About the Author: Patrick Norén, Research Fellow at MCERC. Born and raised in Watford, UK, but of both British and Swedish descent, Patrick Norén is a master's student of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Patrick has already completed “Georgian language course” in Leiden at the end of 2021 and is now engaged in solidarity journalism activities within the project “Media Voice” at MCERC. Patrick Noren’s research interests include the intersection of contemporary post-Soviet politics and culture, the manipulation of identity for political purposes, and information and disinformation. He is writing his MA thesis on music revivalism and restorative nostalgia in post-Euromaidan Ukrainian popular music, and, to varying degrees, can speak eight languages.
Recently I discussed the importance of humour for Ukrainians coping with the reality of war, concluding that it can be a very powerful vehicle of social cohesion and fortitude that really can give an army the edge over the enemy, even when the odds are stacked against them. I looked at how previous research on using humour as a coping mechanism to deal with serious illness - namely cancer - reveals that humour ‘can act as a considerable morale booster and enabler of solidarity among a marginalised or vulnerable group facing an existential threat’ (Norén, 2022), providing a host of psychological benefits including encouraging conversation, tackling taboos, stress relief, and empowerment by giving those with cancer a sense of control over their illness.
Humour is helping Ukraine beat back the Russians
I noted some examples from World War II of when an army with superior morale defeated the Nazis, despite being ‘outnumbered, ill-equipped, or even outmaneuvered’ (Pope, 1941), thereby building a foundation to compare the levels of morale among the Russians and Ukrainians in 2022. By all accounts the level of Russian morale appears to be dire, whereas Ukrainian morale has remained high, producing no shortage of homegrown comedic ammunition, in part taking inspiration from their comedian-turned-politician President, and being supported by similarly humorous interventions from allies abroad.
I will not rehash the above arguments in great length, but instead take a closer look at particular examples of humour from the 2022 war and analyse them through an academic lense in order to better understand why exactly we - although perhaps not patriotic Russians - broadly find these examples funny. Why are tractors towing away Russian tanks, soldiers getting stuck in lifts, and foreign capitals irritating embassies, funny? What exactly is it within these examples that triggers the all-important morale-boosting mirth? At this point I will turn to the words of the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, E.B. White, who when discussing the process of finding out why we find certain things funny, cautioned, ‘Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind’ (White & White, 1941: xvii). If you identify with the latter demographic, I would encourage you to read on.
Four theories behind the laughter
There have indeed been many theories of humour proposed over the years. The most commonly cited are the Superiority Theory, which argues that ‘laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves’; the Relief Theory, which argues that ‘laughter does in the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does in a steam boiler’, allowing us to release psychological tension so that we can better overcome our anxieties and inhibitions; and the Incongruity Theory, which argues that humour occurs when there is something incongruous, or something that violates our mental patterns and expectations (Morreall, 2020). This theory is, according to Morreall, the ‘dominant theory’ of humour in philosophy and psychology. A fourth theory, the Benign Violation Theory, can, I believe, in certain examples from the Russia-Ukraine war, account for all three of the above schools of thought and thereby advance a baseline explanation for why we find the very wide range of humour from the war equally amusing, and in turn serve the vitally important morale-boosting function that it does for the Ukrainians and their allies.
The Benign Violation Theory states that ‘three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humour: a situation must be appraised as a violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously’ (McGraw & Warren, 2010: 1142). Something can be made funny by taking a violation and making it benign, or by taking something benign and violating it. For example, somebody being in a clean bill of health is benign. Somebody falling down the stairs and being seriously injured is a violation of moral or social norms. If somebody were to fall down the stairs and be absolutely fine, a benign violation has occurred and we therefore find it funny. Similarly, puns and double-entendres are benign violations insofar as they take often benign, everyday situations and violate them by exploiting linguistic ambiguities; or, alternatively, taking extraordinary situations considered as violations and making them benign by exploiting the same ambiguity. Turning to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, a great deal of humorous content has been produced which can be explained by the Benign Violation Theory in tandem with other previously advanced theories of humour. Although humour is of course a markedly individual trait, I would broadly argue that the greater the number of theories which the example satisfies, the funnier the example is.
Episode I: The Phantom Tractor
Firstly, I will turn to perhaps the funniest set of content to have emerged from the war, that being the seemingly endless stream of Russian tanks being towed away by Ukrainian tractors. This is, first and foremost, a benign violation because it takes a Russian tank - a violation of moral and social norms insofar as it had been used to inflict terrible suffering on a peaceful population - and makes it completely benign, mocking, emasculating, and infantilising not only the tank, but the country which the tank and its crew represented. A tractor towing away any normal piece of farmyard equipment, or perhaps a car that had got stuck in some mud, would not satisfy the benign violation theory because cars or farmyard equipment would not be considered violations.
