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The memeification of war: How the internet turned Ukrainian’s acts of defiance into a fad

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was met with extraordinary, and humorous, acts of resistance from ordinary Ukrainians. Then the internet got involved and now no one is laughing

Photo: Montage by The New European

“I like to joke that I’m on Putin’s kill list and at the same time I’m on Ukraine’s top 10 bachelorette’s list. So this evens it out.” There’s finding silver linings, and then there’s Kira Rudik’s attitude to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian MP and leader of the Voice party joked on Dan Wooten’s Tonight Live on GB News that being an appealing target for the bachelors of Ukraine evened out being one for an assanination. The expression swings and roundabouts springs to mind. 

On Rudrik’s account alone, this clip has since been shared over 4,000 times and received 31,000 likes. Her comments are one of the latest examples of how Ukrainians serve defiance with a splash of humour to their neighbouring aggressors.

It started with five words on Snake Island, 186 miles (300km) west of Crimea: “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself”. With those 5 words, 13 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives cursing out Russian advances. So much so that the Ukrainian postal service has announced it will release a commemorative stamp in their honour. Ukraine’s UkrposhtaIt said that citizens can vote on their favourite of the 20 designs sent in that will feature the censored phrase. 

Instructing an enemy warship to go forth and multiply is the Hollywood-style rhetoric of a 90s Bruce Willis film, something a star-studded hero yells out in defiance as the villain has them surrounded. It is also the stuff of Ukrainians. 

Disposing of a live mine? It was all in a day’s work for one man in Berdyansk. After spotting one in the road, there was no time to wait for bomb disposal. Picking it up with his bare hands, he walked – or rather waddled – over the road to clear the path for the nation’s military. He didn’t even pause to remove the lit cigarette from his mouth – after all it would’ve been a stressful endeavor requiring a drag or three. Willis, or rather John McClane, would be proud. 

Flanking Ukraine’s answer to McClane is an unknown group of caretakers. A picture has surfaced online of a group of Russian soldiers stuck in a lift and while it has not yet been possible to verify the image, it is being speculated that the Ukrainian administration of the building trapped the soldiers inside and then took a photo in memory of the occasion. It’s not quite hurtling a bomb strapped to a desk chair down an elevator shaft, but if true, the act of outwitting Russians with the flick of a switch casts the invading force into an episode of Dad’s Army. Ukraine’s McClanes strike again. 

Look out to the farmland and here comes the cavalry. A clip of a Russian tank being towed by a Ukrainian farmer in his tractor has been shared over 4 million times including by Johnny Mercer MP. After 12 days, their efforts led to Ukrainian farmers becoming, unofficially, the fifth-largest military in Europe. Meet John McClane’s sidekick, John Deere. 

Now, 15 per cent of Ukrainian soldiers are women, Rudik told CNN. After all, why leave all the defending of a nation to the men – how dull. And, some are even finding unconventional ways to join the war effort. Rumours flew around of a woman who took down a Russian drone with a tin of cucumbers and a military fable was born. Many thought it was just a myth, including one Ukrainian journalist for LIGA.Life. That is, until she heard a friend contradict this: “That is a real story. It was my friend’s mother”. Remaining anonymous, the woman agreed to talk to the outlet, recounting her quick thinking that led her to launching a tin at the drone that was easily accessible behind the balcony door. The only part of the story that has evolved from the truth is that it wasn’t cucumbers that took out the high-tech piece of Russian machinery, but tomatoes. 

“This was a pity,” she concluded. They weren’t just tomatoes but tomatoes with plums – her favourites. 

Forget Dad’s Army, President Zelensky’s civilian militia is nothing to raise an eyebrow at. It does, however, allow the world to crack a bittersweet smile at the war that’s devastating the nation. Ordinary Ukrainians are acting in extraordinary ways. Then, the internet, doing what it does best, memeified them. 

Twitter alone now boasts a variety of accounts specialising in the niche of Ukrainian war memes. The most popular of which, “Ukrainian War Memes”, has harnessed 52,100 followers since its creation 1 month ago. In return, it only follows the official account of Ukraine. As social media ratios go, that’s quite good going. Coming in second is “Ukraine Memes for NATO Teens” with 17,300 followers but at only 10 days old. 

As content goes, it certainly has variety. The woman who threw a jar of tomatoes features several times, one reimagining her as a cartoon character sporting a blue and yellow headscarf, brandishing a cucumber-filled bazooka. (Not tomatoes – if only the internet could keep up). 

Another envisions a fictional phone call between President Zelensky and Putin. The former asks the latter if he wants to hear a joke. “Go ahead,” responds Putin, “Kyiv”. Putin didn’t get it. “That’s the point,” chortles Zelensky, “you won’t”. Some even hand out advice: “in a world of Trumps and Putins, be Zelensky”. 

Others are more creative. “You shall not pass,” screeches Gandalf brandished with the word ‘Ukraine’ to Balrog sporting ‘Russia’ on its fiery body as the internet plays out the famous Lord of the Rings scene. Swapping out red, white and blue for blue and yellow, a handful draw Zelensky in a Captain America suit, fashioned in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In their minds, Mad Vlad is no match for Captain Ukraine. 

However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t ammunition for social trends and it is dangerous for the internet to treat it as such. 

Politicians can often fall prey to a computer whiz with access to Photoshop. In recent years, the content writes itself with Peppa Pig-infused speeches, fury over cheese import injustice and remarks about the sea being closed. This is not one of those times. 

Putin launched a war on Ukraine and, in return, the internet started one of its own against Putin. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale of the world wide web, that no global event can escape the clutches of meme culture, poking fun wherever there’s the slightest opportunity. But when a meme is made, the issue becomes a societal norm and, in turn, the topic is cheapened and its real impact minimised.  

This war is no laughing matter, nor are the ordinary Ukrainians defending their homes, family and democracy. In fact, their response has been nothing short of extraordinary. The internet’s, on the other hand, has been ‘peak cringe’.

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