‘Stand-up’ for Ukraine: Coping through comedy in the face of war

In Berlin, comedians from Ukraine and Russia share the same stage as an outlet for their grief, anger and desperation about the war.

A photo of Margarita performing at a comedy club.
Comedian Margarita Stiemerling is from a city south of Kyiv, Ukraine [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera] 

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Berlin, Germany – It is Wednesday night and a steady stream of people looking forward to an evening of laughter are stepping into the bowels of a black-walled theatre-cum-bar in the central Berlin neighbourhood of Mitte.

What at first resembles just another comedy night in a city full of them is in fact much more than that. Most of those coming to Ma’s Comedy Club have little to laugh about, especially not in each other’s company. They are from warring Russia and Ukraine.

They come to perform or to watch. They speak Russian or Ukrainian. They are professionals and newcomers. They share an interest in stand-up comedy – and more than that a contempt for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We are very anti-war,” said Nikita, a stoic 32-year-old Russian with a moustache and a head of thick black hair hailing from Siberia, who wants to be referred to by his stage name. He started to host stand-up nights for a Russian-speaking audience a couple of months before the war. The invasion has turned them into an act of defiance.

There are jokes at the expense of Russian President Vladimir Putin, rants about how “backward” and paper-based German bureaucracy is, and banter about German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his slow response to delivering weapons to Ukraine (“I was going to complain that my Big Mac wasn’t coming – then I saw the name tag of the server, Scholz, and I understood”).

The stand-up artists provide relief, to themselves and their audience. They find an outlet for their grief, anger and desperation about the war and common ground in venting about life in exile.

Before the war, sharing a common language, Berlin’s Ukrainian and Russian communities used to mingle at Russian-speaking events. But the invasion has pitted them against each other. The comedy nights at Ma’s (the club has closed since), and in a handful of other locations across town are an exception.

A photo of Nikita performing at a comedy club.
Nikita, a 32-year-old from Russia, on stage at Ma’s Comedy Club in Berlin [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera]

There are however limits to making people laugh at the expense of a war that costs hundreds of lives every day. “You obviously don’t joke about dead bodies in Bucha, but you can joke about the washing machines that the Russian soldiers stole there,” Nikita said. He is sitting in a windowless room backstage, waiting to open the show. Next to him, a colleague is focusing on a piece of paper with his sketches scribbled onto it, occasionally looking up and listening. “That’s what comedy is about after all: You don’t say things directly, you find other ways,” Nikita said, referring to his disgust of the crimes that his country’s soldiers are committing in Ukraine.

When Nikita moved to Germany almost 10 years ago, it was for work, not because political activism forced him to. But he still got his own taste of the Russian government. During a visit to his family in 2021, he joined a protest in Moscow, supporting Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. He was arrested and kept in prison for 10 days.

“Very nice holidays,” he said matter-of-factly, only a smirk giving away the irony. Nikita’s position on the Russian government is clear. “Putin is a war criminal, he must be sent to prison,” he told Al Jazeera.

Initially, his comedy nights were not planned as events revolving around the war – they were simply meant to be entertainment for a Russian-speaking audience. Nikita, who otherwise works in IT and does not consider himself a political activist, started organising them after the slow-paced life of the pandemic allowed him to finally sign up for a stand-up comedy class online.

When a show was scheduled only a few days after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Nikita was unsure if it was appropriate to move ahead with an event that draws people from the warring parties together and is meant to make people laugh while elsewhere their fellow countrymen and women were dying.

But more than anything, he decided that he wanted to give their anti-war voices a platform. By announcing that all ticket fees would go to Ukraine, he hoped to make clear which side he and the performers stood on. “We told people from the start: ‘If you support Putin, then maybe you shouldn’t come to the show’,” Nikita said.

Since then, his comedy nights have generated about 10,000 euros ($10,665) in ticket fees that they invested in the reconstruction of houses in Ukraine or handed over to the Ukrainian army through contacts on the ground.

A photo of the audience at a comedy club.
The audience for a show at Ma’s Comedy Club [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera]

Sharing space

The former Soviet Union had a long tradition of humour, using it to position themselves on the right side of World War II, as opposed to the Nazis. Now the Ukrainians are tapping into humour as a means to win international sympathy and foster domestic resilience in the face of the war.

Memes are flooding social media and even official government communication often resorts to sarcasm. In big cities such as Lviv or Kyiv, comedy clubs reopened soon after the invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself first became famous as a comedian on national television.

Some stand-up performances bring out uncomfortable feelings and tension, said Nikita – especially among the Russian audience who has to bear the brunt of the jokes. More than once since the beginning of the open mic series, people stood up and left the show, often after jokes that would question the existence of Russia as an independent country or when the Russia-bashing is not dressed well enough in humour, the comedians say.

