On Humorina: Odessa’s April Fool’s Day Festival

Given the dominant stereotype of Eastern Slavs as a morose, nihilistic people, you may be surprised to learn that the one place in the world where April Fool’s Day is an official holiday? Is Odessa, Ukraine.

On the other hand, maybe it shouldn’t surprise. The Black Sea town of Odessa has always been the major resort area for Russia and Ukraine, a popular vacation spot even during the darkest days of the Soviet Union. Already a party town, it’s a natural place for festivities of all kinds. This one is called “Humorina”, a festival literally dedicated to humor. As we have learned from the career of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine is a country that takes its comedy seriously, with hardcore national comedy championships in which teams compete (this is how their current President got his start as a performer.) The origin of April Fool’s Day is very much of a piece with those of Carnival, Mardis Gras and the Feast of Fools, the stuff that Mikhail Bakhtin (who spent part of his youth in Odessa) loved to write about so much. Folk festivities have no doubt been part of the city’s culture for centuries, but the current Humorina became official decades ago, when local leaders basically co-opted spontaneously occurring celebrations and protests, no doubt so they could better control the proceedings, which are often satirical and unruly by nature. Naturally things have been much freer since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Normally Humorina is celebrated with a big parade, with large numbers of celebrants dressed as clowns as other characters. There are street performances, and comedy contests and shows at local venues. Just Google it and you will find a thousand happy photographs very much reminiscent of Carnival and Mardi Gras parades which may be more familiar to you.

Sadly, recent years have put a damper on the celebrations, first the pandemic, and this year, the war. According to this source, which seems both sketchy and knowledgeable about the topic, this year instead of the usual parade there will be something called a military “Humorina-Javelin”, which seems to reference the anti-tank weapon. A military parade perhaps? They also mention a “Suitcase-station-Russia” flash mob, to take place at the main entrance of the city railway station, as well as an art exhibition of military satire, and a charity online marathon in support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

We are sad to educate you about a cultural phenomenon during a year when it isn’t really happening, but of course that’s the very point. Bullies vs. Belly laughs. It’s the theme of the moment.