What your cleaning lady can explain to you about the Ukrainian crisis
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Truth has many dimensions and different people prioritize them in different ways, which is why arriving at some absolute truth recognized by everyone is so problematic if not quixotic.
Historians will tell you how conflicts between Poland, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Russia going back centuries have brought us to the present confrontations in and over Ukraine. There is truth in what they say.
Economists will tell you about the failed reforms that left Ukraine in the dust over the course of the last 23 years of independence while neighbors like Poland and Russia have moved far ahead, fueling the discontent that made possible the latest turbulence and extremist currents in Kiev.
Political scientists will tell you about human aspirations for self-expression and political influence over decisions affecting their lives. These abstractions contain other elements of truth about the Maidan and its consequences.
In this essay I will focus on none of the above ‘big picture’ sides to truth, looking instead to down to earth people and how they understand the unfolding Ukrainian crisis from the context of their own family ties. I begin with the person in the title above: our Ukrainian cleaning lady. Since anecdotal evidence like this is more credible if supported by additional material drawing on statistically relevant samples or on phenomena documented by authoritative sources, I will present some observations that have been widely reported by journalists in respected mainstream American and European media. Where I will differ markedly from their reporting is in the interpretation of the observations as I make the case that Western ‘truth’ about the crisis in and about Ukraine is very superficial if not maliciously concocted by Thought Central in Washington.
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It should come as no surprise to readers in London or Paris or New York, that menial jobs like cleaning lady in middle class households of Brussels are performed by new immigrants. We used to have a succession of Polish ladies helping us once a week with the cleaning of our townhouse. As Poles moved up and out to better paid work, their place has been taken by new arrivals from further East.
Our present cleaning lady, who is from the Western Ukraine, with family roots in the impoverished countryside of Lviv, has been with us for three years. Though she has no higher education, she is bilingual Russian and Ukrainian, with rudimentary French and Polish. As she goes about her duties, she regularly pauses to converse in Russian with my wife about her and our family matters. The women’s talk typically revolved about our grandchildren who are with us on Wednesdays when she works for us and about her daughter and son-in-law who are enrolled in university courses in Warsaw. Politics was always off the table.
Maidan abruptly changed all that, if only briefly. After President Yanukovych was overthrown, Olya arrived at our house in a jubilant mood, speaking proudly about how the crooks had been chased out and Ukraine would soon be on its way into the European Union, with clean government and prosperity sure to follow.
On subsequent weeks, Olya again took up with my wife her narrative of developments back home, developments which she followed both on the phone with relatives in the Lviv region and on Ukrainian satellite television. Her mood changed. When the Russians took Crimea, she saw her homeland as being threatened by the big neighbor to the East. She was very anxious that the newfound freedom would be dashed. Her chat with my Russophile wife became tense.
Two more weeks passed, and Olya came to us completely dismayed, looking embarrassed by her past enthusiasm for the Maidan. She now told us that nothing has changed in the Ukrainian political elites, that aside from a new set of faces, thieves were once again in the seat of power. Looking forward to the presidential elections in May, she could see no candidate worth supporting. Not Tymoshenko, not Klitschko, not Yatsenyuk, the Rabbit. All the candidates were just an embarrassment. The country seemed as far away from the EU as ever. As we understood, Olya has turned off Ukrainian television in disgust.
Since then, the political discussions have ended. Olya and my wife are back talking women’s talk.
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The New York Times and other mainstream Western journalists reported on the sharp rise of Russian nationalism (negative connotation) in Moscow following the annexation of Crimea. They were stunned to see Russian flags hanging out of office and apartment windows all around the city, saying the atmosphere was like in America after 9/11.
From several meetings with acquaintances as well as total strangers in St Petersburg last week and. writing to you as I do today from the Russian countryside, in a hamlet of 200 souls located in the Leningradskaya oblast, 80 km south of St Petersburg, I can add to their observations that the same feeling of national pride or patriotism (positive connotation) seems to be ubiquitous, not merely a phenomenon in the country’s capital and largest city. For the first time in my experience, people other than taxi drivers are keen to talk politics.
