HE set the tone for a whole war. Roman Hrybov was the Ukrainian border guard who told a “Russian ship” where to go in language so earthy it had to be translated straight in to Anglo-Saxon.

It was Day One of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of his country, and Hrybov had just been asked to surrender the tiny but strategically imported Snake Island in the Black Sea.

His defiance was not just brave. It was also funny. Very.

There are so many images of Ukraine now seared in to our minds. The chubby hands of toddlers held palm first on the windows of departing trains. The crumpled and sometimes cuffed bodies on the streets of re-liberated towns. The blackened shells of what were once homes.

But amid all the pathos, there is also humour. Lots of it. Hrybov’s retort has become an online meme so ubiquitous that I suspect many Scots will have come across it. There are T-shirts telling the Russian ship where to go. Billboards with Hrybov’s words show a ship which looks like the Kremlin sinking in a slick of blood. The episode has even inspired stamps. Across Ukraine road signs have been replaced with mock-ups in which every direction is a sweary invitation to take a hike.

Such jokes travel, they can cross borders and communities in a way complex political narrative cannot. Remember the stories of a Kyiv granny said to have taken out a Putin drone flying past her balcony with a jar of gherkins? These alone have the propaganda power of long-rang Howitzers.

These “wha’s like us” gags, the mocking of “occupiers” and Kremlin stooges, do not come from the top.

After all, experts in conflict have seen laughter under fire before, from the defiant and dark humour of modern Afghanistan to the jolly Cockney “blitz spirit” of London, 1940. Yet the government of comedian turned president Volodymyr Zelensky has very successfully mobilised grassroots humour for its information front. And that, I think, is a big deal.

Bluntly, Ukrainian jokers are winning the comedy war. This matters more than we might think. Why? Well, because it tells us something important about morale, and about the overall health and resilience of civic society, on both sides of this conflict.

Russia, you see, is just not laughing. And some of its leaders are worried about this. Weeks ago a Putinist parliamentarian, Yelena Drapeko, tried to mobilise TV jokers. “Entertainment programmes,” she said, “should be directed to support optimism and faith in our victory.” Her demand was hopeless. Because Russia’s comedy circuit – and much of its show business – is not fit to fight, even if it wanted to.

Back in February more than 200 of the country’s stand-ups signed an open letter condemning what the Putin regime still insists must be euphemistically called a “special operation” in Ukraine. Most of these individuals, according to Ukrainian state TV, have now quit Russia. With good reason: they are in danger if they stay.

Take Maxim Galkin. He is a stand-up and showman who has hosted the Russian versions of programmes such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Dancing with the Stars on the country’s most watched channels. He is A-list. Or was.

The son of a one-time senior military officer, Galkin has stopped joking and started posting videos in which he describes the crimes of the Putin regime, stories of cruise missiles killing toddlers. This has not gone down well with the Kremlin, which has outlawed criticism of the armed forces.

Revenge against Mr Galkin was swift, brutal and horrifying. On live prime-time TV, the boss of Russia Today (RT), Putin’s primary international propaganda mouthpiece, smeared the comedian as a gay “hypocrite” who had married an older woman for money.

The accuser was Margarita Simonyan, the person who until very recently was bankrolling the lifestyles of former Scottish politicians and RT personalities Alex Salmond and George Galloway.

Even by the standards of Kremlin state TV this was a shocking episode. Mr Galkin’s older wife, after all, is Russian show business aristocracy, the singer Alla Pugacheva. Nobody, it seems, is safe from being trolled by Kremlin propagandists.

Mr Galkin and Ms Pugacheva have fled to Israel. Other comics – or ‘stendapery’ as the Russians, using a mangled English loan word, call them – have slipped out of the country to Riga, or Warsaw, or Tbilisi.

It is in this last city, the Georgian capital, where Idrak Mirzalizade has found a safe haven. The Belarusian, of Azerbaijaini heritage, was kicked out of Russia last year in a worrying sign of Putin’s crackdown on dissent. Before his expulsion Mirzalizade was jailed for 10 days for what authorities said was a prejudicial joke about ethnic Russians. He had been mocking chauvinistic landlords who rejected tenants, like him, of colour.

Russia’s humorists made an unprecedented united protest against his arrest. To no avail.

Last month Mr Mirzalizade was asked by another now exiled comic how his appeal against his ban from Russia was going. The Belarusian joked he was asking for an extension to its term.

Ukraine and Russia share a huge Soviet-era heritage of subversive humour, of anecdotes satirising, humanising and undermining those in authority. Mr Zelensky, a Russian speaker, is part of that tradition.

The propagandists of Kremlin TV now say (they are not trying to be funny) that he is only president because he was not good enough to be a presenter on their channels.

There are lots of people who have lots of theories about Putin’s war on Ukraine. But there is one observation I think helps explain the difference between the two nations right now. It is this: people with a sense of humour in Ukraine are in power while in Russia they are in exile.