Thoughts by the Fence

9 January 2013, 15:03

I recently talked to two of my close friends, former Kyiv residents, with several days between the conversations. Both left Ukraine quite a while ago, one for New York and the other for Moscow. Friends are always friends, and joy is always joy, but somehow I sensed that it was much easier for me to find common ground with my American friend than with my friend in Moscow. More exactly, we look at  key foundational issues in virtually the same way, but here, in Kyiv, it is much easier to judge American affairs, although distant and seemingly hard to comprehend, than Russian ones. There is a palpable lack of details and immediate impressions, the things that make up bland everyday living, even though New York would seem to be as far away as the moon, while realities in Ukraine and Russia appear to be similar down to the smallest details.

This apparent similarity is perplexing. To begin with, our northern neighbours are better-off in a purely everyday terms. Pensions and average salaries in Russia are about twice as high as in Ukraine, and the difference is even more striking in large cities. The sky-high “oil rent” permits Russians to not only steal on an industrial scale but also maintain and gradually increase a minimum acceptable standard of living – for the time being. All these things secure the support of most citizens – it is an undeniable fact. That this support is fed by state propaganda which follows the worst Soviet traditions and is powerful and blunt but nevertheless effective explains a lot but doesn’t change anything.

The so-called silent majority is omnipresent. It guarantees stability and a certain inertia without which countries cannot exist. The average Russian believes he is cleverer, kinder and fairer than the rest of the world, especially the stupid Yankees and the perfidious Ukies. Russians believe that until the world price of oil drops by half, bread and vodka will cost the same in Russia. They are also convinced that all these libertards (liberasty, a purely Russian coinage!) together with the cubicle rats who join antigovernment rallies are steered from the White House and financed by Tbilisi.

As far as the relatively small so-called educated class is concerned, it is confused. It hates the ruling “party of fraudsters and thieves”, embraces European values and is prepared to defend them, sometimes at the risk of its own comfort and well-being. It takes personal offence at all the pranks of the Russian power vertical, including a series of recent laws that entrench the sense of Russia as a besieged fortress: the laws on foreign agents and NGOs, on high treason, on “improper” websites, on the ban on Americans adopting Russian children and so on. This class is enraged by persecutions and harassment of opposition members who pose no real threat to the government but only violate the much-cherished showcase “like-mindedness”.

At the same time, Russian intellectuals are almost convinced that – surprise! – it is better for Ukraine to be together with Russia! And they believe that fascists have entered Ukrainian parliament, that the UPA cooperated with the Nazis and that in Lviv a careless word in Russian will earn you a punch in the face. There is no point in arguing that these are mere superstitions. Paradoxically, Russian liberal thinkers have recently been willing to let go of certain parts of the federation (under the slogan “Enough feeding the Caucasus!”) and may even consider a scenario of Russia’s breakup but will, at the same time, insist on a Ukraine-Russia union or, at the very least, Ukraine’s membership in the Customs Union on the premise that we have similar mentalities and can enjoy economic advantages.

I don’t want to repeat here the hackneyed phrase about the Russian liberal and the Ukrainian issue or Zbigniew Brzezinski’s maxim on the Russian Empire with Ukraine and without it. I only want us to stay focused. The slap in the face Viktor Yanukovych received when his visit to Moscow was suddenly rescheduled does not in any way imply that the Kremlin is less interested in annexing the rebellious province which Ukraine is in its eyes. On the contrary, its interest is backed up by the united consent of the public at large – not only the plebes but also the elites – in Russia. This – and not politicians in both countries or the Russian fifth column in Ukraine – is the source of the greatest danger.

Paradoxically, gigantic Russia with its cultural and ethnic diversity is much more monolithic in its fundamental ideologies  (and hence collective illusions) than the compact and seemingly more homogeneous Ukraine. We have more pluralism, and it resides not in the mythical division into “European western” and “Asian eastern” part of the country but in ordinary internal freedom when there is no binding need for everyone to have the same, one and only correct position.

This is so far our single fundamental advantage, and it would be a great pity to lose it.

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