On this April Fools’ Day, a Russian dictator is waging war on a Ukrainian comedian. The incongruity of that European tragedy is hard to fathom. Even as Volodymyr Zelensky resists Vladimir Putin’s assault on the battlefield, Americans are watching his comedy, “Servant of the People,” on Netflix.
Several factors have thwarted Russia's plan for quick victory, but one of them is surely the witty spirit of the Ukrainian people. Amid the images of Putin's atrocities, we've all seen evidence of the Ukrainians' adamantine humor. Millions have watched YouTube videos of Ukrainian farmers taking joyrides on abandoned Russian military equipment. Valeria Shashenok attracted more than 1 million followers to her TikTok page where she laughed in the face of the deprivations of war. (Shashenok is now a refugee in Italy; on Thursday she reported that her brother had been killed in Ukraine.)
King Lear appreciates his Fool, but in real life, dictators are notoriously allergic to comedy. Soviet comrades were routinely sent to the Gulag for telling political jokes. Even 65 years after the old mass murderer's demise, the Kremlin banned Armando Iannucci's film "The Death of Stalin." In 2013, the leader of one of Serbia's pro-democracy groups wrote in Foreign Policy, "Laughter and fun are no longer marginal to a movement's strategy; they now serve as a central part of the activist arsenal, imbuing the opposition with an aura of cool, helping to break the culture of fear instilled by the regime, and provoking the regime into reactions that undercut its legitimacy."
For instance, in 2017, Russia made it illegal to portray Putin as a gay clown. It takes a special kind of political fragility to think that's a wise legislative move.
Rob Sears is the British author of a funny parody called "Vladimir Putin: Life Coach." (Chapter 1: "How to Win Friends and Influence Elections.") Although George Orwell claimed that "every joke is a tiny revolution," Sears warns against overstating the tactical efficacy of wit. "It's hard to prove that political humor accomplishes much of anything," he tells me, "but a world without any would surely be a worse place. It would be that bit harder to puncture (even if temporarily) a tyrant's self-mythologizing, and that bit lonelier to be one of their opponents."
Jill Twark, a professor of German at East Carolina University who studies humor and tyranny, agrees on the limited but essential value of satire. "It boosts the morale of people who are suffering from oppression," she says, but "it does not change the course of history."
Comedy, though, has a special place in Ukrainians' hearts. Ilya Kaminsky, the award-winning poet of "Deaf Republic" - one of The Washington Post's 10 best collections of 2019 - was born in Odessa. He has fond memories of Humorina, the city's immensely popular holiday of humor on April 1. Kaminsky, who now lives in the United States, explains that Humorina is adjacent to our April Fools' Day, but different. In Odessa "it is a day of kind humor," he tells me. "When I was growing up, the slogan for it used to be 'Humor and kindness will save the world.'"
Kaminsky was born just a few years before Leonid Brezhnev died, and he can remember his parents reciting funny stories to each other in the old Soviet Union. “There was a kind of resistance in that,” he says. “It was a step outside of the normative - a language two humans spoke to each other, a joke being the bit of free space, a gulp of air, a laugh.”