I had an interesting conversation today with two friends I’ve made over the past 18 months. One of them is from Ukraine and the other from Russia.
First, some background:
I’ve been brushing up on my Russian for the past 18 months or so, and was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of these two men early on. They are both extremely gracious and patient with my butchering of their language, and we’ve been able to have many an interesting conversation. It has been extremely illuminating to see how Pavel’s life has changed during this time. When we first met on line, he was still living in Ukraine, scraping together his funding, working on his English, taking language tests, and living in his mother’s small house in Kremenchuk.
Pavel, after a long wait, a lot of bureaucratic hassle, and the expenditure of a lot of money borrowed from family in Moscow, emigrated from his hometown Kremenchuk, Ukraine. He finally got a work visa late last year, and now works in a tractor factory in a small town called Weyburn in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
In Ukraine he worked as a machinist in a factory that manufactures somewhat high speed trains. As he described things, there wasn’t a whole lot of demand for the trains made by his factory, because they hadn’t been state of the art in a very long time. There are a lot of competitors outside of Ukraine that make faster and more modern high speed trains.
As a result, he was often forced to work long hours without overtime and was often not even paid for a full forty hours. He decided to make change and took the risk of working with a sketchy employment agency to get work in Canada. It’s a whole lot easier to get a Canadian visa than an American visa. After spending a lot of money and jumping through a lot of hoops, the work finally paid off, and he was on his way.
My friend from Moscow is Sergei. He is a successful, scrappy small businessman who lives in an apartment in the outskirts of Moscow. He is a former Red Army captain who has two small stores which sell photographic equipment, photo processing, and such. He also has a videography business specializing in weddings. (Weddings in Russia are an all day affair, beginning with a trip to get your wedding license, an all day excursion about town, visiting monuments, or going via horse and carriage on park paths, and culminating in a big reception, generally held at a restaurant. The ceremony doesn’t generally involve a church and is almost incidental.)
Sergei is a supporter of Putin, mostly by default, rather than having overwhelming enthusiasm. in his view, Russia doesn’t have much of a choice and at least Putin is trying to restore some of Russia’s former glory and prestige.
Pavel is in his late 20’s and Sergei is in his mid-30’s.
So, there’s the background.
On Saturday, I saw Sergei pop up on Skype and gave him a ring. After conversing a while, I asked if he would mind meeting my friend Pavel to discuss the situation in Ukraine. I know that they hold vastly different views on the subject. He graciously assented and I looped Pavel in. After introductions, the conversation began in earnest. I didn’t even have to introduce the topic to Pavel. He has been glued to the internet, because it is unsurprisingly a matter of extreme interest to him.
I let the two of them talk with few interruptions, save when one of them would appeal to me for an opinion or support. I did the best I could to be objective, pointing out that I am not qualified to render a definitive statement, only opinions based on my knowledge of history, and limited understanding of current events.
I thought it might be interesting to render a summary here of their respective view-points and the things that I found most interesting.
Pavel is predictably pro-Ukraine while Sergei is pro-Russia. Conversely, Pavel is not anti-Russia and Sergei is not anti-Ukraine. After all, Sergei has relatives in Ukraine, and Pavel has relatives in Russia (Moscow, in fact). Both men speak Russian. (Pavel has an almost undetectably slight Ukrainian accent.)
This was the first interesting point. From my vantage point these men are both, well, Russian. They have the exact same cultural heritage. They speak the same language, understand the same humor, and indeed both men have relatives in each other’s countries. Nevertheless, they have totally different outlooks. From my vantage point, it is as though the United States were fighting with Canada.
That isn’t to say that I don’t understand national fervor, but it has to be interesting to be fighting an enemy that looks just like you, speaks the same language, and shares the same culture. The United States hasn’t done this since the Civil War and before that, the War of 1812 and the American Revolution.
It soon became apparent that the similarities between the American Revolution and what’s going on in Ukraine are not incidental. Pavel’s family has a strong affinity for Ukraine, and thus has a different experience with governance. In his view, Russia has been an oppressor for a very long time. He has also experienced what it is like to live outside of the yolk of Russian dominance, first after the Orange Revolution and now in Canada.
Sergei, on the other hand, is inescapably the product of his country’s education system, and his service in the Red Army. He has the ingrained Russian skepticism and fatalism about government. He cannot really imagine that it makes much difference who is in charge. It is always a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils.
In Sergei’s view, Ukrainians are of the same blood as Russians, and it is shame to be fighting brother against brother. Both sides should be able to put aside their differences and work out their problems without resort to bloodshed.
At this point, Pavel agreed that it was indeed a shame, but added that the protesters in Ukraine were left without a choice. The country had suffered greatly at the hands of the Russians over the past century or more. He cited the historical record before and after WWII.
To which, Sergei argued that we weren’t alive then, and history can be interpreted many different ways. It is too hard render a verdict on history without first hand experience. He as much as suggested that historians can and do rewrite history.
This is true, and he has experienced this first hand, but perhaps not quite how he thinks.
Pavel wasn’t buying this argument and quietly replied that he did indeed have first hand knowledge of Russian atrocities. He explained that his grandmother had seen people dying of starvation and resorting to cannibalism as a result of Stalin’s artificial famine, the holodomor.
Sergei did not have much to say to this.
Pavel wanted Sergei to watch some recent videos about what was happening in Ukraine, and Sergei flatly refused. He explained that he was highly suspicious of videos. As a professional videographer, he knew just how easy it was to make things appear real that were not. It was, after all possible to hire actors, or even just to edit footage selectively to tell the story you want to tell. He watched the first 30 seconds or so of this video and suggested that it was possible to have actors fake things a “provocation.” For his part, he relied on first-hand accounts from people he trusted. He allowed as he had friends in Ukraine who were telling a slightly different story.
Occasionally in the midst of their discussion, one or the other of these two guys would appeal to me for support, or opinion. This was one of those cases. I trod lightly, because I like both of these guys and would not want to insult either of them. I explained that I could well believe that people were capable of skewing the news, concocting videos, or simply being selective about what they showed. However, I had to tell Sergei that it did not seem to me that this was the case with the news coming out of Ukraine. There were simply too many, too fast, and from too many different sources. I also explained that while skepticism is essential, it is impossible to simply ignore sources like these, especially for those of us who have not other way to get information. It is not like I could simply go and see for myself.
Here is another of the videos Pavel wanted us to see; army snipers (apparently) shooting at protesters. Pavel said he had a hard time believing that these were all actors. Sergei refused to watch, retaining his skepticism.
After a while I turned the conversation to a more banal topic, Sergei’s cat. His cat had been sick, and he had taken it to the vet for treatment, bringing with him a stool sample that the vet had requested. Sergei and I had had an earlier conversation about this and had laughed at his attempt to explain that the vet had said that the sample was contaminated. I had pretended not to understand and forced him to explain the concept of “clean” cat poop.
Pavel wasn’t ready to completely drop the previous discussion and said that if Sergei had enough time and money to worry about treating a sick cat, it was a good indicator that his life was pretty good. There were people in Ukraine who had all they could do to find enough to eat for themselves, let alone worry about a cat.
Sergei was gracious and did not take the bait. He mildly agreed that he was happy with this life and considered himself fortunate.
Shortly thereafter, he signed off, it was about 2am in Moscow by this time. I spoke with Pavel a little while longer and he said he had been pleased to speak with Sergei, but that when he had refused to believe what was being reported and shown by multiple sources, it was difficult to know what to say.