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.