A vague title of this piece is deliberate: there is no single clear message I am going to send, but I think I am ought to express some feelings and share my thoughts on the ongoing events. In most cases I am inclined to let the things settle down and discuss them later, as I am quite a slow thinker, and it takes time for any consistent picture to form in my head. This is true even for purely technological topics, so being an "early adopter" is not typical for me. However, some words have to be said without delays even if the only person who cares about my views is me.
Russian authorities have a ridiculously good knack for making hard choices simple.
Over years, I have come to realization that the world is organized in a messy and illogical manner, and it is full of strange facts and surprising contradictions. However, all of us are prone to "narratives" that strive to simplify the picture and make it somewhat comprehensible. It is fine as far as we are aware of our narratives' limitations and ready to deal with points not fitting into our world view. In my daily life I am perfectly content with Newtonian physics and an abstract model of a computer as a perfect-precision device pushing around binary numbers. Yet I am ready to accept that my abstraction is leaky and deal with leaks on a case-by-case basis or even review my models if they are becoming too unwieldy.
For this reason, I am generally wary, for example, of documentaries and especially mockumentaries: even the most honest authors have to choose a cast of actors, frame their footage, and add sound/music effects. While all these pieces do contribute to the quality of the final work, they impede understanding of the underlying material. What I get is a certain interpretation of reality, exposed via a particular choice of facts and a particular choice of words expressing them, reinforced further with a certain "overarching story" and (to make the things worse) with irrelevant audio and visual signals. Texts are generally better, but also not free of such flaws, of course.
Thus, I recognize the multitude of world views, and understand people’s diverse and often contradictory wishes and desires. I wish people were just a bit less stupid and aggressive, but I don’t see a way to achieve it. The next best thing would be to agree, at least, on certain principles of civilized behavior: yes, I disagree with you, but we can negotiate a compromise or (if it isn’t possible) decide how we are going to make our choices. If you lose according to our jointly devised procedure in the latter case, just suck it up and move on. Breaking pre-negotiated rules is unacceptable: it means that one party drags others into a new type of game without mutual consent. This consent can probably be obtained post factum, but, in general, it is a very slippery slope.
In the past, we could see examples of balancing on this slope, both successful and not. For me personally, one dark "suck it up" moment was 2012 Russian presidential election campaign with its infamous Putin/Medvedev castling. I hoped that the previous elections signified a gradual transfer of power and a subsequent shift to a certain "new phase", whatever it was going to be. I understood well that the party system at the time was still very immature, and there is no great surprise that much of the population voted for status quo given the lack of other strong proposals. Since even the status quo party has to deal with daily challenges and be flexible, I don’t feel that being in power for a prolonged period of time for the same party (not the same person) is exceedingly unbearable. However, for a number of reasons they decided to play safe and orchestrated a "grand return". I remember feeling unhappy and disappointed, but not deceived: they used a loophole in the Constitution, and it’s not their trickery that the loophole was there.
At that time I could still agree to disagree with people who saw those events in a positive light. We could play the same game of arguments and persuasion, understanding that someone would inevitably lose, as you can’t really go left and right at the same moment. However, step by step the rules of the game were being modified: some movements and parties had been banned, and many people had been denied their right to participate in the elections. Every time the process was fairly well organized and backed up with all due laws and procedures. Thus, I am not even blaming the people directly making those decisions: while they are accountable for the current sorry state of political climate, they simply used the most efficient methods and shortcuts available to achieve their goals. Not many of us are so refined to question our methods if they are legally backed. What really saddens me is that the supporters fail to see how their elected leaders change the game on the go, which isn’t really in the interest of the rest of the society. Even worse, they often don’t see it as a problem, as "the end justifies the means".
At least for me, such events change the whole nature of interactions between the parties. Alice has a point, and Bob has a point. Alice breaks the rules, and all the points are not relevant anymore. To discuss them, we need to return to the game first, otherwise who cares? Before coming back to the present day, I can say I sympathize with Dmitry Bykov’s sentiment on Soviet Union’s collapse. He recalls that many intellectuals including Sakharov believed the troubled country could be gradually transformed and modernized without breaking it apart. The nationalist movements in Soviet Republics were strong, but not equally strong everywhere. Perhaps, the deals could have been made, but the forceful actions of the central government, e.g., in Tbilisi and Vilnius were made with an elephant’s grace, sealing the country’s fate. "There was a complex position on the chessboard, and the pieces were simply thrown off". In other words, the arguments of "centralists" and "nationalists" were rendered useless: who would seek a mutual agreement for the greater good, if one party takes out a hammer?
