Ukrainians boost resilience and spread laughs with wartime memes


In a ruined house in Borodyanka, Ukraine, a kitchen cabinet was all that remained, becoming a “symbol of Ukrainian fortitude.” Photo by Yelyzaveta Servatynska, CC BY-SA 3.0.

A cultural “special operation” was conducted in the ruined town of Borodyanka near Kyiv on April 14, 2022, the first days after Ukrainian troops liberated the north of Ukraine. The National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity described the operation as a means to reproduce the location in the future:

The surrounding area, the ruins, and the wall were documented by DroneUA, using a drone to create a 3D model. They took photos and videos and recorded the location of each detail. In the future, it will allow reproduction of the location and environment with maximum accuracy.

As part of the “special operation,” a Ukrainian emergency service crew examined the top floor of an apartment block which almost entirely collapsed during an airstrike. They were trying to save a kitchen cabinet within the building that was hanging on the remaining wall. Miraculously, the cabinet, its contents and the decorative ceramic rooster that rested atop it were all intact. “It stayed intact, where there seemed to be no chances,” the Museum said, noting that the cabinet is now part of its exhibition. 

Yelyzaveta Servatynska, a photographer from Kyiv, made and shared a picture of the cabinet, which immediately went viral. Many reposted the image on social media with the text: “‘How are you, little cabinet?’ ‘I am hanging on.'” 

Shafka_How are you

“How are you?” – “I am hanging on.” Picture by Dima Kovalenko.

Since 2022, the war in Ukraine has inspired a number of similar memes and instances of patriotic rallying, starting with the “Russian warship incident” where Ukrainian border guards serving on the island of Zmeiniy said “Russian Warship, to go fuck yourself,” after being warned that they would be bombed unless they surrendered. The incident was later depicted in Ukrainian postal stamps. People lined up in front of post offices throughout the country last year, waiting for hours to buy the stamps. There were also bracelets made of “the last batch of steel” from the Azovstal steel plant, the last stand of Ukrainian defence in the southeastern city of Mariupol.

Vadym Vasiutynskyi, professor of psychology, says that the phenomenon is not new and not exclusive to wartime. He explained that today's “meme” and internet trends are similar to the simple folk tales which have been shared for centuries. In an interview with GV, he said: 

Today, nothing could last so long because of a constant flow of new and competing images and symbols. But people always need certain consistency. This is why in this flow, they are trying to catch any symbols, signs, and meanings which seem to reflect the essence of what is going on around them. And when aspirations, opinions, and values of a number of people correspond, they create a meme. Often, it is something nice, likable, cozy, childhood-reminiscent which could comfort, at least for a while.

In addition to inspiring stories of resilience and resistance, many Ukrainians are also finding solidarity in humor. One example is an advertisment for a rather ugly, squeaking, beaver-shaped dog toy that was popping up all over Ukrainian Facebook feeds last year. While many users largely ignored the advertisements, in late December of 2022, one user visited the linked website and shared some of the reviews from those who bought it. 


The picture by the Rozetka online marketplace with the famous beaver and the Facebook post which made it a meme.

“The beaver really looks like it survived a nuclear strike, and it adds to our optimism,” one customer wrote. “Unpacking it from the packaging looked like the birth of a supernatural creature. We can't find an agreement with my son regarding the sounds. The son thinks that it snorts, as for me, it shamelessly farts. The cat is shocked and treats it with respect.”

“It's a cool incredibly ugly beaver,” another user shared. “It looks like it partied in a drug den for half a year, then crawled out, and was hit by a truck, then after the accident, the truck backed up and ran the poor thing over again. I bought it as a present for the woman I love. Both of us are welcoming the beaver.”

About 2,700 users shared the post. In the comment section, many posted pictures of the toy indicating that they had bought it or expressed frustration that it had sold out. On April 1, 2023, the marketplace which advertised the toy announced it was holding a joke contest, promising that the winner would get “THE beaver.” 

Like the kitchen cabinet and ceramic rooster from Borodyanka, the ugly beaver toy became a symbol of resilience, said social psychologist Iryna Eihelson. “Millions of people are experiencing the same hardships. This is why these things became viral. This is how people establish an emotional connection: ‘I am hanging on, you are hanging on,’ ‘No matter what the enemy is doing to us, we are strong.'” 

Natalya Shaposhnik, a practicing psychotherapist, told GV that for some Ukrainians, the toy became a subject of “intermediated self-irony.” “Irony is a powerful mechanism of resilience, especially when it is shared by a number of people,” she said. “It is a new language to express something for which one does not have the right words.” 

“I also have the beaver,” she added with a smile. “It was presented to me with a comment that it is a symbol of invincibility.”   

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