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Making sense of Ukrainian war memes: From watermelons to Saint Javelin

by Daryna Antoniuk November 29, 2022 6:02 PM 7 min read
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“Breaking: This lettuce outlasts Russian annexation of Kherson,” reads a meme posted a few hours after Russia announced its retreat from the city of Kherson.

This is a remake of a joke about the former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose short term in power " was compared to "the shelf life of a lettuce."

Ukrainians have created a trove of war-related memes since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. They have become a part of modern folklore – like songs and poetry, memes help Ukrainians express what they feel in simple metaphorical language.

There are other benefits to memes: They can offer some relief from the traumatic experiences of the war. They can also keep people engaged and informed, according to Christian Borys, creator of the popular Saint Javelin meme. The image depicts Virgin Mary cradling a U.S.-made FGM-148 anti-tank weapon used in Ukraine.

Most people don't read long articles about the war, Borys said, but they scroll through Instagram or Twitter every day, and the memes they see there give them an idea of what's happening in Ukraine.

Borys also believes that Russia’s war has changed the way Ukrainians joke.

“Ukrainians have a dark, very biting sense of humor now because they are so, so angry,” Borys said. “Memes are a way to express that, but in a funny way,” he told the Kyiv Independent.

What Ukrainians joke about

For Ukrainians, humor is a proven way to get through crisis. Even during the war, local stand-up comedians gather large audiences in bomb shelters, cracking jokes to distract people from the grim new reality.

War-related memes are thriving on social media, created by ordinary Ukrainians or Twitter accounts like Ukrainian Memes Forces, NAFO, and Saint Javelin.

Ukrainians often joke about the defeats of Russian soldiers, the impact of sanctions on Russians, and the absurdity of Russian propaganda.

Some memes focus on the daily life of Ukrainians amid power outages caused by Russia’s attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, sheltering during air raid sirens, and witnessing missile attacks.

Different memes express the different moods of society, according to Ukrainian YouTube blogger Anton Nazarenko, who studies memes and makes videos about their origins, meaning, and importance.

Aggressive memes about Russia convey anger, memes about the Ukrainian government and the military often convey gratitude, and memes about the war in general or the threat of a nuclear attack are often born from fear, he said.

Creating a viral meme is a science and it has its formula, according to Nazarenko. The ideal meme meets the following criteria: It should center on a popular topic, be witty yet easy to understand, and reflect society’s attitudes toward certain issues.

One of the war’s main memes uses the phrase “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself,” which was famously said by a Ukrainian soldier who defended a tiny island in the Black Sea and refused to surrender to Russia.

The soldier’s exemplary courage inspires Ukrainians because they feel the same about Russia and its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

This meme, according to Nazarenko, is an interpretation of the David and Goliath story, where a young boy defies all odds and defeats a giant with a single stone. Ukraine sees itself as David and Russia as Goliath.

Tractors have become another symbol of Ukrainian resistance as farmers used them to tow abandoned Russian tanks in the early days of the all-out war.

Ukrainians like to joke that the “second strongest army in the world” lost their military equipment to farmers.

Another popular target of Ukrainian memes is U.S. business magnate Elon Musk. At first, Ukrainians praised his efforts in delivering satellite internet terminals to Ukraine. However, after Musk suggested that, in order to achieve peace with Russia, Ukraine should adopt a neutral status and abandon its bid to join NATO, social media users started to criticize him.

Ukrainian politician and volunteer Serhiy Prytula even raised money to buy a “history textbook for Elon Musk.” "Hope it helps you understand why surrendering to the russian evil empire is not an option for Ukrainians," Prytula wrote on Twitter. It is not clear whether Musk received the book.

Businesses and government joke too

During the war, memes have also become a communication tool for Ukrainian businesses and the government.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry often uses memes to thank allies for weapon supplies or to make fun of Russia’s military capabilities.

