ZOiS Spotlight 2/2023

Ukraine: Humour as a Weapon of War

by Orest Semotiuk 25/01/2023

Since the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, memes and cartoons have become an integral part of the media discourse. Using humour and satire, they not only comment on the progress of the war but also convey values and ideological principles, making them a unique contemporary record of the unfolding events.

Olexij Kustovsky

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

As the brilliant Polish aphorist and poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec once said: 'If someone has no sense of humour, they should at least have enough sense to recognise that they don’t.'

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 proves that the Ukrainians do have a sense of humour. Despite the suffering inflicted on them by the war, they started poking fun at the invaders almost immediately and are still doing so. This is most apparent in the numerous cartoons and memes which began to appear in Ukrainian newspapers and magazines and on the Internet within days of the invasion and have been published every day since then.

When we laugh at a cartoon or meme, we express our own attitude towards the individuals or events that it portrays. According to one theory of humour, it makes us feel superior to see the people we are mocking revealed as witless, immoral or incompetent. The less we identify with them, the greater our feeling of superiority. At a time of hybrid wars, humour has become a powerful weapon, wielded in a masterly fashion by Ukrainian and international cartoonists alike.

Modern wars: two dimensions

Modern wars differ from traditional forms of warfare in that they do not only involve the use of conventional arms and regular troops. In the 21st century, values, ideology, culture, symbols, media and humour are also weapons of war. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, is classed as a hybrid war. With the Russian invasion, Ukraine has become not only a European battleground but also the number one topic in the world media.

Every military conflict has a real-world and a media/cultural (discursive) dimension. These two dimensions are intertwined. Recently, conflict researchers have begun to take an interest not only in hard political issues but also in soft/smart power, i.e. the culture, identity and values that play an important role as the war unfolds and provide a semiotic context that crucially influences the political sphere. One example is the concept of the Russkiy mir ('Russian world'), first invoked publicly by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 and symbolising an ideology of Russian cultural totality, which holds that the Russian sphere of influence includes all areas in which there is a Russian presence. The concept is of key significance in Russia’s current neo-imperialistic foreign policy.

Meme #1

The rapid development of social media in recent years has led to the emergence of new forms of media culture, political humour and social engagement which increasingly bring these 'soft power' topics to the fore. The cultural dimension of Russia’s war against Ukraine is conveyed, primarily by the Ukrainian side, in numerous cartoons and memes. Meme #1 is a visual narrative. It alludes to the Russian incursions into Georgia, Syria and Ukraine and their brutal consequences and deploys the visual metaphor of Russia as the figure of Death. The lower of the two images forming this meme shows the horrified face of Death itself when confronted with armed resistance by Ukrainian troops in the current war.

Meme #2

Meme #2 consists of two elements: one non-verbal (the contours of Ukraine and Russia) and one verbal (the heading 'No Fear'). It uses contrast as a humorous technique by massively distorting the proportions of the two countries’ land areas in an allusion to the story of David and Goliath. The combination of non-verbal and verbal elements enhances the meme’s satirical effect.

Political humour vs. political satire

As humour is by definition based on incongruence and tension between contrasting elements and serves as a form of criticism, political humour may be defined as a communicative device which detects, highlights and challenges incongruities in political action and discourse. Cartoon #1 shows an attack on a fortress (= the EU). In the foreground, we see a smaller tower with Cossacks (= Ukraine) defending the fortress. The message is clear: in the fight against Russian aggression, Ukraine is defending not only itself but the whole of Europe. At the same time, the author is criticising the role of the EU as an external observer of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Cartoon #1 Olexij Kustovsky

Political satire as a form of political discourse questions the existing political or social order, generally by contrasting the existing imperfect reality with visions of how things could or should be. This criticism relies on the three elements of political satire: target, focus and presentation. Together, these elements govern the full array of political satire, which challenges the political order and authority in a manner ranging from supportive to subversive. The target means the person, institution or country depicted in the cartoon. The focus is the specific aspect of socio-political reality that the cartoon seeks to highlight and criticise. And presentation describes the verbal and non-verbal techniques (text, visual metaphors, animals or national symbols) that convey the message concealed within the cartoon.

Cartoon #2 Viktor Holub

Cartoon #2 shows a gleeful Russian soldier (target) about to bite into a slice of watermelon. The non-verbal elements – the watermelon as a symbol of Kherson, Eastern Europe’s largest growing area, the letter 'Z' as the symbol of the Russian army, and the Russian soldier’s broken teeth and pained expression (presentation) – correlate with the focus (liberation of Kherson) and convey the message that by taking on Kherson, Russia has bitten off more than it can chew.

Political humour in Russia’s war against Ukraine is effective at both national and international level. At the international level, political humour is mostly supportive but sometimes subversive in Ukraine’s favour. At the national level, political humour is an appeal to the world community to recognise the lawfulness of Ukrainian resistance and to continue the joint campaign for a civilised and democratic future in Europe and the world.

At a time of war, political humour is particularly significant. It manifests and defends values, culture and identity, attacks the enemy and draws a dividing line between 'us' and 'them', between democracy and terrorism. Humour in war gives people who are defending their country a feeling of power and confidence. At the same time, political cartoons and memes are a unique contemporary record that bears wordless witness, now and in future, to the Ukrainian people’s fight against the aggressor and the worldwide support for Ukraine.

Dr Orest Semotiuk is a postdoctoral researcher in the New Media Department at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and a media expert at Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy (Kyiv). His monograph 'The Russian-Ukrainian War in Political Cartoons: Mediatisation of Modern Military Conflicts' was published in 2021.

Vitaly Chmyriov