Vox Populi: Ukrainian Character, Russian Folly

News subtitle

Determination, and good humor, are embedded in everyday Ukrainians.

Man waves Ukrainian flag near river in Kyiv.
A supporter of Ukraine signals his sentiments as he stands on the roof of a house overlooking the Dnipro River in Kyiv. (Photo by Anna Pasichnyk/Shutterstock)
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With the expansion of Russia’s war on Ukraine in February 2022, ordinary people in Ukraine and those who became refugees abroad not only volunteered and sacrificed to defend their country, but also opened new virtual fronts as chroniclers of their war experiences by reaching out to broader audiences on social platforms.

Almost immediately, the Ukrainian civilians’ optimism and determination to win, their sharp and full-of-positive-energy humor were recognized by the world press as a powerful weapon. Fighting by means of verbal and visual art, everyday Ukrainians are creating new narratives about themselves and forming their decolonized national identity as a renewed, cohesive, democratic society. 

A good sense of humor even in the worst of circumstances is a traditional feature of Ukrainian character. Internet textual representations of this phenomenon as part of Ukrainian moral resistance are numerous. Public networks help create a sense of community, support, and moral strength, articulate attitudes, and formulate new narratives.

The most well-pronounced samples of the wartime Ukrainian folklore are massively shared and reposted on individual, commercial, and institutional webpages. They quickly spread through social platforms, lose their authorship, if any, and enrich the treasury of Ukrainian digital folklore.

Among the most vivid examples is the following updated traditional proverb: “Ukrainians are invincible. When it’s bad, they cry, when it’s very bad, they sing, and when it’s very, very bad, they laugh. But they never give up.”

In the global arena, the Ukrainian language has become a trendsetter in the field of neologisms. For instance, the popular online Urban Dictionary records new words and phrases of the Russo-Ukrainian war, such as “to be Ukrained,” defined as “when you are Russia and you invade a country and the response is humiliation on a global forum.”

Existing words have taken on new meanings, as well, with “Russophobia” now meaning “the dislike of getting your country invaded by Russia.”

I had the opportunity to talk about Ukraine’s popular mobilization in cyberspace as a tool of social cohesion at a working summit in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, which included a second annual report card on Ukraine amidst the war.

The June 14 forum brought together government and key nongovernment representatives from Ukraine, Canada, the European Union, and the United States to take measure of Ukraine’s 2022-2023 progress and regress in six traditional categories associated with advanced polities: democratic governance, mature market economics, energy security, general security, social cohesion and an established yet forbearing national identity. In total, more than two dozen featured speakers addressed the conference proceedings.

Out of the six categories by which Ukraine’s achievements over the past year were assessed, the highest grade “A” was given to Ukrainian society—due to its high mobilization potential, social cohesion, and resilience as well as changes in national self-identification. In particular, as evidenced by the results of a survey conducted in Ukraine earlier this year, the absolute majority of respondents identify themselves as citizens of Ukraine (compared to 2021, the indicator increased from 76% to 94%). As for the evaluations of the actions of the Ukrainian government in such categories as democratic governance, mature market economics, energy security, and general security, the grades ranged between “B” and “C” (including pluses and minuses). 

And on June 14 and 15, a “Ukrainian Days” advocacy event was held on Capitol Hill, sponsored by the Ukrainian National Information Service, the Washington-based public affairs bureau of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, an umbrella organization representing the interests of nearly 2 million Ukrainian Americans.

It was an important endeavor for the Ukrainian American community as they advocate for increased support for Ukraine to defend its territory against invading Russian forces.

Lada Kolomiyets
Lada Kolomiyets, a professor at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, is the Harris Visiting Professor at Dartmouth. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

The goal was to promote Ukrainian Americans’ immediate concerns for increased security assistance for Ukraine; investigating and prosecuting Russian war criminals; imposing more sanctions against Russia; designating the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization and Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism; freezing and seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs; recognition of the war in Ukraine and the Holodomor as genocide; and, condemning the illegal deportation and kidnapping of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The packed two-day schedule included meetings with members of Congress to address the need for urgent passage of specific resolutions related to, but not limited to, Russia’s war against Ukraine. The topics raised during the meetings revolved around the idea that it is in America’s national security interest to have Ukraine emerge from this war as a resilient sovereign and democratic state, in charge of its own foreign policy, militarily strong, with secured borders, and economically viable.

As part of a group, I personally met with Reps. Glenn Ivey and Jamie Raskin, who both appeared to be very supportive of the Ukrainian cause. Moreover, I was pleased to learn that Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, is a good acquaintance and admirer of a Yale historian of Ukraine, Timothy Snyder, as I am.

Then, this past weekend, back in Hanover, I watched as the military uprising of the Wagner private military company, owned and headed by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, took place in Russia. On their march toward Moscow, the Wagner Group captured Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than 1 million people in southern Russia, before Prigozhin abruptly turned back.

How did everyday Ukrainians react to these events in the Russian Federation? Ukrainians immediately characterized Prigozhin’s military mutiny as a fight between a viper and a toad and proclaimed that they “cheered for both parties.” Ukrainian social networks exploded with memes about this blitz uprising, which was called a boomerang that returned to Russia. Captured without a fight, Rostov-on-Don was ironically renamed the “Rostov People’s Republic” (by analogy with Putin’s proxies in Ukraine, self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics”), and Ukrainians joked that Prigozhin would take Moscow “in three days,” alluding to Putin’s declaration at the start of last year’s invasion that Russian troops would take Kyiv “in three days.”

Comparisons with the August coup in the Soviet Union in 1991, after which the USSR quickly disintegrated into independent republics, were also actively played on. The confrontation between Minister of Defense of Russia Sergei Shoigu and mercenary chief Prigozhin has been interpreted as a déjà vu of dancing ballerinas from the classical Russian ballet Swan Lake, which was broadcast on all TV channels during the Kremlin coup in 1991.

So, when the apparent Prigozhin coup started, Ukrainians quickly settled into the front rows of YouTube streams to closely follow the “civil war in Russia,” exchanging a stream of new jokes and memes on social networks. When the march to Moscow ended as abruptly as it had begun, a comforting joke instantly spread in Ukrainian social networks: “You have listened to the trial version of the civil war in Russia. To get access to the full version, donate to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Although the vast majority of Ukrainian political observers and experts today point to the staged nature of the Prigozhin coup, none of them deny that this event dealt a heavy, perhaps irreparable, blow to Putin’s power over his compatriots. With applause and enthusiastic, encouraging shouts, residents of Rostov-on-Don, mainly young people, saw off Prigozhin’s mercenaries, many of whom had been earlier convicted of murder and other serious crimes in Russia.

The scene testified both to the “thirst for blood” of Putin’s generals and to the indifference to Putin’s personal fate among the population in southern Russia. What keeps reverberating in my mind is a famous quote from Alexander Pushkin, one of the giants of Russian literature.

“Russian rebellion,” Pushkin wrote in a novel published in 1836, “is senseless and merciless.”

Lada Kolomiyets, a professor at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, is the Harris Visiting Professor at Dartmouth in the Department of Russian and the Comparative Literature Program.


Vox Populi is the Dartmouth News opinion page for commentary written by members of the Dartmouth community that is intended to inform and enrich public conversation.

Lada Kolomiyets