Russia and Ukraine: Stupidity, Cynicism, or Both?

by Eliot Borenstein

Like most of the people who bother to read this blog, I’m finding it difficult to think about anything besides the looming war between Russia and Ukraine.  As I’m glued to my computer screen, I’m reminded of the previous crises in the former Soviet Union, crises I usually weathered in front of a TV switched to CNN.  But there are differences.

Now, of course, I check Facebook. I’ve also been watching CNN for the first time in years, out of a kind of atavistic reflex.  And if I weren’t depressed already, half an hour of cable news would do it.  I’m disheartened by the shallow coverage  and the depressing demographic implications of the frequent advertisements for portable catheters and Life-Alert bracelets.  Presumably FOX, with its even older and more unhinged audience, shills for funeral homes and post-Rapture real estate, but that’s not particularly comforting.

I’ve also been forcing myself to vary my Russian media diet, alternating between the soothingly liberal TV-Rain and the reliably hysterical Channel One.

So naturally, I feel like screaming.  Not “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”—nothing so coherent. The flood of self-serving and self-satisfied verbiage of the past few days demands a response consisting entirely of vowels at high decibels.

But that would be bad, even by blogging standards. Instead,  let’s play a game.  Are the following phenomena examples of stupidity, cynicism, or both?


* The reduction of the problem to a story of Good Guys and Bad Guys:  Freedom-loving Ukrainians vs. the latest Stalin in the Kremlin.  Or neo-fascist revolutionaries in Kiev vs liberators from Russia.

* Commentators in the US shocked that a superpower is invading a country in its sphere of influence (like Grenada? Panama? half of Latin America?)

* Pro-Russian dismissal of American criticism due to the history mentioned above

* Khrushchev giving Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the first place.  What do you get for the republic that has everything? It was either Crimea or a pair of cufflinks.

* Former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov justifying Russia’s actions because Khrushchev’s gift to Ukraine was a violation of the Soviet Constitution. Yes, the Soviet Constitution was violated—I’m as shocked as you are.

* Night Watch author Sergei Lukyanenko banning translations of his work into Ukrainian, because “there is no such country as Ukraine, and there shall never be.”

* Americans stunned at Russian support for military action in Ukraine.  Apparently, we don’t recognize the George W. Bush playbook in action

* Supporters of Russian military action who say that America’s invasion of Iraq deprives us of the right to criticize.

* The new Ukrainian parliament’s decision to rescind the status of Russian as a second regional language.  What possible good could this have ever accomplished?  Other than making sure that the “INVADE ME” sign they put on Crimea’s back was in Ukrainian.

* TV pundits who still refer to “the” Ukraine.  Yes, it seems trivial if you’re not Ukrainian, and particularly funny when you’re talking about a country whose language doesn’t even have definite articles, but 1) it’s not up to you and 2) it’s been over twenty years already.

* Russian supporters of the invasion labeling all Ukrainian protesters“fascists”, in part because of Ukrainian collaboration during WWII.  Hey, the same trick was tried in Yugoslavia.  And look how well that worked out!

*The naive assumption in the Western media that every Ukrainian protester is a freedom-loving democrat, and that this is the moment when Democracy Finally Comes to Ukraine.  Uh, didn’t that happen a few years ago?

* It could be World War III! This is more of a Facebook phenomenon than anything else.  In any case, it won’t be.  Russia still has nuclear weapons.

* It could be the Bay of Pigs!  [Russianists, insert сало joke here].  No.  Cuba was (and is!) on our borders.  Ukraine is on theirs.  Different stakes.

* Pesky Tatar build-up. Remember the Tatars?  They were exiled from Crimea by Stalin.  Shouldn’t that give us pause when we think about whether Crimea “belongs” to Ukraine or Russia?  And yes, i know I write this while living on territory that my country stole/swindled from the native Americans.  But let’s not mistake irony for an imperative to keep silent.




In any argument over Russian and Ukraine, it never hurts to go back to Nikolai Gogol, the Russian (Ukrainian?) writer who made “Little Russia” a fashionable topic in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Gogol ends his classic short story “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” about two friends who have a fight over something pointless, with a famous exclamation:


Скучно жить на этом свете, господа!

It’s a dreary world, gentlemen!


You said it, Nikolai! Or Mikola.  I really don’t care which one.

6 responses to “Russia and Ukraine: Stupidity, Cynicism, or Both?”

  1. Tony Anemone says:

    Brilliant as usual, Eliot! But I like to think that there are some Americans who don’t support Russian military action but also think the US has no moral authority to criticize others for using military force in areas that they consider important to their “national interest.”

    • Eliot Borenstein says:

      Thanks, Tony. I don’t look at it as a matter of moral authority. I assume that there’s no country on earth that can claim purity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize. We should be criticizing *everybody*, ourselves first and foremost, but not exclusively.

      • Tony Anemone says:

        I meant that the US govt lacks the moral authority to effectively criticize Russia – I certainly agree that “we” should criticize whomever is doing evil.

        • Yury says:

          Actually it’s not a matter of moral principles, time has come to reopen banned geopolitics. Noone cancelled the spheres of influence and security zones, which of Russia were ruined by accepting East Europe states into the NATO and implementing missiles on RF borders. It’s just all about the challenge and response, master has worked well and reminded all tricks to the opponent, which turned to be not imbicile!

  2. Nice, I’d vote for the Vikings to lead Nato to confront Putin, but let Putin fire first!

  3. yel says:

    Скучнo = boring / lonely

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