I fully realize that the text above is my own narrative, not necessarily reflecting other interpretations of the same story. Fortunately, it isn’t the main point that I am going to defend. My hope (for the world) is that people realize they can’t agree on many issues, but they can move the debate one or more levels higher and negotiate there. If we can’t agree where to go, let’s agree on the procedure of how we decide. If we can’t agree on the procedure, let’s agree on a procedure of making procedures. Let’s at least agree on some basic principles of behavior and stick to them. Throwing pieces off the table doesn’t invalidate any problems being discussed, but the thrower can’t participate in the dialogue anymore.
I hope I am fairly consistent in my approach. I was equally frustrated with media’s outcry following Trump’s victory, his expulsion from Twitter, attempts to replay Brexit voting, all instances of "cancelling" someone for saying anything controversial, Canada’s actions to block donations to trackers, and so on. It says nothing about my sympathies towards this or that party, it simply reflects my belief that rules should not be rigged, and the game should not end up with pieces flying off the board, so whoever is doing that isn’t my hero. My message is not political, it is ethical: let’s recognize that nobody has a monopoly on truth, and that our opponents won’t vanish into thin air, so a truce is better than a Pyrrhic victory.
Having said that, I understand that it is incredibly difficult to have a civilized discussion in an environment full of screams, false premises, sarcasm, calls to action, and simply numerous reiterations of the same arguments. I like Tomas Pueyo’s take on this issue though I don’t think his proposal is going to fix it.
So, now it should be easy to see why I started this piece with a sort of gratitude to Russian government for making my choices simple. I think Ukraine is not just poor and corrupted, but also a very poorly managed country with a government that puts up with numerous atrocities and makes endless stupid and insulting statements. It is a country with major issues, severe tension, and a line of dislikable leaders. In the past, Ukraine could have cooperated with Russia on numerous occasions for the greater good and mutual benefit, and it’s sad it never happened due to the arrogance and political agenda of both parties. However, Russian leaders have thrown pieces off the table, so all these topics are not relevant anymore. They will hopefully be discussed in some distant future by other people in a completely different context, but not any time soon. The attacker is a criminal, and his motives (valid or not) can be brought up in the court of law, not any time earlier. Furthermore, the present government’s supporters are not just "people who think in a certain way", they are complicit in crimes.
At this point I wish I could make some prediction on how the situation is likely to play out, but I feel that all the alternatives I can imagine are equally unlikely. Seriously, I have no idea how the Russian leaders envision their success. Maybe they hoped for a quick advancement and relative indifference or even support of a local population (as it happened in Crimea and Donbass regions that were indeed not uniformly happy to be a part of Ukraine).
Personally I wish to see Ukraine’s strong resistance with the subsequent Russia’s withdrawal, and the most severe economic pressure on Russia imaginable. It is painful to say that because it means a lot of suffering for both Russia and Ukraine, and probably a period of severe chaos in poverty in Russia. Still, to borrow from Sherlock Holmes, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". I sometimes visualize the course of modern Russian history as a sort of a ratchet wheel. It was slowly spinning from "chaos" to "order" during the 90s decade, and despite certain several extremely controversial events by 2005 or so it was ready to move into some new dimension. After all, a society can’t simply fluctuate between "chaos" and "order", and have no plans for its modernization and development. Instead of moving away, Putin has turned the ratchet wheel forward again in his attempt to "stabilize" the country: instead of "order" (which still wasn’t really orderly) it turned to the "conform and obey" sector.
At that time I felt really unhappy about the way the situation was being played out, and now I imagine it as a ratchet wheel going further away from my comfort zone. Still, while being anxious, I felt able to put up with the status quo: after all, no place is perfect, and it’s better to have something working that can be improved in the future (even if it means turning the wheel back, which is hard). Now, at the time of war, I feel surprisingly calmer. There is no hope for turning back anymore, so the only way is forward, until the whole circle is made.
