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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

A Ten-year Overnight Tragedy

As in all my post, in this one I try to share a feeling and a piece of myself. I am not sure how well I manage it here. I am scared and my brain is desperately trying to understand what is happening. This war makes some sense (high oil prices, money reserves, strong gas dependents, lack of EU leadership). But somehow it still feels senseless to me. See the post below as an experiment in fear and spurious learning.

In 2014 I went to Russia. It was a different place and throughout my visit, I felt a bit different from how I felt in other places I had traveled. That feeling was new to me. For someone born in a somehow normal country (in terms of GDP, CO2 emissions, education, religion, etc.), It is easy to travel and feel home. Not so then.

It was different because, I arrived some three months after the annexation of Crimea. For a nation full of Sbarro's, Subway, and Jamie Oliver restaurants, the few Russians I met, were proud of their government's actions. This was new to me. Being proud of an invasion? How? That intrigued me and so I asked questions whenever possible.

Sure, I talked with just a couple of Russians. But these few were acceptant of the trouble it would entail to their country. They told me of the historic value Crimea had had in Russian history. Of how Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian as a repayment on Stalin's planned genocide. They told me how the gift was done in the hopes of the USSR being a forever growing entity and thus that they never thought of Crimea not being Russian.

Dark analogies were made to motivate the invasion of a sovereign state. The Finish war was one. Explained in the form of Finland being gifted independence by the Russians. But the gift was too great as the border was too close to St. Petersburg and thus provided a geopolitical problem. The reasoning for the war was then trivial, given that Finland was a gift, Russia could ask for part of it back without feeling bad about it. As an analogy it made sense. But only if you removed as your empathy from your heart.

Clearly this was just some form of internalized propaganda. Humans are normally more empathetic than that. At least most people I've met wouldn't condone a war for reclaiming a gift one once gave. Sure, I grew up in a country without an army but I feel that war is not something we justify so easily, no? At least one would need a huge propaganda machine to make humans be so un-empathetic. Right?

I needed a third experience to understand why these two explanations made sense to those who shared them with me. At Coffeeshop in St. Petersburg, the more prevalent coffee franchise, I faced something new. I ordered a cappuccino. I got it, all good. The barista was laconic but nice overall. They asked me if I needed anything else, sugar, etc. I said no. I sat down and realized that actually, I'd like a pack of sugar and a spoon. I was told that I could not get it. This was strange to me, seconds before I was told I could get one for free. What changed? Well very simple, I had no economic value. My transaction was done. I was a nuisance and they were in control, I was useful only if profitable. I was shown my station. I could no longer get free sugar, just as Finland would need to fight a war to keep its land, and Crimea would be annexed after Russia wanted it's gift back. People needs were transactional, empathy had a price tag.

Alas, this was what felt different while I was there. This transactional empathy. It was what scared me when the people I met told me of their support for invasions, and for their dark analogies on war. I believe this difference comes out of some kind of propaganda. Yet if eight years ago, this propaganda could make people accept the invasion of an island, it scares me to imagine what eight years could do.

I do not understand this war. I get that Putin has been manipulating his people to support it and that overnight Ukraine is invaded once again. But I do not understand why. Alas, I do not need to understand. I need to empathize with all who are losing their homes, be hurt by the war, and who will lose their lives. I do not understand why but I know that what is happening is a tragedy and I have certainty of it being deplorable and inhuman.

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