Translation: A Hell Of Their Own Making

Believe it or not but some people call me a Russophobe. Even more shockingly, perhaps, I plead guilty (at least in the sense that I do not have a very high opinion of the Russian people). There are only two logical alternatives: (1) Claims that Russia really is as good as Western Europe and the US on issues like corruption, social cohesion, etc., which is quite simply implausible to almost anyone who lived there; (2) That the cronyism, bad roads, etc. are all the fault of “corrupt bureaucrats” or even just “Putin”, as if to pretend that they are not real Russians but an occupying force, which is simply bizarre and only believed in by liberals.

The most plausible but rather banal explanation is that to the extent that things are bad in Russia (although, ironically, as I’ve frequently shown here they are nowhere near as bad as portrayed in the Western media) they are bad because of Russians themselves, or more precisely the crook-enabling and general impudent go-fuck-yourself attitudes inherited from the Soviet era. There is no way to quickly change this, least of all by decree, and Putin himself implicitly recognizes this, although as President, he has to sugarcoat things and explain them to the people in a fatherly way (whereas as a blogger I am perhaps a bit blunt about these things).

Anyhow, the following account basically encapsulates the basic thing that is wrong with Russia and, indirectly, the liberal interpretation of the symptoms (that they are the Kremlin’s fault). And while A Hell of their Own Making is set in Ukraine, any Russian would recognize this in her own country; only Ukrainian nationalists would seriously deny that social attitudes in Russia and Ukraine are rather similar.

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A Hell of Their Own Making

I live abroad. Once upon a time, I came to visit my mother in Ukraine with my husband. I got the kin together for a barbecue picnic. We decided to go to a place not far from mother’s house – a beautiful valley with a lake and a small forest. During my childhood I loved to wander there among the sweet-smelling grass and wild flowers, and to bathe in the lake.

We came there. The wild grass was now covered with tall weeds, many places were burnt out or filled up with plastic rubbish. I was so disappointed! We could barely find a more or less clean clearing by the lake. We tidied up the trash and cigarette butts so that we could sit, then we started a fire in the mangal grill. The barbecue was delicious, but the sight of my beloved valley depressed me – everything was so dirty, so pathetic… The lake was murky and desiccated. I did not risk swimming in it.

From the start I told my relatives not to throw the trash into the grass and bushes, but to gather it up and put it into a special bag. When we were leaving I checked that we had left nothing behind. For I was very sad about this forest clearing. And I was loudly distraught that people could so comprehensively foul up a place where they themselves went to relax. Is it really so difficult to carry the trash over to the bins that are one hundred meters away at the valley’s end?

When we were preparing to leave, I found out that no-one had the trash bag in their hands. I started asking who had it. And my mom waved it way – we’ve already thrown it away. “How did you do it, where?” I whispered. “There, into the reeds. What, are we garbage men or something? Everyone dumps it there!” It was hard to refrain from swearing out loud. It was impossible to retrieve the trash from there – it had already lodged in the reeds by the cliff.

At that moment I recognized a great truth: They deserve the lives they lead. They deserve their cracked asphalt, broken lampposts, dirty streets, and reeking rivers, and their criminal government, and their miserly wages and pensions. They spit on themselves, so why shouldn’t the government spit on them? They do not respect themselves – so who will respect them?

It is not the government which litters on the streets and trashes children’s playgrounds. It is not the President who steals lampposts and cables. I no longer trust your complaints. My countrymen, it is you who created your own hell, and it’s you who will have to live in it.

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Harsh but it rings true. I wonder if any “Russophiles” will now call the author a Russophobe (or perhaps Ukrainophobe) herself? The only thing I have to add is that many Russians – especially liberals, and those who love to complain – really do not realize how their own actions and attitudes (or the lack of them; in a recent poll, only 50% of Russians said they’d report a drunk driver, compared to about 90% in the US and the UK) contribute to problems. It is always someone else who is to blame, like Putin, or the US, or oligarchs, or ethnic minorities. Oftentimes this hatred is expressed in shockingly violent and callous terms to popular approval. They cannot see fault in themselves, so ironically enough, it is the much loathed Russian state itself which is left with the unenviable task of trying to re-inculcate basic moral values and respect for the law into a self-hating and crook-enabling society.

That is why I support it. The words of the liberal-conservative Vekhi are as relevant now as they were back in 1909: “We ought to fear the people and bless this government which, with its prisons and bayonets, still protects us from the people’s fury.”

Is The Ukrainian Children Learning?

According to a recent Vzglyad article by Olga Gritsenko titled Universal Stupefaction, no they are not. Here are the cold raw facts:

  • Libraries stock 4% of books published in Ukraine, compared to 18% in Russia and 40% in the US and Canada.
  • The average Ukrainian spends $2.5 on books in one year, compared to $22 in Russia.
  • In 2010/11, the average Ukrainian spent just under 3 hours reading newspapers and journals per week, down 25% from 2007/08. The equivalent figure in Russia is 7 hours.
  • In fairness, their universities are rated higher than Russia’s (as well as Poland’s and the Czech Republic’s) by an outfit called Universitas 21.

Obvious counter-objections don’t explain these shortcomings. Russia has a higher Internet penetration, but nonetheless Russians read a lot more books and newspapers. Nor can a nearly tenfold difference in per capita book sales be purely or even mostly a reflection of lower book prices in the Ukraine.

That said, in a sense these statistics aren’t surprising. According to international student assessments, the level of human capital in Ukraine appears to be similar to the lowest ranked ethnic Russian provinces in Russia. This does not bode well for Ukraine’s future economic growth, given the tight interrelationship between human capital and development, and might go some way to explaining the already big – and growing – prosperity gap with its Moskali neighbors.