Can We Laugh? On the Ground With Ukrainian Artists

Across the country, actors, comedians and poets are using humor to confront wartime emotions

Can We Laugh? On the Ground With Ukrainian Artists
Actors at the workshop in the Jam Factory Art Center in Lviv, Ukraine, in August 2023. (Bohdan Yemets)

It was July in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, and the happy crowds gathering in the historic quarter were busy finding ice cream and taking selfies in the sun. In a tiny cafe on Cathedral Square, I sat down with the poet Ostap Slyvynsky to talk about war and laughter, and if the two can ever truly coexist.

“We used to laugh so much in the first months of the full-scale war!” he told me over coffee on ice. “Just recently, when we tried to recall what exactly was so funny, we realized we barely remember the jokes. They were all absurd. Dark. The more absurd, the better.”

A few months into Russia’s invasion, Slyvynsky traveled to Kharkiv to see friends. Located just 25 miles from the Russian border, with constant air-raid alarms and shelling, the city had shifted into a new wartime normal that was hardly comparable to relatively peaceful Lviv, where the poet has always lived and worked. Being in Kharkiv was dangerous, and the incessant stress was exhausting. A substantial part of the region was occupied, and after mass atrocities were revealed around the capital of Kyiv, notably in Bucha and Irpin, locals had no illusions about how things could turn out.

But the deadpan pragmatism and the ghoulish jokes this stress bore were liberating. The macabre helped people acknowledge the madness without being crushed under its weight. All this left little space for pondering a future that felt beyond reach.

Slyvynsky recalled teasing friends about what possible new business opportunities the war might provide. He and the novelist Victoria Amelina, who was in town to launch her newest children’s book, would joke about how few children were left in Kharkiv — perhaps those who remained could accompany adults or show up in a crowd when needed, for a fee. The joke gained another grim layer knowing that Amelina was killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk a year later.

Artists are in a complicated position across Ukraine, where the appetite for readings, stand-up comedy and theater has become enormous as people release tension and try to process what is happening to them. But there is often violence in the catharsis, and the line between humor that hurts and that which heals is often blurred. Many creatives find themselves on shaky new ground as they balance artistic freedom with creating entertainment that poses new ethical dilemmas in a country overloaded with gore and destruction.

“Black humor helps release aggression [and] reduce emotional tension in a socially acceptable form,” said Orest Semotiuk, a psychologist who heads a research project on Ukrainian political cartoons and memes at the National Academy of Sciences in Poland. To share a laugh creates a bond that is at least partly visceral — people never have full control over what they find funny. To crack a joke is to extend an invitation, to send out a feeler. Semotiuk described such humor, in extreme conditions, as a form of medicine.

But such remedies do not necessarily last long. Soon after Russia’s February 2022 invasion, people’s jokes were already beginning to fade and slip away, together with the altered state of mind.

“In the local stand-up scene, the best jokes were gone by the end of spring,” a historian and Lviv local who gave only his first name, Zhenya, remembered. When I asked what he meant by “good,” he replied, “Gore. No shame. Lots of corpses. But that isn’t funny after a while. It becomes gruesome. And people probably realized that the war is here for good.”

The chimerical nature of humor had been on Slyvynsky’s mind long before Russia launched its invasion. As a lecturer teaching modern literature in Lviv, he had confronted the incomprehensibility of humor produced in contexts of extreme violence. With his students, they read Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” short stories based on the author’s experience as a political prisoner in Auschwitz. They found it was easy to recognize jokes in the text, but instead of laughing, they mostly felt perplexed. It was equally disorienting to encounter some of the humor about the siege of Sarajevo in the works of Bosnian writer Miljenko Jergovic. “There is always a hint of uncertainty — was this a joke? Are we meant to laugh?” Slyvynsky said.

When we joke, we always take risks, we experiment. A failed joke brings about a particular kind of loneliness. It is an exposure of being out of sync, out of context, out of touch. It might be an intrusion, a crossed red line, or not getting the point, being locked out. Either way, the awkwardness, anger or bafflement that lingers afterward speaks of transgressions, of distances not bridged, whether in space, time or position. Likewise, encountering jokes from another place or time often underscores our distance. Communities of laughter reveal a lot about borders and hierarchies.

In August last year, scriptwriter Lyuba Ilnytska and theater director Roza Sarkisian organized a weeklong performance laboratory for around 20 actors and theater-makers in Lviv’s Jam Factory Art Center. The event, called “Theater of Pain and [Word Removed as Potential Trigger],” brought people together from across Ukraine to think about how theater-makers could work with pain and trauma in a society that is facing war and mass displacement. They decided to feature a comedic trigger warning in the title, fearing that pairing pain and comedy could come across as disrespectful.

But some participants felt it didn’t work. “This is just like an empty billboard saying ‘Your advert could be here,’” said Mykhaylo, a local actor who, like all workshop participants, gave only his first name.

Both Ilnytska and Sarkisian prefer to work without a fixed script or choreography. They leave plenty of space for the nonverbal dimension of acting. They are quick to assert that this work is not therapy. “We have neither the tools nor the training,” Sarkisian told me on the workshop’s first day. “Working with feelings can bring relief, but we are here to think about making art.” Healing is not the point, even when the artistic process might enable it.

