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Ukrainian meme forces: what makes us laugh in the times of Russia’s invasion

It may feel strange to have memes during the war, but in 2022, they are such an integral part of communication, that even a full-scale Russian invasion could not change that. They help shape and share important narratives about the events, boost morale, and reflect upon the new reality and experiences that Ukrainians share. So here are some of the most viral war memes and where they came from.

One of the most popular comedy tropes is subverted expectations: the joke occurs when the outcome does not really match the setup.

For years, the Russian Federation has been presenting its army as the second strongest in the world and threatened a lot of countries with its military power. At the beginning of the invasion, Russian forces planned to take over Kyiv within days. But the reality proved to be rather different. 

Russian troops were under-equipped; they lacked supplies and showed low morale. And that’s what the “chmonya” meme represents (“chmonya” means a looser or a schmuck but in a milder, diminutive way). This photo of a soldier was taken after he surrendered to the Ukrainian military — and he does not look threatening, but much rather awkward. 

A photo of a Russian prisoner who became a meme of the Russian military among Ukrainians.
This trend with the old Ukrainian song “Do not stand under the window, do not look upset” flooded TikTok.

Logistical problems of the Russian army also led to one of the biggest war memes — the tractors. Some Russian tanks that managed to get deep into the country ran out of gas soon and often were just abandoned by the soldiers. Ukrainians used their tractors to tow those vehicles away. And that’s how the “second strongest army in the world” basically lost their tanks to farmers.

You may have heard about Chornobayivka — a village in the south of Ukraine and an unfortunate place for a Russian soldier to be. On February 27th, Russian forces took over the airport nearby. It was used to store helicopters and other military equipment — and later that day, The Armed Forces of Ukraine targeted their positions with Bayraktar combat drones. The village became well-known then, but it turned into a war meme later — as the situation repeated over and over again.

The Ukrainian army successfully hit Russian forces at the airport more than a dozen times. Chornobayivka received its fair share of jokes about the “Groundhog Day” movie and The Bermuda Triangle for Russian troops.

Another thing that appears quite a lot in Ukrainian memes nowadays is a washing machine. It refers to the surprising scale of looting: multiple reports state that Russian troops steal not only money or jewellery but also, clothes, rugs, instruments, tableware, kettles, washing machines, and other home appliances.

Footage from the postal service in Belarus revealed they were sending hundreds of kilograms of stolen goods to their homes in Russia. When soldiers that came here to “save and liberate” feel the need to loot a toaster or a scooter — Ukrainians find it just a bit ironic.

Russian propaganda constantly provides enough material for a wide variety of memes and jokes. From the beginning of a full-scale war, Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have been using the term “special military operation” and basically banned words like “war” or “invasion” from the media. Such love for the euphemisms was not left unnoticed — and that’s where jokes like “special economical operation” (meaning sanctions) or “Moskva” strategic relocation underwater” (meaning sinking) come from.

Russian officials and state-controlled media also often share statements that don’t add up or contradict each other. Аnd memes are rather good at pinpointing those issues.

For example, there are many more than one excuse for why Russia was “forced” to attack Ukraine. That includes accusations of illegal chemical and biological weapons that supposedly had been in development in Ukrainian labs and claims about migratory birds being used as super-spreaders. Ukrainians responded with refutation — and numerous pictures and videos of “specially trained fight geese.” 

The absurd attempts to justify invasion came not just from Russian politicians but also Aleksander Lukashenko, self-proclaimed President of Belarus. At the meeting with Vladimir Putin on March 11th, he pulled up a map and said the following: “And now I will show you where they were preparing an attack on Belarus from. And if 6 hours before this operation a preventative strike had not been executed (…) then they would have attacked the Belarusian and Russian troops that were in training”.

The clip quickly became popular among TikTok users. It was added to many unexpected scenes, such as the famous moment from “The Shining” movie. Later, this meme evolved to be something similar to the “Never Gonna Give You Up” song by Rick Astley — you never know when and where you will stumble across “And now I will show you …” once again.

However, memes don’t always have some negative connotation — they can express appreciation too. Vitalii Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region, and Oleksii Arestovych, advisor to the Head of the President’s Office, are rather popular in that context.

A meme with the participation of Vitalii Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region who, during the war, impressed Ukrainians with the calmness, optimism, and balance

But most of all, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has had extremely high support rates since the beginning of the Russian invasion, and memes indeed reflect that. 

Often, memes are used to praise the bravery and devotion of Ukrainian soldiers and (extra)ordinary people in this war. And to spread around some unbelievable stories — like the one about a woman in Kyiv that successfully targeted a drone outside her window with a jar of pickles. It may sound made up, but Ukrainian journalists found her. And the only part that turned out to be fake was the pickles — as it actually was a jar of tomatoes.

And there are many more. Man, who removed an anti-tank mine with his bare hands while still smoking a cigarette. The woman offered a Russian soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pockets so that flowers would grow after his death on Ukrainian land. Ukrainian troops on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island did not surrender and responded, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” instead. All those stories became viral and inspired lots of beautiful art pieces as well as wholesome memes. 

All the memes published in this article have become folk art. The authors could not be identified.

Veronika Lutska, journalist