One of the most widely shared of such moments (Business Ukraine Magazine, 2022)
The image of the once almighty tank being banged to rights by a tractor on the other hand creates a psychological mismatch which not only satisfies the Benign Violation Theory, but also the Superiority, Relief, and Incongruity Theories. As I alluded to above, such situations demonstrate considerable Ukrainian superiority over the Russians, which, given the long Russian tradition of making demeaning jokes about Ukrainians (and hence trying to signify their own superiority), would be a particularly welcome role reversal providing Ukrainians and foreigners alike with much mirth.
Similarly, one could argue that this example also satisfies the Relief Theory because a tractor towing away a defunct Russian tank shows Ukrainians, and in a particularly unexpected way too, that they have one less tank to worry about. Finally, the third theory that the tractor-tank example satisfies is of course the Incongruity Theory because it is a situation that violates mental patterns or expectations. Much the same argument as above could be applied to a viral video of Ukrainians seizing a Russian tank and subsequently taking it on a joyride around a muddy field (McCallig, 2022). It is an expression of superiority, relief, incongruity, and a benign violation. Sticking with the theme of towing Russians away, another viral video of a Ukrainian man pulling over to ask some stranded Russians whether he could offer them a tow back to Russia was an example which even the Russian soldiers in question found funny, their laughter being audible off-camera (Liveuamap, 2022). They too seemingly saw the funny side in this benign violation when an ordinary Ukrainian civilian driving his car was in a superior position to Russian soldiers who had run out of fuel.
In time, however, all jokes eventually lose their potency if told enough times. What was once a benign violation ceases to become one as the joke, as it is constantly repeated, itself becomes increasingly benign. In order to then revive the joke, it must in some way be reimagined such that the message of the original is preserved but viewed in a different medium. This is precisely what happened with the following meme which, taking inspiration from the tractor-tank scenario, suggests that Russian warships may soon fall foul of the Ukrainian farmer.
Ukrainian Memes Forces, 2022
Episode II: Attack of the Elevator
Another priceless moment to have emerged from the early days of the war was when a small group of Russian soldiers, trying to occupy a residential building in the suburbs of Kyiv, tried to take the lift to the top of the building whereupon the building’s management simply turned the power to the lift off, trapping the soldiers inside and capturing the moment for posterity. This too, as I’m sure you can begin to work out, is also a benign violation that satisfies all three of the alternative theories of humour proposed, offering further evidence that such theories are not mutually exclusive but rather highly complementary. The violation in this case is the Russian soldiers, while the benign is people being trapped in a lift and not coming to any harm because of it. In this example, the violation has been made completely benign as it is Russian soldiers who have become trapped in the lift.
In the previously-mentioned words of McGraw and Warren, ‘both of these appraisals [have occurred] simultaneously’ and we therefore deem the situation to be humorous. Similarly, it also expresses Ukrainian superiority over the Russians as the former can remotely control the fate of the latter; it expresses relief as the threat of the soldiers has been at least temporarily neutralised; and is entirely incongruous to previously-held expectations. This is another benign violation that is an expression of emasculating mockery of the invading Russian forces and their apparent incompetence, thereby strengthening Ukrainian solidarity and morale by offering proof that these “idiots” can and will be defeated.
Visegrád 24, 2022
Episode III: Revenge of the Road Names
Looking towards internationally-produced humour in support of the Ukrainian cause, these examples also satisfy the benign violation theory but not always some of the others. Indeed, much of this humour has been directed at representatives of the Russian state abroad - that is to say, embassies - which are broadly outside of the control of the countries’ authorities in which those embassies are located. This therefore puts limits on the kind of humour that embassies can be subjected to, but does not make it entirely impossible.
As I mentioned in my piece for MCERC’s solidarity report, Vilnius, Riga, Oslo and Tirana have all changed the names of the roads where each city’s respective Russian embassy is located to some kind of pro-Ukrainian message, such as ‘Ukrainian Heroes’ Street’, or ‘Independent Ukraine Street’ (Norén 2022).
These examples are also benign violations as the violation - that is to say, representatives of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine abroad - fall foul of something otherwise completely normal - that is to say, a street name. These actions once again reclaim and exploit that which Russia is not in control of for humorous purposes in order to positively affect morale among Ukrainians by showing that the rest of the world is indeed fighting their corner, even if it is through only symbolic gestures which, at best, would irritate complicit Russians sitting in foreign embassies.
