The city of Odessa celebrates Yumorina – April Fools' Day – in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On April 1, the 37th day of President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operations” in Ukraine, as the two delegations restart their online negotiations, their shared spirit of Den’ Duraka (День дурака, translated from Russian as Fools’ Day) may help cool their tempers to lighten their conversations.

Especially given their history during the Soviet era, both Ukrainians and Russians recognize April 1 as Fools’ Day, and both remain grounded in their great Slavic traditions of humor that come alive on this date each year.

Can this day bring some relief to millions of Ukrainian citizens, either fleeing or left behind, who have been famous in the past across the region for their Yumorina (Гуморина) festivals? 

At least since the early 1970s, this first day of April has marked major celebrations across Ukraine, as an unofficial public holiday dedicated to fun and laughter. Can those memories make any difference during the mayhem of this ongoing violence and have any impact on their difficult negotiations?

‘Capital of humor’

In particular, Europe has known the southern port city of Odessa as the “capital of humor,” where people from all over Ukraine and beyond would every year arrive with families to be part of its outlandish street parties and grandiose dramatized processions. 

With its ornate architecture and stunning sea views, Odessa has been called the Pearl of the Black Sea. As most the most cosmopolitan city of this region, for centuries it has attracted foreigners from all across Europe to make it their home. This included ethnic Russians as well, though their population has dwindled over the years.

But now, Odessa has been turned into a fortress of fear, not fun. In the midst of ruination writ large across Ukraine, this “capital of humor” may have so far escaped the large-scale destruction faced by other major populations centers including its neighboring southern city of Mariupol, but with regular reports of Russian naval attacks, life in Odessa as in other Ukrainian cities remains perilous and uncertain. 

As Russian forces continue to consolidate control in the east over the Donbas region while sustaining encirclement of the northern cities of Kiev and Kharkiv via Belarus, in the south it is Mariupol that has received maximum destruction. There have also been reports of Russian ships from Crimea approaching Odessa as well.

While the brave citizens of Odessa have put up a bold face of business as usual and have begun reopening public spaces for entertainment, Yumorina will not be same this year. Its Luzanovka beach, which is shallow and easy for landing amphibious ships, is infested with mines, with additional fortifications built along its shoreline to deny access to Russian naval forces. 

The sea-facing neighborhoods of Odessa are open only to local residents as the city is now administered by the Teroborona, a volunteer force formed under the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. These reserve troops are deployed at all strategic points checking people’s documents and looking for any potential Russian spies or other troublemakers. This clearly leaves little chance of April 1 being a day of fun.

Humor’s healing powers

Experts in conflict resolution have endorsed humor as a potent strategy. Also, global traditions of humor have been closely knitted around the history of April 1 being Fools’ Day since ancient times. In modern times it is believed to have began in mid-16th century France when King Charles IX decided that the new year would start on January 1 instead of the first day of spring (in April). 

Today, dozens of major nations that see themselves as stakeholders in the continuing Ukraine crisis must find themselves connected to Ukraine’s Yumorina in their own robust traditions of celebrating April Fools’ Day. Should it not remind all of them of Ukraine as a leader in celebrating humor and make them consider how humor can contribute to breaking the ice in tension-ridden international relations?

The more than a dozen countries known to celebrate April Fools’ Day out have their own forms and formulations.

In England and Ireland, for instance, people play pranks, but only until noon. Beyond that, such tricks are frowned upon, marking those tricksters as the real fools and unwanted people. Scotland, on the other hand, celebrates April Fools’ Day for a full two days. It has had a tradition of Hunt the Gowk (fool) day, where people put tails on one another to designate them as fools.

In France and Italy, youngsters like to paste a paper fish on their victims and then yell out poisson d’avril (“April fish”). In Sweden you can even trick strangers but must run away calling out “April, April, you stupid herring.” 

In Poland when you hear prima Aprilis, uwazaj, bo sie, pomylisz (“Aprils Fools’ Day, be careful, you can be wrong”) it could refer unreliable appointments or news headlines. In Greece, being able to fool someone successfully on April 1 is seen as a sign of good luck with healing powers.

Humor for conflict resolution

In this ever expanding network of nations, humor has become an integral tool of inter-state negotiations. Even in the case of several post-colonial societies, where festivities like Valentine’s Day or Fools’ Day are sometimes seen as signs of Western influence, they have discovered the power of their own traditions of humor.

In India, where some of these festivals are seen as colonial or commercially driven, common people still love to shock their friends with strange news or other tricks, then shouting April fool banaya (“made you April fool”) in unison.

Likewise in Brazil, where it is called Dia da Mentira (“Day of the Lie”), even news outlets can put up ridiculous headlines and claims and people tell white lies to their friends.

All this jest invariably beings tempers down.

Indeed, the most powerful among the post-colonial nations, the United States, also has a robust tradition of humor. One can hear fake news on the radio and family members or co-workers trying to make you seem gullible to accept the fake as real. Celebrations may include simple foolhardy behavior but can go all the way to dangerous extremes like spreading dangerous fake news, but it all ends in laughter. 

But today it is not just the Russians and Ukrainians, peoples so deeply grounded in humor, who may be missing out on their fun quotient. None of these other nations can escape the subdued tone and tenor of this year’s Fools’ Day celebrations. 

With Ukraine having been the leader in sustaining such strong traditions in humor, this April Fools’ Day in the midst of crisis calls for deeper scrutiny on resuscitating humor as an approach to conflict resolution, as a potent tool in inter-state relations, and finally an effective strategy for war termination.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaransinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).