What You Need to Know about Russia

Starting from around 1986, it became possible in the USSR to learn things about what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That’s when we discovered that Westerners had a standard of living that we couldn’t even begin to imagine.

It’s not a trivial thing when your entire sense of self, your whole understanding of how the world works falls apart. Everything we knew about ourselves turned out to be a lie. We had to abandon our entire way of living and adopt yours because we were suddenly told that yours was vastly superior. And that’s after 70 years of hearing the exact opposite. Have you noticed how hard it is for people to abandon the COVID narratives that they have come to believe? Those narratives are very recent. And still, it’s so hard. Imagine throwing away everything you, your parents, your grandparents and your great-grandparents believed and accepting the exact opposite. How easy will that be?

It’s one thing when you have somebody else to blame for this massive, multigenerational mistake. In the USSR, people who lived in the 14 republics that were not Russia could blame the Russians. They forced us into it (which was actually true)! We are not to blame (not entirely true)! It’s not on us (totally untrue but feels good)!

But what were the Russians supposed to do? Who was there to blame for throwing 70 years of the country’s history into the gutter, genociding the best among the population, destroying science, economy, art, education, everything, and falling hopelessly behind other large countries?

Initially, when the truth started coming out, Russia experienced a wave of almost slavish adoration of everything American or Western European. But living with the thought of “I’m bad and this other guy is good” is impossible long-term. It’s psychologically destructive. People need to see themselves as good. Maybe unfairly done by, victimized, persecuted but not stupid pieces of shit. You can’t believe that you are a stupid piece of shit and continue living.

So people in Russia started looking for a new narrative, a different explanation of why the standard of living in the West was so much higher. Why is America the world leader and we aren’t? they asked. Surely, it can’t be because we aren’t as good.

When somebody has something you passionately want but just can’t get, what do you do?

More often than not, you devalue it. “I never even wanted it in the first place. I have something much more important that the other guy can’t have. He only has all that because he’s evil, corrupt, etc.” And all the time that you devalue it, you keep wanting it, wanting it, wanting it.

This is the dynamic that Russia has been stuck in for over 20 years now. It’s in the official statements, on the news, and in every daily conversation.

Imagine that you have a neighbor called Jack. He’s very successful, lives in a mansion, has a beautiful family, and enjoys every comfort. Everybody in the neighborhood listens to him with great respect. Whatever Jack says is accepted as the norm at every meeting of the HOA. You, in the meantime, live in a shack, have no money, drink heavily, carry tons of debt, have no family, and nobody takes you seriously. And Jack loves to stop you in the street to lecture you on how to do better in life because he’s a bit of a preachy asshole. The neighbors see him schooling you, and it’s so humiliating.

All you have is your best friend Brian, and the two of you really enjoy getting together over a beer to bitch about how much Jack sucks. And then one day Brian says, “you are such a loser. I don’t want to be your friend any more. I’m going to try to become friends with Jack and maybe he’ll teach me how to be successful and not a pathetic loser like you.” We all want to think we are a better person and would not feel like socking Brian in his traitorous little face. But it’s hard to resist, especially when you realize that the whole neighborhood will now see what happened. Everybody will know that even your best friend abandoned you for that stuck-up jackass Jack.

This is the situation between Russia, Ukraine and the US. The US is, of course, the preachy rich asshole Jack. Ukraine is Brian who is tired of being a resentful loser and wants to learn to do better. And Russia is the guy who’s being publicly abandoned by his best friend in the most humiliating way possible. We can try to reduce this situation to something small and pedestrian like “Russia doesn’t want the NATO to come closer to its borders” (or, “the abandoned friend doesn’t want to see Brian and Jack hanging out together from his backyard.”) But it’s a lot bigger than that. The truth is that it hurts. Ukraine very publicly announced that it doesn’t want to hang out together any more. Changed its FB status and moved on. And Russia is trying to drag it back by force.

If Jack rejects Brian’s offers of friendship or (and that’s a lot less likely) sees the light and stops being so smug and preachy, will that help the abandoned friend feel less humiliated and resentful? Well, you decide. I believe that it won’t because resentment and humiliation live inside. The friend will need to decide to get over it and make large efforts to stop being resentful loser. Otherwise, he’s stuck in his world of hatred and pain.

What You Need to Know About Ukraine

In 1654, Ukraine signed a military protection treaty with Russia. As a result, Russia gradually overtook Ukraine and made it part of the Russian Empire. In spite of that, Ukraine maintained its linguistic and cultural differences from Russia for the next 250 years. When the Russian Empire fell apart after the Bolshevik revolution, Ukraine immediately declared independence and started a process of nation-building. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long because the Bolshevik regime gained strength and forced Ukraine to integrate into the USSR.