Naturally, my "ratchet wheel" picture can be easily criticized: why everything is moving forward only? Why a "full circle" should turn everything back? My understanding is quite simple. The present leadership has already broken all the rules of the discourse/election process, so there is no civilized and rational way to fix it. They are also seem to be fine with being an isolated pariah state: it isn’t really desirable, but not viewed as disastrous either. The present (ca. 2021-2022) state of affairs isn’t really stable: the population isn’t getting wealthier, but is aging rapidly, most modernization initiatives are fraught with troubles, and there is no attractive picture of the future to work for.
In early 2000s Russia was in its sort-of teen years. It could grow up differently. Many people (including me) tried to portray something positive and exciting. By 2010 or so it finally grew up to become a yet another mediocre country, just like many others in the middle of GDP rankings. Still, even being mediocre, you can gradually build up something better if you see places for improvements. Instead, most of these places were made nonexistent by now. Thus, there is a certain tension inside the society, forcing the wheel to turn further away from anything resembling normality. On the other hand, it should be possible to "reboot" everything as other examples in the world show. New generations of people are less likely to hold on to the pet grudges of their parents, and be hopefully willing to make peace with their neighbors.
Unfortunately, I am forced to conclude that preventing Russia’s government collapse at this point means keeping people somehow fed, more or less secure and stable, but making ratchet wheel stop somewhere at "Iran" sector. It’s going to be even worse than a decade of chaos and misery, so I fail to see any alternatives to such "rebooting". Dark times are coming, and the only question is whether they are going to be quick and painful or incredibly slow and maybe somewhat less painful. I wish everyone the best, so I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Finally, there is a topic of personal responsibility that I am going to touch really quickly, as I don’t feel the energy and expertise to dig deeper. It looks like a lot of people feel depressed and ponder on their own role in this whole mess and on the responsibility of their "nation", "group" or other wider entity. My strictly personal opinion is again very simple. First, I am trying not to judge people on the basis of their "group" and don’t myself want to be considered as a "representative". I am not representing anyone but myself, and the only "groups" I belong to are the groups I choose freely, such as "software engineers" and "researchers". The common narrative of today’s "group identities" is very foreign to me. I think it is a major step back to tribalism, racism, and other unpleasant -isms. Even Ancient Egyptians portrayed Osiris weighing hearts of individuals to test their worth, and I hope the human society of XXI century can at least agree on that. Some people, of course, prefer to be group representatives, which I consider their free choice.
Next, I think it is quite obvious that "nothing we do is enough". If I blame the Russian government, what did I do to have another government? One can: vote against, campaign against, volunteer, join another party, fund a party, participate in elections and possibly do many other things. Thus, literally everyone can be accused of "doing not enough", so people should decide for themselves whether their actions were sufficient to make sleep well now. (While I am here, not voting is nearly equivalent to voting in favor of the largest party under the current laws.) Given that my residence is about 300 km from the nearest polling place and not in Russia, I consider my votes for other parties and individuals to be taken into account (by Osiris, yeah).
Speaking of others. Putin’s electorate will face the consequences and suffer. I don’t feel much gloat about it: they’ll simply have to suck up the result of their choice. They could have avoided it had the government valued stability over ambition, but it was a risky stake anyway. Even if they thought they voted for something different, still they exercised their choice as they considered appropriate. I don’t buy a common argument that people are easily duped with propaganda, and elections are rigged. All polls (including independent and indirect polls) show considerable popularity of the ruling party, and dissenting news sources are literally one click away. In any case, people must learn that all their actions (and non-actions) have consequences. Having property and civil rights sounds great, but this coin has a flip side as well, so maybe it’s time to realize it.
The rest (both Russians and Ukrainians) will suffer for naught. This is incredibly unfortunate, but life isn’t fair, and I have nothing to add to this trivial observation. My own family suffered from wars, harsh economic conditions, criminals, diseases and other misfortunes that were truly beyond their control. The problem of suffering of the innocent is, unfortunately, unsolvable at the current stage of human civilization, so all of us have to develop our personal strategies. Life is full of unpredictable random factors, and our only option is to work with risks and probabilities.