Eighteen-year-old Alina Volik’s video begins “POV: you live in Ukraine”. Running through the reality of life for those in her country at present, it features having a panic bag packed and ready by your bedside at all times; windows taped up so glass fragments don’t shatter if your building is hit with a bomb; sleeping dressed in case an air-raid siren goes off in the night; and receiving videos via WhatsApp from friends in underground shelters in other cities.
Volik’s video has been seen 16 million times since she posted it on 28th February. It’s designed to give an up-close, on-the-ground glimpse of the brutalising shadow under which Ukrainians are living. The teenager, who lives in the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, avoided TikTok during the first few days of the Russian invasion of her country.
“I was watching news all day long,” she tells us. As we speak on day eight of the Russian invasion, she describes being unable to peel herself away from the images of soldiers stomping through her country shown on the TV screen.
But when she did and opened TikTok, she decided to stitch together the images of what her life had become to show how much it had changed. Before the invasion, her TikTok profile was devoted to her international travels. When the Russians arrived, that changed.
“I wanted to show the world what we feel and how our daily routine looks. The only entertainment I can do today is to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy.”
Ukrainians’ lives have changed “very quickly,” she adds. “We have started appreciating things that we always used to have, but now don’t.”
The overwhelming response to videos like Volik’s and TikToker Valerisssh, whose video featuring her parents highlighting the “things in our bomb shelter what [sic] make sense” has been seen 7.8 million times, has been positive. Valerisssh’s summary of the bomb shelter – which includes a fridge “without any avocado”, a “shower for cleaning ass”, mysterious doors and two toilets – pokes fun at the situation she and her family find themselves in.
“I think there is something to be said about the use of humour in the face of existential insecurity,” says Idil Galip, an academic who studies the spread of memes and digital culture at the University of Edinburgh. “Communities, like the Jewish or African-American diaspora, who have faced relentless existential insecurity over centuries, have a great diversity of jokes, often self-deprecating, in their folklores.”
Humour is both a tool of self-defence and a form of survival mechanism for the oppressed. Volik told THE FACE how she had seen a kind of gallows humour spread across Ukrainian TikTok, recounting how she’d resonated with a series of videos that hinted how everyday people had already, a week into the invasion, normalised the idea of the threat of aerial bombing.
“It’s like our daily routine,” she says. “I even saw a video today where a Ukrainian boy says his evening is not a good one if he’s not going to the shelter because of the siren.”
That particular user, who goes by the name pokrovskiy_klop, has turned his walks from his home to the shelter into a running gag. Volik even got in on the act, doing a video of her own that highlighted how the sound of air raid sirens have replaced alarm clocks in the country.
Others have posted their TikToks from within the shelters, showing the TV series they’re catching up on while whiling away the time.
“After just three days, I already got used to the situation,” Volik admits. “So, yes, we’re trying to make fun of it to distract ourselves somehow.”
It’s the same defiant spirit that has driven other videos that have proved popular on social media, including those from Russian TikToker Nastya Tyman, which include advice on how to start and drive a co-opted Russian tank any Ukrainians find abandoned along the streets of their country.
These remarkably light-hearted videos are a “fuck you” two-fingers to the genocidal Putin and his cronies who are wreaking havoc across Ukraine. It’s a coping mechanism that has a deep-rooted history, says Galip, including in the Soviet Union.
“Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has written about the practice of telling ‘dangerous’ jokes, knowing they might land you in jail in the Soviet Union and what that meant for citizens.”
That concept of dark humour is something that’s existed since the dark old days of the Soviet Union repression, and on through the theft and corruption of glasnost as the USSR splintered in the ’90s and oligarchs got rich.
Of course, the concept isn’t limited to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries. As Galip says, “many other current examples exist around the world. The urge to joke your way through tragedy is nothing new.” But rarely in recent history have we seen it so urgently, ubiquitously used.