In a recent post, the ministry shared a photo of chocolates shaped as the hedgehog anti-tank constructions used for defense, saying that this is how they view Russia’s recently-built fortifications in the occupied territories.

Companies such as mobile operator Kyivstar, postal services Nova Poshta and Ukrposhta, e-commerce platform Rozetka, and electricity supplier Yasno have also mastered the art of communication via memes.

They even compete with one another on which of them creates the funniest memes on the same topic. For example, when explosions hit a military airport in Russian-occupied Crimea, Ukrainian companies started to joke about how they would resume operations on the peninsula once it’s liberated.

After Rozetka "booked" a location for its store near the Swallow's Nest, a castle near the resort city of Yalta in Crimea, other companies picked up this trend and started to post photoshopped photos of the castle with their logos.

The popular Ukrainian restaurant chain Puzata Khata, which serves Ukrainian food, took the competition to the next level – it placed its logo on the Red Square in Moscow.

What Ukrainians mean when they joke about…

Raccoon. When Russia’s military was retreating from the city of Kherson, they stole a raccoon from a local zoo, causing a wave of memes on social media.

Ukrainians joked that the only "strategically important object" that the Russians managed to capture during the nine months of the war was a raccoon.

Watermelons. Watermelons are the symbol of Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine. Kherson Oblast is known for producing some of the tastiest watermelons in the country. The fruit became the symbol of the Ukrainian military's counteroffensive operation to liberate the city of Kherson, which was occupied in March.

Russia’s announcement that it would withdraw its forces from the city on Nov. 9 prompted a surge in watermelon-themed memes.

Washing machine. Russian soldiers have been looting Ukrainians’ homes en masse, stealing various home appliances, including washing machines. Aerial footage published in the early days of the all-out war showed Russian soldiers loading a washing machine into their military vehicle. The Ukrainian military also found a stolen washing machine in Russian trenches.

NAFO. North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO) is a meme and social media movement dedicated to countering Russian propaganda and disinformation. Its members post comments and create memes to fight Russia’s false narratives with humor.

The group’s symbol is a Shiba Inu dog, which the NAFO members often use as a profile picture on Twitter. Among NAFO’s former and current members are Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and current Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

Bavovna (cotton). The Ukrainian word bavovna (cotton) is used to refer to the explosions caused by Ukraine’s attacks on Russian military infrastructure, such as ammunition depots. When Russian media report on such attacks, they often use the word "bang" instead of “explosion,” presumably to play them down. A “bang” in Russian is spelled the same way as cotton.

Zelensky's interview with CNN. During an interview with CNN on Nov. 12, President Volodymyr Zelensky said no one cooks him breakfast. Ukrainians captured the surprised expression on the face of his wife, Olena Zelenska, and joked that this was the most dangerous situation in which the president found himself during the war.

“Good Russian.” Western media sometimes says that average Russians have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine and are suffering from its consequences.

Ukrainians don't share this sentiment and see Russians’ unsuccessful attempts at protesting against the war in the beginning of the full-scale invasion as inadequate. This opinion deepened when anti-mobilization demonstrations after six months of the all-out war garnened more participation than anti-war protests. Ukrainians often use the phrase “good Russian” to sascastically refer to Russians.

HIMARS. HIMARS a light multiple rocket launcher that the U.S. has supplied to Ukraine. These systems have hit dozens of Russian targets and, according to some experts, have become a game-changer in the war against Russia. In memes, the systems often symbolize an ace up Ukraine’s sleeve, which Ukrainians are grateful for, and which Russians greatly fear.


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Daryna Antoniuk, I hope you enjoyed reading my story.

I cover tech for the Kyiv Independent during one of the most difficult times for my country. We need stories like these because the fight on the digital front is just as important as the fight on the ground. I really want to write again about investment in Ukraine’s hi-tech, cool startups and the booming Ukrainian IT market.

But first, Ukraine needs to win the war. Our part in it is keeping the world informed. Consider becoming a patron of the Kyiv Independent so you can read more stories about tech and business in the future.

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