One thing that I don’t like about Aseyev’s book In Isolation are the footnotes. Of course, the book is published by Harvard University Press, so the footnotes are either snooty (“the author misunderstands XYZ”) or uninformed. For instance, the slang word “sovok” is explained as “a person who uncritically supports Soviet ideology and buys into Soviet propaganda.” The problem is that when the word was invented in the 1970s such people didn’t exist. Sovok is a person who’s obedient, badly dressed, lacks initiative, and is generally afraid of life. The fashionable crowd in the 1970s used the word to describe people in cheap fake Soviet jeans who followed the rules.

Broken Executive Function

Do you know anybody who has problems with carrying things through to a conclusion? Such people experience sudden bursts of enthusiasm towards an activity or a goal, attack it with all they’ve got, talk about it obsessively but then fizzle out and move on to a new hobby.

That’s Putin’s personality to a T. It’s become a running joke, on the par with his notorious tardiness. He starts an initiative, it gets massively hyped, every news channel is on it 24/7. But then he loses interest, gets distracted, and everybody quietly moves on because it turns into an embarrassment. The poor fool couldn’t even manage to complete the construction of his biggest palace. It just sits there, unfinished and unused, as a silent monument to Putin’s broken executive function.

And I bet that, with the endless discussions of Putin in the media, you’ve never heard this. The tardiness, at least, gets mentioned every once in a while. But the faulty executive function never does.

For normal people (not Putin) who experience this problem, the advice is to go back to the moment when they lost interest and look at it very attentively. Where were you physically? Who was with you? What were you doing? What were you feeling? There’s usually something massive hiding in that moment when interest evaporates. And it normally is a short moment. We tell ourselves that it was a gradual process but that’s actually the time we spend trying to ignore the death of the interest. It’s the denial stage that happens after the interest perishes.

Another Donbas Anecdote

There’s also this fascinating story in Aseyev’s book In Isolation.

It became fashionable among the defenders of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” to bring home weaponry and grenades to show off to neighbors and friends. Once, a DPR soldier was standing in front of his apartment building with a bunch of friends, demonstrating his collection of weapons. The soldier’s two-year-old son was nearby.

These local DPR guys aren’t real soldiers, of course. They get no training and have no idea what they are doing most of the time. So it’s not surprising that soon enough one of the grenades blew up. The DPR guy was seriously wounded. His little son was shell-shocked and started bleeding from his ears. (The poor kid lost his hearing as a result of this).

But the strangest thing, says Aseyev, who was at the scene because this was the apartment building where he lived, was the reaction of the people present. They remained completely indifferent, and within minutes of the explosion were talking about how it had been carried out by evil Americans.

“Why are you saying this?” Aseyev asked. “You were here. You saw that he blew himself up by accident.”

The people shrugged. Blaming Americans is simply what you say. It’s like “hi, how are you” or “diversity is our strength.” It’s a verbal tick that creates new reality instead of describing an existing one.

Fear of Freedom

Another important observation that Aseyev makes in his book In Isolation is that the inhabitants of the Donbas have the Soviet mentality of waiting for a strong leader who will come and solve every problem or at least take the responsibility for everything.

Aseyev describes a rally in Donetsk in 2015 where the people gathered hoping to see such a strong leader. But there was none to be found. Finally, a shriveled, shaking old man was pushed to the stage. He had nothing to say and nothing to offer. But the spectators were ecstatic. Finally! The Big Daddy was there! Now everything was going to be OK. Of course, it was a false hope, and now barely anybody remembers the name of that shriveled potential savior.

Aseyev explains that in the Donbas the news of the Ukrainian revolution of 2013 and the subsequent creation of democracy in Ukraine was greeted with horror. The idea of democracy with its unpredictability, its regular transfer of power, and its freedom of expression and association created unbearable anxiety. Who’s going to decide everything? Who is going to explain what to think on every subject? Who’s going to determine what is right and what is wrong? Nobody? That can’t be tolerated!

But at least the people of the Donbas are consistent. They want a single unified narrative that allows for no freedom of thought or action. So they oppose democracy.

In the US, it’s precisely the people who constantly fret about the possible death of democracy who want to impose a single, uncontested narrative. It’s precisely the people who keep saying how important democracy is who can’t tolerate the slightest difference of opinion and want to eradicate any ideological dissidence.

It’s easy to despise the people of the Donbas. And indeed, they are a sorry bunch. But they are not alone in their fear of freedom and the inevitable risks and tradeoffs that freedom brings.