, objectively very tragic, situation when Russia keeps bombing, using missiles and drones to bomb Ukrainian cities, keeps insisting that Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian language does not exist and somehow Ukrainian doesn't even have a right to exist as an independent state.

So in a way, when you are faced with such a huge threat, an existential threat, without a doubt, you fight back, but also you have to stay united, you have to keep the morale up, and humor has been very helpful in both of these things, in uniting people and also in helping them to cope and to survive and to go on fighting.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Social media has been a central place for much of the humor about the war. Can you give us a taste for what kinds of means and videos you've seen? I also want to ask, is there one example for you that really stands out as both funny and poignant?

Olga Tokariuk:

Well, there are numerous examples, and I think that the earliest one that Ukraine has produced and that the world has witnessed was that iconic image of a Ukrainian border guard on the Serpent Island in the Black Sea, showing the finger to an approaching Russian warship. The image actually was created later. What was in the beginning, there was a conversation between a border guard on this tiny island and a Russian worship crew, and they offered the border guards and Ukrainians who are on that island to surrender. And the response that was, "Well, Russian worship, you can go and F off yourself." So that was the conversation which became viral. And then a meme emerged, an image, that was transformed a bit late into postal stamp, magnets for the fridge, bags, t-shirts, and so on and so forth. So that was this first very viral Ukrainian meme that has been created.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Thank you, Olga. So you've talked a little bit already about humor as a force for unity and how it's something people band together around in difficult times, but can you elaborate a little more on how humor has helped to fight disinformation in this context?

Olga Tokariuk:

Basically, what Russia was saying at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, which Russia still keeps saying, it keeps denying Ukrainian agency. It keeps saying that, "Well, Ukraine is not a real country. Ukrainians are not real people. They are somehow confused Russians who forgot that they're Russians, so we have to either reeducate them or we have to subjugate them and use a whole set of repressions so that we remind them in a very violent and brutal way that, in fact, they are Russians." So in this sense, humor is a way for Ukrainians to reestablish that agency and to show, "No, actually we are a separate nation. We have a separate identity. We do not want to have anything to do with Russia. We are not Russians."

Kim Hjelmgaard:

So a big part of Ukraine's political landscape for the past couple of years has been devoted to fundraising for the war effort. The EU, the US, and others have sent billions since the war began. That funding is now stalled. How are President Zelensky and others in Ukraine using humor to win hearts and minds overseas?

Olga Tokariuk:

Yeah, humor is a very good way to just let people know about who Ukrainians are and what Ukraine is, and let the people know in a positive way. It's a way to introduce Ukraine and Ukrainians to international audiences, and also to portray Ukraine as a part of the Western world. So in a way, humor has been really helpful because Ukrainians used it a lot to produce memes based on Western popular culture, to refer to movies and memes that were already familiar to people in the West. So in this way, humor helps to show to audiences in the West that Ukraine is the part of the West, that Ukraine shares the same cultural cause, that Ukraine shares the same democratic values, and, well, potentially that could be helpful in maintaining that support to Ukraine, also in financial terms.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Given the current situation with the war, are people, is Zelensky and others in Ukraine still using humor?

Olga Tokariuk:

Well, the use of gallows humor has been quite popular. In a situation involving tragedy, people sometimes make jokes that would seem not very appropriate or relevant in a peaceful context. Obviously in a situation of war, it is very different and sometimes these jokes are on the borderline and might be a bit controversial, might not be understandable by the outside audience. But yes, they do use jokes and President Zelensky sometimes uses humor during his press conferences inside Ukraine and abroad. He has a background as a comedian, and that shows. There is a fine line to walk, that humor does not eclipse the gravity of the situation to ensure that it does not eclipse how dire the situation really is.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Thank you, Olga. Dark humor during wartime is nothing new. Can you tell us a little bit about the background or the legacy of war humor in Ukraine and what the precedent is for this?

Olga Tokariuk:

Ukraine's history has seen a lot of dark periods, a lot of dark times. Ukraine has been divided among different empires, then in the Soviet times. Ukraine survived artificial famine repressions, but during all these times, Ukrainians still didn't stop to use humor, and that was a coping strategy that helped them to go through many periods of history in the past. And since Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in 2014, 10 years ago, with the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russian aggression in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukrainians have been using humor very extensively since then to make fun of Russian disinformation in many respects, and to make fun of Russian propaganda to ridicule Russian narratives and to, in this way, also fight fear from having such a powerful neighbor as an enemy that is being aggressive, that is trying to destroy Ukraine.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

I want to ask you about demoralizing the enemy. What's been the impact of Ukraine's humor on Russians? Has it hurt their pride? Has it wounded their pride in some way?

Olga Tokariuk:

Well, a common feature of many authoritarian regimes, such as Russian, is that their leaders do not usually have a sense of humor. And therefore, when they are exposed to humor, to ridiculing, that does hurt their pride, that does question their power, that does question their international standing. So I think in this respect, Ukrainians have been pretty successful, not much with using humor for the internal audience, because as I said, people in Ukraine are not really scared of Russia. They are not afraid of Putin or his regime, but many people in the West are so somehow questioning the strength of Russia, the power of Putin's regime by using humor, I think, has been really helpful in overcoming this fear among Ukraine's lives in other countries.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

There's obviously nothing funny about war. Russia's invasion has resulted in over 10,000 civilian deaths and billions and damages, and yet dark humor about the war has found its way into comedy clubs. How is it that Ukrainians are able to laugh about something that for many of us would produce tears?

Olga Tokariuk:

Well, the answer may be in Ukraine's tumultuous history. That Ukrainians have survived so many attempts of exterminating them, artificial famines, repressions. Humor is a part of life, so when terrible events are happening, you are crying, but you can also laugh. People want to stress and to show Russians that, "No, you want to kill us, you want to wipe out Ukraine off the map, but we will persevere." So humor is just a powerful manifestation of this desire to continue living in the dire circumstances and desire to survive.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

We're coming up on the 2-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. All kidding aside, it very much looks like there is no end in sight. Ukrainians have shown remarkable resiliency in the face of this war, but where does the use of humor go from here?

Olga Tokariuk:

Well, I'm sure Ukrainians will continue using humor and it might just become more dark if the situation deteriorates. Actually, just a few days ago, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, when he was asked about what Ukrainians will do if the US support will not be renewed, if the new package of military aid will not be approved by the US Congress, he said that Ukrainians will continue fighting, but if they don't have access to Western weapons, they will continue fighting with shovels, with whatever they have at hand. So I think that was a joke, a bitter joke. That's the reality. And he actually, with this joke, expressed the sentiment that is still prevailing in Ukraine. There is no belief that some sort of a ceasefire, which is not based on Russia being taken into account for its war crimes, will be sustainable.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Thank you for being on the excerpt, Olga.

Olga Tokariuk:

Thank you.

Kim Hjelmgaard:

Thanks to our senior producer Shannon Rae Green for her production assistance. Our executive producer is Laura Beatty. Let us know what you think of this episode by sending a note to Podcasts at usatoday.com. Thanks for listening. I'm Kim Hjelmgaard. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with another episode of The Excerpt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Excerpt podcast: Humor aids in unity, resilience in Ukraine