In particular, I note that acquaintances who previously only spoke of their government as corrupt and/or incompetent suddenly have become great enthusiasts not merely of the annexation of Crimea but of the Kremlin’s standing up to the West over Ukraine and its insistence on federalization. They are saying with gusto how they are ready to undergo Western sanctions if necessary for the country to defend its interests. They are confident that the price of sanctions will be paid equally heavily by the West, thereby limiting their extent. It is expressions like this which explain the surge in approval ratings of Vladimir Putin in recent weeks to an incredible 80%.
The dramatic rise in Russian nationalism (patriotism) has been uniformly interpreted by our mainstream media as due to the aggressive propaganda campaign being promoted on the country’s state television. This same alleged distortion of the news has been used both in Ukraine and more recently in several of the Baltic States to justify their ordering cable television providers to discontinue their distribution of Russian channels. Western journalists and political commentators would have us believe that their own and Ukrainian state coverage of events in and concerning Ukraine is objective and truthful, whereas the Kremlin is keeping Russian citizens and viewers cut off from the reality of their aggression and bullying of neighbors.
So what is going on? Who is right?
Let’s start with the turn in feelings about Vladimir Putin and his ‘regime’ by Russia’s man in the street and the link to national pride over absorption of the Crimea. Are these feelings that could be manufactured from nothing by effective and unchallenged state propaganda?
Perhaps. But your man in the street was not moved by whatever propaganda content there was on state television before. On the contrary, in December 2012 at least in the capital he demonstrated his disbelief in official news by taking part in mass protests over alleged vote rigging in the Duma elections.
I believe that the capture of Crimea for Russia has been seen by ordinary Russians as a great present to the nation. A Kremlin which only did favors for an inner circle did not command respect. A Kremlin which faces down the West and takes back what people feel was their national legacy is something else. And this statesmanship is all the more powerful given that the government has delivered a public good at its own risk and peril. Personal sanctions on leadership figures were threatened and followed soon afterwards, while the people was left, at least up to now, unscathed.
Here in Russia everyone knows where Crimea is on the map and what its place is in Russian naval, military and national history.Everyone felt it was an injustice that this land had been gifted to Ukraine by Khrushchev and then gifted a second time by Yeltsin in his agreeing to the Ukrainian secession from the Union with Crimea in its hands.
Why everyone? Because so many of today's over 35s had been to the children's summer resorts in Crimea on trips organized by their schools, not to mention the paid family vacations sponsored by major state institutions of the USSR.
As for the situation in Ukraine, here everyone has back channels of information. The extent of intermarriage, of Russian families having close relatives in Ukraine is enormous. Reporting on state television cannot be far removed from what people know from their own experience and that of their kin.
The reasons why there is such an intermixing of Russians and Ukrainians in turn requires an explanation. This is not just the consequence of inter-ethnic romances, some Slavic version of West Side Story or the equivalent of intermarriages between Croats and Serbs whose families had lived side by side in Bosnia for centuries. It is the result of both the nasty and the good aspects of the Soviet past which caused the Homo Sovieticus to settle and re-settle across that vast expanse of Eurasia with almost as much abandon as Americans move across their Continent.
The nasty side of the past was the vast resettlement of families and peoples in Soviet times during Collectivization, during the Great Terror, during the Great Patriotic War and the parallel movement of runaways seeking to escape the clutches of the state machine by disappearing to another end of the empire without the helping hand of the KGB.
The good aspect of the past came from the HR policies of the Soviet system whereby graduates were matched with career opportunities across the Soviet empire.
The common result of these internal migrations was a great deal of mixing up of peoples even if the titular nationality of each republic in the USSR was in the majority. Hence today you will find large numbers of Russians, both your man in the street and leadership personalities, who have Ukraine under their skin.
This being the case, state propaganda about Ukraine in Russia runs up against a constant reality check of people’s family experience and informal information feed.
By contrast, in the West, and in America in particular, most folks would have had a hard time locating Crimea not to mention Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkiv on the map prior to the onset of the present troubles. They have no store of knowledge or family experience to help them judge whether reporting about Ukraine on their television sets is impartial or pure propaganda from the Neocon dominated majority of their foreign policy establishment.
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
Article is published with permission from Gilbert Doctorow.