Mind you, Ukraine was never part of Russia. Just like the US was never part of England and Mexico was never part of Spain. The actual differences are even more profound because the US shares its language with England and Mexico shares its with Spain. Ukraine, on the other hand, always had its own language and a very distinctive culture. (I’m a Ukrainian married to a Russian, and believe me, we feel our cultural differences daily).

In the USSR, Ukraine was one of the 15 republics with its own constitution, national flag, anthem, and a legally defined (although obviously unenforceable) right to leave the USSR.

Throughout the late 1980s and very early 1990s, there was a massive desire for independence in Ukraine. I was there at the time and experienced it daily, so please let’s not debate this point. Finally, Ukraine conducted a referendum where people overwhelmingly voted for sovereignty and left the USSR. As a result, the USSR collapsed. This was a happy moment for Ukrainians but a deeply traumatic development for most Russians who still perceive it as a tragedy 30 years later.

To show its readiness to join the civilized world and leave behind the legacy of the Cold War, Ukraine gave up its gigantic stock of nuclear weapons to demonstrate its commitment to stopping nuclear proliferation. At the urging of the United States, Ukraine peacefully handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia, its biggest geopolitical enemy. This was an unprecedented gesture of goodwill and peacefulness. In return, the US and the UK promised to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and protect the country if Russia invaded. This was called “Budapest Accords.” Please look them up for more details in case you are still wondering why Ukraine is America’s business. US has been trying to stop nuclear proliferation for decades. Reneging on its official and recent promises to Ukraine will destroy all of its credibility for any future negotiations with countries that want their own nukes.

For the next 25 years, Ukraine was a sovereign nation but much of its political and cultural space was controlled by Russia. This means no true democracy was possible because Russia is culturally resistant to democracy for a variety of reasons (and I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, just that it’s a fact) and Ukraine has culturally been very receptive to democratic institutions for centuries.

In 2013, the people of Ukraine were finally ready to try a real democracy and not a corrupt fake kind that existed in the post-Soviet space since 1991.

Russia understandably freaked out and invaded. Ukraine at that time had no standing army to speak of but Ukrainians made an inhuman effort of willpower and patriotism and repelled the invasion. Still, about 1% of Ukraine’s territory was occupied by Russia and has been occupied ever since. Now Russia is threatening to renew the invasion.

It’s been years, though. Since then, Ukraine managed to create and train some pretty serious armed forces. It has also experienced some quite extraordinary successes (and quite a few setbacks) in building a real market economy and fighting corruption. It’s a slow process because what isn’t? Do you know anybody who came out of 70 years of a totalitarian regime and went on to prosper fast after that? Me neither.

So what does Ukraine want from the US?

The #1 thing to know is that nobody in Ukraine ever wanted, suggested or dreamt of suggesting that the US send troops to Ukraine to fight against Russians. The idea is ludicrous. Ukraine has an army that has been fighting for years. Ukraine is defending itself. Everybody needs to relax and stop fantasizing about “Ukraine as the next Afghanistan.” This is idiotic and I’m ashamed of hearing formerly serious people go on about it.

What Ukraine needs is, first of all, moral support. Ukrainians believe in the values of the Western civilization in the best meaning of the world. Even if the West itself has decided to abandon them, these values still feel attractive to many people in Eastern Europe. The incapacity of the West to stand proudly for its great civilizational achievements results in this sad relativism where even saying “democracy is better than authoritarianism” becomes impossible.

And another thing that Ukraine needs (or, rather, needed because, sadly, that boat has now sailed) is US’s opposition to Nordstream 2.

That’s it. Moral support as in “we are so happy you guys want democracy, capitalism and individual freedoms, yay for you!” and no Nordstream 2. It’s not that much to ask.

In the next post, I will explain Russia’s position in all of this.

I welcome questions.


This is a little reminder that “Democrats are pushing for war with Russia over Ukraine” is as much of a fake story as “COVID is dangerous to children” and “COVID vaccines prevent infection.”

It’s all a fantasy aimed at distracting people from important stuff. We are in the midst of an enormous societal transformation but we can’t concentrate on what’s happening because we are being fed a steady stream of these invented scandals that fragment our attention.

Knowing how to identify these attention-splitting tricks is very important.

Who’s Your Mommy?

When I tell people that the pandemic is mostly over, Omicron is mild, and the UK finally repealed the mask mandates, they react like a toddler who’s told that mommy doesn’t love him. The wounded, orphaned look of existential dread on their faces shows that they trauma-bonded to COVID and now COVID is their mommy.

And they won’t let anybody take mommy away from them.