Laughing at the changing of street names is therefore also an expression of superiority, and potentially incongruity, but arguably not relief. While such a protest may well be a welcome boost to Ukrainian morale, it does little to affirm that the direct threat that Russians pose to Ukrainians inside Ukraine has diminished.
Similarly, while the projections of Ukrainian flags onto Russian embassies in London and Lisbon (Norén, 2022) would affirm superiority and cause incongruity, the actual risk to the lives of Ukrainians in Ukraine is not much reduced by this. By the same token, splashing Russian embassies with fake blood, as has happened in Prague, for example (Ukrinform, 2022), is largely not perceived to be funny as one violation (the Russian embassy) is encountering at least two other moral or social violations (blood and criminal damage).
What’s more, while the changing of street names is as permanent for as long as the relevant city authorities wish for it to be, the fake blood can be wiped off and the protesters prosecuted. One can therefore conclude that while foreign comedic intervention would be welcomed by Ukrainians as the expression of solidarity and morale boost that it is, Ukrainian humour that demonstrates superiority, provides relief from the Russian threat, and is incongruous to expectations, as well as being a benign violation, is likely to be the most effective form of comedic resilience for Ukrainians trapped in the middle of Putin’s war. To this end, I will now turn to what I believe is, and will be the most powerful and enduring piece of humour that the war has produced.
Episode IV: A New Insult
The now-infamous phrase uttered by Roman Hrybov on Snake Island on 24th February 2022, “Russian warship, go f*** yourself”, is an objectively funny rebuke that satisfies the Benign Violation, Superiority, Relief and Incongruity Theories. It is a benign violation because the violation of moral or social norms (the Russian warship) is insulted with a very crass, ordinary, and not particularly imaginative insult. Telling somebody to ‘go f*** themselves’ and little else is in fact fairly benign. But the fact that these two diametrically opposed concepts are brought together makes it amusing. As far as superiority is concerned, uttering such a statement in a moment of absolute peril is perhaps one of the strongest possible messages of defiance imaginable. From this message of defiance, and that it was said by a Ukrainian soldier, arguably comes at least a temporary relief from the fate that may befall the soldiers on Snake Island. Finally, not at all dissimilar to the Benign Violation Theory, an exchange consisting of a formal ultimatum of surrender from the Russians followed by a sharp, insulting, commonplace rebuke, also satisfies the Incongruity Theory.
Such a scientific discussion of this phrase does not, however, do justice to the enormous significance that these few words have now assumed. This phrase has become a unifying rallying cry not only for Ukrainians, replicated on billboards around the country (Oliphant, 2022; Peterson, 2022) and even on a new Ukrainian postage stamp (Michael, 2022), but also invoked in protests across the world. These have been accompanied by waves of deliberately crass language directed at Vladimir Putin, ranging from “Putin is a d***head” to the more coarse “f*** Putin”.
Humour, as an agent of solidarity, has therefore become weaponised. It would certainly appear that the worldwide outrage at Russia’s actions is so great that it resists even the most scathing summaries or withering assessments, resulting in people around the world adopting Hrybov’s words and bestowing them with a powerful new symbolism. The Russian phrase “иди н****” has taken on a whole new connotation. Any person who is now told to “go f*** themselves” in Russian - or, for that matter, even in English - will have to suffer the ignominy of being indirectly compared to the cruelty, cynicism, inhumanity, incompetence, and hubris of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine in 2022.
Ukrainian humour combined with global solidarity has given the Russian language’s most scathing insult an upgrade of generation-defining, nation-building, and identity-empowering proportions. If “Russian warship, go f*** yourself” can teach us anything, it is that humorous turns of phrase can come to embody an entire movement, ideology, or worldview. The fact that this phrase appeals to so many schools of humour, transcending boundaries which even at the best of times may divide people, makes it the extraordinarily powerful and unifying slogan that it is.
Humour is helping to heal
To conclude, however, I would like to offer a reality check. While humour can be a ‘mental morphine for wounded people’, according to Ukrainian comedian Serhii Lipko (Druziuk, 2022), no amount of appreciation and discussion of humour during Russia’s war on Ukraine should distract from the untold suffering that millions of Ukrainians are currently experiencing at the hands of Putin and his unfathomably barbaric war.
Nobody should try and pretend that a healthy dose of wit will be enough to beat the Russians back to the border, or to stop the rockets from killing civilians. But a bit of timely humour could help give Ukraine the edge in this war. ‘No matter how tight the joke is’, said Lipko in his daily live comedy stream That’s The News on 9th March, ‘it won’t stop the bleeding wound’, to which his co-host Nastia Dierskaya replied, ‘but what’s the tightest one you have?’ (ibid.). Humour cannot stop the blood from flowing, but can help to make the wound less painful.
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