When two women frowned after a sketch in the Ukrainian language came on, performer Yuliia Onyshchenko, a 28-year-old stand-up artist from Odesa with a roaring laugh who arrived in Berlin last March, said she told them they better catch up on the language so that they can help their children with preparing for their Ukrainian exams one day, alluding to her wish that Russia shall no longer exist when the war is over.

The women left the show before it ended, said Yuliia, but they made sure to pass on the message to the organisers that “neo-Nazis” like her should not be allowed to participate in the events. Yuliia is hosting her own stand-up shows. Performances in Russian are banned.

A photo of Nikita performing at a comedy club.
Nikita says ‘If you support Putin, then maybe you shouldn’t come to the show’ [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera]

Nikita said his shows triggered some hateful emails from Russians and even Germans, accusing him of what they said was Russophobia. The idea of Ukrainians and Russians being part of the same event, both on stage and off, also does not fly with everyone. “Some people think it’s not acceptable for anyone to be in the same room with the ‘enemy state’,” he said.

He would ideally like the comedy shows to be a space where people from Russia and Ukraine, both once part of the Soviet Union, can bond. But he is realistic about the chances for success.

“I might say let’s be friends. But then my country bombs another shopping mall right before you head out for the show,” he trailed off, shrugging his shoulders in disillusionment.

Yet, he tries.

“Clap if you are from Russia and moved because you don’t support the war,” Nikita shouted into the microphone at the beginning of a show. In front of him, about 50 mostly young people, half of them Russian and half Ukrainian, lounged on their chairs. Some hands slowly went up and the crowd rewarded them with cheers. “Finally some Russians who raise their voices!” he said dryly before performing his sketches about sanctions and his Siberian origin.

‘Releasing the tension around the war’

Next on stage was Jana George, 41, a historian of the Eastern European region who teaches German to foreigners at the University of Jena. “My husband is Russian, I am German. It’s nice that we now have options over who gets to be the fascist in the relationship,” she joked in fluent Russian. The audience burst into laughter.

When she started stand-up comedy during her years in Russia, she would regularly tap into her identity as a German. Jokes about World War II helped her address the guilt for the Holocaust she wanted everyone to know she was acknowledging. But with the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine, most of those jokes do not sit well with her anymore.

Having a Russian family, Jana sometimes struggles to find the right words to address the invasion in front of her Ukrainian neighbours in Jena, a city two hours away from Berlin. She feels helpless in the face of all the sorrow and grief, she told Al Jazeera during the break after her set.

Up on stage, she feels like she can finally do something and address the “elephant in the room”, referring to the aggression that her husband’s native country and her own home for many years became guilty of. “Humour is a good way to talk even about the hardest things.”

People draped in Ukrainan flags
Demonstrators wrapped in Ukrainian flags took part in an anti-war protest in Berlin in 2022 [File: Christian Mang/Reuters]

And comedy creates community. Jana vividly remembers the show that took place only a couple of days after Russia started the invasion of Ukraine last February. People came straight from an anti-war protest, and sat in the audience wrapped in Ukrainian flags. The experience of both joking and laughing about the war turned out to be cathartic. “For a moment, we could forget. It was releasing the tension around the war,” she said.

Those in the audience told Al Jazeera about similar feelings. “It’s important to joke about your pain,” said Serhii Lysiura, a soft-spoken 24-year-old with a love for pink hats. Originally from Mariupol, he worked as a TV actor in Kyiv and arrived in Berlin in May, allowed to leave because of his student status.

He was invited by a Ukrainian friend to come see her perform. He could connect with like-minded people at the show and laughing would cheer him up, she said.

And it did. “It’s good to laugh, you can just let everything go for a moment.”

Serhii said he has always used sarcasm as a way to protect himself from feeling depressed. “Dark humour is my coping strategy.” And it even works with the war. “When you are really afraid of something, the best way to fight it is to laugh about it,” he believes.

But not everybody gets relief from the jokes. During the break, outside of Ma’s, a young woman was crouching on the ground, looking distressed. She is Russian and the jokes brought back the reality of what her country is doing in Ukraine. Serhii did not know her but, speaking softly, tried to comfort her.

Engaging with the young woman from the enemy state was no problem for him; he firmly believes that there are “good Russians”. He is supporting them – and it gets even easier if they laugh about the same jokes at the expense of everything that confuses and annoys him about his new life in Germany.

When he heard others also ranting about the chronically delayed Deutsche Bahn (national German railway company), the struggles with his new life as a refugee all of a sudden appeared a bit lighter. “It helps me to realise that all of us go through this and that I am not alone.”

