Real Knowledge

Recently I had an experience which has become all too typical ever since the Ukrainian crisis, indeed the Euromaidan movement, began late last year. Since that time, I have repeatedly found myself engaged in online battles with people either pro-Maidan or pro-Novorossiya, and in each of these cases it’s clear that my opponent:

1. Cannot speak nor understand Russian or Ukrainian.

2. Has never visited either country.

3. Relies entirely on internet resources in English, as well as Wikipedia.

These people are, much like today’s example, based in the US. In nearly all cases, they throw around words and canned arguments as if they’d known these things for years, when it is obvious that they just heard about them recently, after the crisis came to dominate the news cycle.  It might be tempting to just write all this off as the Dunning-Kruger effect at work, but I think there is a deeper lesson we can all learn from this, and I especially want any young readers to take this lesson into account.

The internet is a powerful tool. I am not one of these populist, nostalgia-selling jackasses who laments over the advent of social media or smartphones. Yes, I prefer to read real books, but they clutter up my house while the number of books on my phone is equal to if not larger than my physical library.  I like the fact that if I forget some trivial date or some politician’s official title I can easily Google their name and get that information. Wikipedia, for all its faults, is great when you need a quick summary of an event. Even if it’s something you read about extensively in the past, everyone needs to refresh their memory from time to time.

Now having said this, young people, please pay close attention. Google and Wikipedia do not equate to expertise. They will never give you expertise.  Let me make this perfectly clear- Real knowledge comes from time, experience, effort, and work. Notice I didn’t say university education. Universities turn out literally millions of idiots who couldn’t critically think their way out of a paper bag. Whether through formal education or as an autodidact, knowledge is time, experience, and effort. I cannot repeat this too many times.

I sometimes talk about how I was duped into believing Russia was something it isn’t, only realizing this upon moving back here seven years after my initial visit. How did I get duped? People said I was well-read for my age. Indeed, well-read for a 17 or 18-year-old. Not too impressive in the real world. Sure I had real life experience, but it was a matter of weeks, not years.  I read what appealed to me, another mistake of youth, and as such I assumed I had a handle on life in Russia.  When I think about how much I thought I knew back then, how laughably wrong I was, and how little time in Russia it took to realize that, it is quite amusing.

They say teenagers think they know everything, but to be honest that actually continues into the early twenties. Absent some kind of life-changing experience, this arrogance may prevail indefinitely for some people. Still others decide to fit reality into those preconceived notions from youth. I preferred to discard those delusions and fantasies and change my way of thinking from “I already know,” to “I don’t know enough.”

Do you want to know what it means to expend effort to acquire knowledge? Well some of the most important insights I’ve managed to gain on the Ukrainian situation come from the fact that I speak Russian and understand Ukrainian. In other words, I had to have at least a working knowledge of two languages which are considerably different from my native tongue. It also comes from nearly a decade of life in Russia, with several visits to Ukraine, experience with Russian and Ukrainian political activists, and so on.  Face to face. Leg work. One night I was up till at least four in the morning, reading transcriptions of some archived NKVD documents till my eyes were actually bloodshot.  That’s what I mean by effort.  Anyone can pick up a copy of Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, a pop history book designed to be somewhat entertaining, and feign some sort of expertise on a topic that is still somewhat obscure in the West. It’s another matter entirely to read nearly every major work in English on the Stalingrad battle, plus works in Russian, plus parts of the memoirs which served as the main sources for those famous English works, in the original language.  Try getting through the first volume of David M. Glantz’s Stalingrad trilogy, and you’ll know what I mean by work.

Stalingrad history. Nightmare difficulty level.

Stalingrad history. Nightmare difficulty level.

If by now you’re rolling your eyes and thinking that I’m boasting you’ve totally missed the point. It’s not about how much I’ve read or seen; all that, to me, is not enough. For every book I’ve read on a particular subject, there are at least two or three I haven’t managed to crack yet, and I can only hope I’ll have time to get through them. Even after reading these books I often wish I could go over the primary sources cited within. It’s never enough. It’s always nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. This is the attitude you must hold at all times, no matter how many people tell you how smart you are, no matter how many people say they’re impressed by your knowledge on a particular subject. Disregard that talk; it’s a kind of heroin that leads to pseudo-intellectualism. For all you know the person you impressed is a complete moron, ergo they are easily impressed by anyone who’s read anything other than The Da Vinci Code. Always tell yourself, “I don’t know enough. I don’t know enough.”

That’s my message for the youth of today. Use the internet as a tool to supplement your knowledge, but do not mistake it for knowledge itself.  Put in the time, the work, and yes, the money. Try to balance academic study with real world experience. Learn at least one other language.  Get out into the real world.

If you’re still skeptical, I’ve decided to do something a bit unconventional and provide a little quiz for people who think they are knowledgeable on the Ukrainian crisis. Try this quiz without resorting to Google, and afterwards you will have an idea as to whether you actually possess the pre-requisite background knowledge to lecture people on the Ukrainian crisis, regardless of the side you chose. Remember kids, NO Google.

