The mood is dark, and so are the jokes, which may explain Ukrainians’ apparent sense of calmness in the face of the neighboring Russian bear lining up at the border.
U.S. military advisers, Ukrainian oligarchs and the Russian embassy have left or are packing to leave Ukraine, as the fear of war spreads. Yet I don't know a single person personally, not even a distant acquaintance, who would seriously consider leaving the country right now.
From regular phone calls with my family and friends, daily life back home in Kyiv is utterly normal: People go to work or school, restaurants are packed, Valentine's Day chocolate was exchanged … and Ukrainian bloggers can’t stop cracking jokes.
Indeed, the subtle turning up of the dial on all things humorous in Ukraine may be the only (paradoxical) sign that a big war may be brewing in our midst. The comic approach to all things politics shouldn’t come as a surprise in a country that elected a professional comedian as president.
The stakes of a punchline
The stakes of each punchline rise with every Russian tank that rolls toward the border. Here are a few from popular Ukrainian blogger Martin Brest in a simulated newscast:
Ukrainians: Yes, it's a day of love ... Eurovision... Oh! Invasion!
Ukrainian media: According to new information, Russia's invasion will take place on February 16.
Ukrainians: What? Postponed again? Can we please have the complete invasion schedule for 2022?
Russian Ministry of Defense: The military exercise "Allied Resolve 2022" is going off with flying colors. All kinds of invasion options are being practiced...
Ukrainians have been living day and night for years with that big neighborhood bear
Armed Forces of Ukraine: (watching Russian tanks sinking in the mud): Are they practicing funerals too? Careful!
USA: We recommend American citizens leave Ukraine.
Ukrainian media: A’ha! Americans evacuate!
Oligarchs: Fuel up the jets and race to the airport.
Ukrainians: Wait! Where are you running to, we thought it was only for foreign embassies!? The bell is not for students, the bell is for the teacher!
Ukrainians pose with a placard that reads ''Unity'' in the center of Kyiv, amid threats of Russian invasion.
Keeping it light in Kyiv
Both the comedy and continuation of everyday life in Ukraine contrasts with the mood spreading elsewhere, from Washington and across virtually all the Western media: keeping track of every Russian troop movement, predicting exact dates of attacks, forecasting the likely outcome of the invasion that is all but certain. Yet, thanks to that Washington finally and obviously overplayed Moscow on the propaganda frontline: now the voice of Russia in the media can hardly be heard outside the country.
What explains the apparent levity in Kyiv? Well, to start, Ukrainians have been living day and night for years with that big neighborhood bear that keeps growling and threatening to step over the line. And in this situation, the more scared you are, the louder he growls.
You can never truly defeat a man who is not scared
Humor and calm is also a form of humility. A country of 40 million, unlike the separately taken very rich oligarchs, cannot afford to load their gold and diamonds into their trunks and fly away to warm islands. As my friends who moved from the Donbas region after fighting erupted with pro-Russian forces say, "We had to flee Donbas, but in Kyiv we will defend ourselves.”
Mock the alarmists
Humor is an important part of traditional Ukrainian military strategy. In Ilya Repin's famous painting of Kozaks writing a letter to the Turkish sultan, Ukrainian warriors in the face of another devastating attack by the Ottoman Empire compose insulting jokes about the attacker. Not because it would help them winning, but because you can never truly defeat a man who is not scared.
In war movies in every country, characters sometimes behave like Ukrainians today: on the eve of disaster, they deny the worst, make plans for the future, sneer, philosophize, and mock the alarmists.
The situation obliges us to remain true to the genre. Perhaps if Russia or Putin had arrived yesterday out of nowhere, it would be very scary indeed. But we've been watching this bad joke for far too long.