Participants included students from western Ukraine who had returned from abroad, a scriptwriter from Mykolaiv (a city that has been near the front line), a performer from Kharkiv, a young man from the front and a woman who had been displaced when hostilities with Russia first began in 2014.

The atmosphere was amicable, and their differences were never foregrounded, but over the course of the week it was obvious that their pain, triggers, jokes and politics varied. Working through these complex tangles had to involve, if not reconciliation, then at least a pragmatic openness. When addressing the group, Ilnytska quoted the early 20th-century Ukrainian avant-garde theater director Les Kurbas: “Today’s theater ought to be like tomorrow’s society.”

Participants were asked to write 10 sentences describing what they were ashamed of. They stood up one by one, reading from their notepads or phones:

“I am ashamed of the relief that comes at the end of an air alarm, knowing someplace else was hit.”

“Not hating every single Russian person. I could have been born [across the border in Russia] in Belgorod.”

“I left my husband [and] flirted with soldiers.”

“I want to do theater unconnected to the war.”

“I am fat. Single. I am smarter and richer than my family members.”


They were then given prompts to improvise, based on their confessions. Some were funny. Oksana, a feminist activist who had organized community theater with women displaced from Donbas, talked about her shame over poverty. She was asked to stage a TV commercial offering viewers an exclusive deal on financial hardship. Pretending she was a refugee, she put on a forced laugh: “Before, I always worried about the future. Now, having no home, husband or future, I freely float in the present. I live in the moment, picking from aid!” She then changed her outfit, morphing into a clapping host with a sugary smile before becoming an expert who explained her cutting-edge findings: Wanting stuff locks you in a dopamine addiction, and poverty is actually much closer to our evolutionary needs. “It can be yours — just call us now,” Oksana concluded.

Polina, a dancer, was asked to perform a piece of pantomime about the relationship between theater and time, reflecting on her fears that her work has no validity during wartime. Mykhaylo rapped about patriarchy and a man enamored of his own penis; soon, the other participants started to clap and whistle along with him. Later, they discussed the complicity of enjoying something you find vulgar and obscene. A person named Jackey reenacted the rush of guilt about leaving Lviv at the beginning of the war. Laughter animated the hall throughout the series, interrupted by short reflections.

Sarkisian and Ilnytska asked questions of the group after each session: How did this song make us feel? What would change if we reversed gender roles?

When Artem, a veteran soldier, was asked to reflect on who can speak about the war credibly, he sat on a beanbag and said he didn’t have much faith in projects where firsthand experience of combat is missing. Nobody challenged this.

The participants were practicing something that all of society grapples with: Their examples of shame were indicative of the hierarchies that have emerged in Ukraine that inform who can say what and whose pain should be acknowledged — at least in public. Any encounter involves a tacit calculus, guesswork about what the other is likely to have lived through, based on where they are from, when they left, what age or gender they are. The result is an elaborate mix of care, tiptoeing and silences. In the workshop space, theater-makers find the tools to tackle this head-on, to make space for the perceived lesser pains without denying the weight their differences carry. Everyday life is infused with similar encounters, but often no space or willingness for reckoning.

In early October, I visited a stand-up performance by two comedians from Ukraine, delivered in Ukrainian to Berlin’s now-numerous Ukrainian diaspora to fundraise for the army and humanitarian organizations. The event was held in a small, crowded bar near Schlesisches Tor metro station, a former workers’ district that has grown into a busy nightlife hub.

The place was crammed, and as people squeezed together comedian Serhiy Stepanenko fired out a few questions to get a feel for his audience. The crowd was mostly young and sipped on cocktails ranging from pornstar martinis to concoctions called “Ukrainian Sunset” and “Zelenskyy.” Stepanenko riffed about school lessons that made it feel like Ukrainian was a language for nation-building and martyrdom. His colleague Anna Kochehura followed with sketches about women being drunk together in public toilets and the absurdities of working in wartime. “It’s great to have war in the time of advanced tech,” she told the audience. “It’s like ordering a take-away: ‘Your rocket is estimated to arrive in 15 minutes.’ Might as well take a shower. Oh, no, a delay! Aren’t rockets so unreliable these days?”

The crowd giggled along and the two hours passed without tension. The audience’s laughter was cordial, and everything felt cozy if slightly lukewarm.

The comedy night stayed clear of jokes that could divide the audience. Hierarchies of suffering, men leaving the country, some Ukrainians holding on to speaking Russian — nothing potentially divisive was addressed. Instead, the message was simple: We are all in this together.

Thinking back on a year of intense conversations and listening to strangers, Slyvynsky suggested that jokes make one look at what would otherwise be ignored. Humor is a Trojan horse that smuggles in the stuff that will need serious debates and solutions.

“People can laugh at jokes when they are ready to at least acknowledge the existence of the problem thematized in a joke. When they aren’t, a joke can be traumatic,” he said. When it is not yours to acknowledge, you might feel awkward or stupid, he added.

All the same, jokes are often the only way to break the monotony of tragedy. “You laugh, you yell, it gives you freedom,” Sarkisian said. “It is queer, you can’t control it, cannot define it, no binaries. For me, laughter is queer. And Ukraine is queer too.”

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy