Culture War Correspondence: Russia and the Ukraine

GORDON: The Culture “War” has more often than not been used as a metaphor, but every once in a while (and with increasing occurrence) battles of the heart and mind start to include blood and iron as well.

Today we’re going to be discussing the ongoing Crisis in the Ukraine, both in regards to its roots and its implications in our society as a whole.

EVAN: I’m going to be one hundred percent honest with you, Gordon, and with all of our readers, I’m primarily going to be viewing a lot of Russia’s actions, and the responses of the other world powers, almost purely as if this were all a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization V.


Consequently, I can only imagine Putin like this.

GORDON: So you’re saying you’re okay with it because the expansion of Russia only creates a greater buffer between you and raiding barbarians?

EVAN: It actually works on a few levels, and then falls apart on many others. Ukraine is like the city state that I’ve allied with that another civilization attacks, but that I’m not sure I’m invested enough in to defend. At the same time, I don’t want this other guy to think he can just go around taking land. He’s gotta stay in line.

Where it doesn’t work so well is that if I were to go to war I don’t care a lick about the happiness level of my virtual people. Right now Russia’s actual citizens aren’t too pleased and their markets are in bad shape, so there’s that-

GORDON: That’s… actually not a bad analogy.

Let me offer a quick recap for our readers who are (shamefully) unfamiliar with the situation.

EVAN: He’s putting you on blast, everyone-

GORDON: Over the past few months, there has been pressure from many Ukrainians to strengthen their ties with the EU, a move that would go against the country’s more traditional ties to Russia and the old Soviet system.

At long last, the rather brutal former Ukrainian leader has been ousted by popular protest and Ukraine finally appeared ready to break from Russian influence and move towards the West. This, however, has prompted the former president to go begging to Russia for intervention, and soldiers from Russia have already entered into Eastern Ukraine, focusing largely on the strategically important Crimean Peninsula, jutting out into the Black Sea.

Currently the whole world waits with baited breath to see if this will touch off a civil war or even a conflict that will extend beyond national boundaries and involve not only Eastern Europe but perhaps most of the Western World.

EVAN: It’s generally a pretty tense scene, especially since Putin is essentially playing the game, as it were, exactly like I normally would.

My main interest in Civ V is to expand my territory as quickly as possible with little to no regard as to whose land I’m encroaching upon. What was shocking to me when watching the news today is that his last “turn” was back in 2008, when he took chunks out of Georgia.

Since it occurred during high school and I was more preoccupied with other subjects [ie. girls] I didn’t pay it much attention, but I was shocked that it had happened with no consequence to Russia whatsoever.

GORDON: Now all this said, there are a few key elements which I think even people watching the news very well may be unaware of.

As of now, popular support among Westerners for the protesters in Ukraine was more or less unconditional. After all, this all appears to be not unlike the same spontaneous and democratic protests which marked the Arab Spring and even the Occupy Movements.

If people were take a more close look at the politics of the folks actually protesting, I imagine they might not be quite so quick to throw in behind ’em. While this is certainly not true of every protester who was out in Kiev’s Independence Square, the simple fact of the matter is that the whole movement was comparatively right-wing, and in some cases, involved extreme nationalists, racists, and anti-semites (those who’ve read my tirades on European racism know what I’m talking about).

Ukrainian Neo-Nazis at a football tournament in 2012.

Ukraine itself is actually rather split on the issue, with most of Western Ukraine favoring the EU while huge swathes of Eastern Ukraine still prefer Russia.

With much of the nation’s natural resources and military importance being based around Crimea and the Black Sea, a lot of people are questioning whether the EU would still be interested in the Ukraine if that little bit of land seceded over to Russia.

EVAN: And then there’s the whole issue of whether Ukraine can even survive as a country without Russia, who its been largely dependent on for the past years. I do want to backtrack to what you mentioned, and is much more in line with the overall subject matter of this blog.

The US, and I suppose much of the world due to the proliferation of Western media and ideals, is all about hte underdog. We love the David vs. Goliath story, we really do. With that so deeply embedded in the public consciousness, how far do you think this extends?

I mean, I’m positive that a bigger deal was made out of this protest than, say, Arab Spring which you mentioned.

GORDON: I was actually listening to a podcast on Cracked not too long ago that brought up that very subject. We are absolutely obsessed with the idea of the underdog. Rocky III, for example, has Rocky facing some Russian boxer who’s portrayed as being a miracle of science and technology. In reality, Rocky’s a millionaire and Philly celebrity and his opponent is probably some poor conscripted beet farmer- we just can’t ever show the odds being in our favor.

It just doesn’t make for good dramatic tension…

EVAN: Paradoxically, aren’t most American’s obsessed with the strength of their armed forces? I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing to support the troops, but I’d say that a lot of your countrymen are in love with the idea that your standing forces are the best of the best, hoo-rah.

GORDON: It is a strange paradox, isn’t it? We love our big explosions, but we need to believe that our super-death-plutonium-mechs are being piloted by down-home, red-blooded country boys who love Bon Jovi and apple pies.

EVAN: On the other hand, and since you know immensely more about world politics and history than I probably ever will, can you share a little about the sort of cultural mindsets behind the Ukrainians and the Russians?

Feel free to talk about Putin a little as well. One of the anchors tonight made mention about how World War II is still affecting our politics today, but I don’t know nearly enough about that to comment.

GORDON: In spite of people’s assumptions of me when they find out I’m a Marxist, I actually know very little about Eastern Europe or Soviet history.

My limited understanding is this: In spite of the censorship, and purges, there’s a pretty big support for old Soviet polices in much of Eastern Europe (and the Balkans), simply because the fall of the Iron Curtain has generally resulted in massive crime rates, corruption, human trafficking, and rampant poverty.

It’s very much the “Well at least under _______ the trains ran on time…” mentality.

Now we can debate whether or not that’s actually true- the past is pretty much universally glamorized to the point of fantasy- but one way or another there’s definitely that pull.

Of course, the response that I imagine exists especially among the young, urbanized folk would be that Westernized policies and privatization are offering more options and a lot more more money. At the same time, there’s also the general sense of traditional conservatism that’s existed since pretty much forever, largely tied together by the Russian Orthodox Church, who actually play a pretty big role in Eastern European society- just look at the pictures of priests during the Kiev protests.

Ironically, these are the same guys who help push the rabidly anti-gay agenda that Putin himself is getting flak for.

EVAN: “Grass is always greener on the other side” and all that jazz. I realize that you’re doing a lot of talking, but I don’t have a problem with you leading us and I certainly don’t think our readers do. I’m going to throw another question your way and then I can think we can end on our personal thoughts on we think things should go, such as they are.

I was blessed, if I can use that word, which I shouldn’t, with the opportunity to watch two Democrats and two Republicans bicker about how the Obama administration is handling this whole situation. What I’m asking is, I guess, are the two political parties really all that different in how they’d approach this?

GORDON: Eh, that’s a tough one. I mean, naturally the Republicans are going to be all blood and guts and the Democrats are going to wail “oh the humanity!” but honestly I don’t imagine either party, given absolute power, would really want to do much of anything.

I don’t see either parties being radical enough to have any response other than a stern finger-wagging.

EVAN: Politics in a nutshell, I guess. Anyway, I’m going to share my extremely uninformed opinion and say that the most drastic thing I think the world powers can really do is create an embargo against Russia, and even that’s highly unlikely. It works on the basis of “if you want to steal another kid’s toys then no one will play with you” but even I know the world isn’t that simple.

How about you?

GORDON: Honestly, I’ve been thinking about what the response of the world’s activists and revolutionaries ought to be towards the conflict, and I’m leaning more and more towards seeing this as being similar to World War I. A stupid conflict where a bunch of rich people in one nation send their poor out to fight the poor of some rich people in another nation over some scrap of land which will make either of the rich people marginally more rich. As much as I’m an advocate for militancy, I think the best response here might be for every sane person involved to contemptuously stand in front of tanks on both sides.

EVAN: There’s that really great video clip going around of the Ukrainian soldiers marching on those Russians, but completely unarmed. While they’re saying that overall they’re willing to bleed to drown their enemies [unlikely, there are WAY more Russians] I do like that they’d rather not.

Here’s hoping they continue to opt more for what you’re suggesting.

GORDON: Indeed.

EVAN: And with that, I think we’re done here. Obviously we’ve only just skimmed what is an incredibly important very current issue, but it’s all we can do. The American idea [let’s be fair, Canada’s not got much to do with this] that the little guy should always succeed bears some importance, but so does the pride they take in their military.

At the same time it’s important to think about how the Ukrainians themselves feel [wanting to become more Western/simply join Russia] and believe [some antisemitism and religious homophobia]. It’s obviously not a clear-cut thing, but again, we’ve covered what little we can.

Tune in next week, when I’m sure we’ll be discussing something a little lighter. Sharing your thoughts below is, as always, appreciated.

GORDON: And to drive home just how much lighter the topic will be, I’ll be closing us out for today with this scene taken from M*A*S*H. I’ve never seen the show myself, but this is one profound bit of dialogue that would be good for all to bear in mind in the coming weeks:


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