Protest posters placed in front of the Russian Embassy in Germany
A pedestrian wearing a Ukrainian flag looks at protest posters in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin [File: Lisi Niesner/Reuters]

‘This is not my home’

By joking about the ubiquity of drugs in the city, the struggle of finding an apartment in the competitive Berlin rental market or the paper-based bureaucracy, most artists are also using the stage to vent about exiled life in Germany.

Laughing about the struggles that both communities feel similarly victimised by comes as a welcome relief from the resistance that many war-related jokes encounter.

“What I really like about Germans is their love for silence,” said Erik Orlovsky, a lanky 33-year-old who fled from Kyiv last April. “I can’t imagine the hell it would be for them to live under the air raid sirens in Ukraine. They would probably think: If only the rocket hit me already!”

When some in the audience kept interrupting the performances with their comments about what they saw on stage, host Kolya Bolt from Moscow, alluding to the stereotype of German correctness, warned them: “We’re in Germany, guys. Here people follow the rules.”

Whenever someone from Ukraine walked up to the microphone on the small stage, the intimate atmosphere in the room became loaded with expectation, the audience falling silent.

A photo of Kolya performing at a comedy club.
Kolya Bolt is a comedian from Moscow [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera]

Margarita Stiemerling, an energetic young woman from Bila Tserkva, a city 80km (50 miles) south of Kyiv, swiftly raised the vibes again with a sketch about the pitfalls of dating in a foreign country.

“This is not my home, I have to date anyone I can get, the miserable, the jobless – and the Russians,” she said. The crowd roared with laughter.

Margarita is one of many newcomers. Since the war began, the scene in Berlin has been growing, said Daria Lahutina, a 30-year-old former customer service manager of a cosmetics brand, who was quick to smile. She started performing when she was still living in Kyiv, and thinks they find humour because they are yearning for ways to share their feelings about the war. “It’s just another way of standing up for our country,” she explained (with no pun intended).

‘A good Russian’

Mark Abieliashev had just arrived in Berlin from Ukraine; he sat apart from the crowds mingling outside the bar during the break, staring thoughtfully into the night sky from underneath his black cap. He did not feel like coming to the stand-up show, but the friend he was staying with convinced him to join.

He did not really care much about the rants he heard about Germany that night – he never had any intention of moving here in the first place.

“I am still getting used to the peaceful life here,” he said thoughtfully. Even more strange for him than the absence of air raid sirens was to share a bar with Russians.

One of those Russians is Zhenya Kotrini, 27, from Volgograd in western Russia who came to Germany a few years ago because her grandfather was German. She has never performed herself, but always felt drawn to stand-up ever since working in a bar in Russia that hosted comedy shows.

Zhenya is one of the few, who when she decided to go to events in Berlin, started making Ukrainian friends.

She said she has “no hard feelings” towards the jokes against her country that target Putin or the lack of opposition against the war. “The only thing that is hard for me is to listen to people support the war on social media.”

The young woman is now learning to speak Ukrainian – as requested by her new friends from Ukraine, she said. Given the injustice Russia is responsible for, she would never feel entitled to question the demand.

A photo of Kolya performing at a comedy club.
The host Kolya Bolt refers to the stereotypes of German adherence to rules when trying to stop the audience from interrupting the performances [Verena Hoelzl/Al Jazeera]

One of those friends that she met through stand-up is Yuliia Onyshchenko, the woman who was called a “neo-Nazi” after one of her sets. “If you came to this event, that means you are a good Russian, right?” she shouted towards the audience when it was her turn to perform.

Yuliia organises and hosts her own comedy shows, mostly targeting a Ukrainian audience and urging performers to speak Ukrainian only – a counteract to Russia’s attempt at wiping out her country’s culture. Nikita said he does not even ask if he can perform at her events as he does not speak Ukrainian.

Yuliia’s feelings about sharing a stage with Russians are complex. Despite being friends with Zhenya, like most Ukrainians, she is staunchly opposed to the idea of dialogue and does not think that comedy can create a community with Russians. After the war, nothing can any more, according to Yuliia.

After having Russians walk out of her shows, she initially refused to continue performing but quickly reconsidered her decision.

“It felt like I let myself be silenced,” she said. So she decided to continue and, instead, even double down on her jokes.

“I believe there are good Russians,” she said over fries and falafel at a kebab shop where a small group of performers gathered after the show. “Are you sure, Yuliia?” asked Daria, nodding at her teasingly.

“If there are Russians helping us to collect money to kill the bad Russians, I am OK,” she said, referring to the donations that are going to the Ukrainian army. It is not a joke. The Ukrainians are laughing. And Zhenya, the only Russian at the table, is, too.

Source: Al Jazeera