Ukrainian-Russian knowledge quiz!

1. You’ve often heard that Ukrainian politics is supposedly divided between Western and Eastern Ukraine. But what are “West” and “East” Ukraine? Name the Western Ukrainian region associated with Ukrainian nationalism. 

2. Aside from Russia, name all the empires from the 17th century onward which controlled some territory of what is now Ukraine.  

3. When did large numbers of Slavic people, i.e. Russians and Ukrainians, begin to populate the Crimean peninsula and what was called “Novorossiya?”  

4. What peoples traditionally populated Southern Ukraine from the time of Medieval Rus till the capture of that area by the Russian empire in the 18th century?

5. What is the significance of A. The battle of Berestechko B. The battle of Batih(aka Batoh)?

6. What are the four major religions of Ukraine?   

7. To what empire did Bogdan Khmelnitsky propose vassalage in return for protection prior to appealing to Moscow?

8. Briefly describe the consequences of the treaty of Pereyaslav signed in 1654.

9. What happened to Vasyl Kuk the last commander of the UPA?

10. How many anti-partisan operations did the Axis forces conduct against UPA partisans?  

You don’t need to put your answers here. You know if you struggle to answer these questions or not. If that’s the case, it means that you probably don’t have enough background knowledge to determine the veracity of the contemporary sources you read on the topic of the Ukrainian crisis, whether the source is The Guardian or RT.


2 thoughts on “Real Knowledge

  1. Bandersnatch

    So obviously I have a deep appreciation for the time and effort you invest in your history studies and I understand this article is directed at people who essentially know nothing at all about these countries while certainly claiming otherwise. However, I felt the need to point some things out.

    While I do think a working knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian is really helpful in the blogging sphere, and certainly when no English translation on a book is available, claiming/implying that you need to read a book in its original tongue for anything other than poetic/artistic reasons in order to glean deeper meaning is simply untrue. There is, of course, such thing as bad translating, but if the person knows what they are doing then obviously the material can be understood as clearly as the original. Stating, otherwise, (and I do not suggest you necessarily did this but just in case…) is like when Muslim apologists trammel critics with this crap about ‘reading the Quran in the original Arabic’, thus barring and sabotaging the dialogue by creating an arbitrary and needless entry barrier. Needless to say, a holy book like the Quran would actually require far more nuance to interpretation whereas a historical text is likely to be as straight-forward as it gets as far as information transfer.

    Moving on, to understand a conflict today does not necessarily require knowing the full history of a certain country. I think it helps, it is better than not knowing it, but I can tell when a man is naked without knowing anything about clothing, fabric, and fashion. In other words, I can have an opinion, and indeed a reasonable one, about Ukraine and what not without being able to answer random questions about its history. Again, people should go that extra mile if they are going to talk authoritatively, but I don’t need to know anything about Crimea (for example) to know that what Russia did was a total land grab.

    This isn’t a critique so much as a ‘just checking’ moment to make sure I understand your message.

    1. Big Bill Haywood Post author

      In response to the first point, reading in the original language can be important if there weren’t many translations of the original source or the translation is inaccurate. It also helps to have context if the thing you read in English is cited from a larger work. That being said, I was referring more to the need to read primary sources rather than only sources in English. An English-language source may cite a memoir or archival document, but it helps to actually read the archival document or at least more than that which was cited in the thing your reading.

      When it comes to the history of some countries, there are translations of nearly all their important works into English. On the other hand, other countries, particularly Russia, don’t have nearly as many translations. So if you only look at what has been translated into your own language, you are getting part of the whole picture.

      And as for knowing certain facts about the country in question, sure, it’s not always necessary. But take that Crimean land grab. Some people, because they lacked the background knowledge, bought into the pro-Russian lie that it’s some kind of historical Russian land returning to the country it was taken from. Keep in mind that many people on both sides generally see the Soviet Union as wholly illegitimate, and as Putin and his cronies point out, it was a Soviet decision that put the Crimea in the Ukrainian SSR.

      So back to the point, suppose you’re in a debate and one of these insta-experts starts dropping all these irrelevant facts on you. How would you counter those? Of course if I encounter such a dipshit, I can pull the same thing on him. Well, kind of. I guess today’s experience was another reminder that anyone will argue anything indefinitely. This guy didn’t cede an inch.

      I guess I probably should have clarified that the quiz isn’t so much about the minimum knowledge you need to have an opinion, so much as it is to check whether you have the right to lecture people at length on the topic. I think there is a difference. For example I can have an opinion about ISIS, Syria, Kurdistan, etc., but I’m not going to pick a fight with someone who was a veteran Middle East journalist and put his/her ass on the line interviewing people from Al Qaeda, the Syrian army, PKK fighters, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s