Heuristics can be loosely defined as rules of thumb which are less than ideal, yet get the job done in certain situations where there might not be sufficient time for deeper analysis. According to psychologists, humans evolved mental heuristics for the sake of survival, but because these mental rules and connotations became hardwired into our brains, they still influence our decision making today. As you can easily imagine, the instincts which were first developed in prehistoric society aren’t necessarily well adapted to modern society, especially our developed capitalist consumer society. Given the unprecedented wealth of information that is available to us, the best tactic for success would be critical thinking, analysis, and reason, yet we still have people basing their decisions and views off of single anecdotal examples or memes shared on Facebook.
Recently I took flak for criticizing Ukraine’s recently-passed laws banning Communist symbols and restricting criticism of the OUN/UPA(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and their military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army). One Ukrainian government supporter on Twitter accused me of being a vatnik and tried to get me added to a list of pro-Kremlin troll accounts.Now anyone familiar with me knows that I’m the last person who deserves to be called a vatnik. I helped familiarize the English-speaking world with the vatnik and the mentality known as vatnost. When they open up a department of vatnik studies at Columbia University, I’ll be its first tenured professor. In short, I’m the Mark Galeotti of vatniks.
Obviously I’m being facetious there, but I’m seriously interested in knowing why someone would jump to that conclusion. In this individual’s case, I learned via our interactions that they were essentially a Ukrainian mirror-image of the patriotic Russian vatnik. For such people, the UPA were heroes, end of story, and it’s perfectly fine to legislate that this interpretation, which is contradicted by numerous scholars both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, inside and outside of Ukraine, be beyond question or debate. What is more, this kind of blatant heavy-handed censorship, which actually exceeds the mendacity of the Russian government when they decided not to implement a similar law in 2013, is supposedly beyond any comparison with Russia’s existing censorship practices because…well…because Ukraine is European! Or something. Obviously when it comes to people like that, I can never please them, nor will I try. They will lavish all kinds of praise on me as I write article after article about the corruption of the Russian government, its social problems, its international crimes, but the second I apply the exact same scrutiny to their team, I might as well be working for Russia Today. Haters gonna hate.
On the other hand, I can see how some people, due to the heuristics of Russian politics, could make a similar mistake, and it’s happened very often in the past. Now that the Kremlin employs various foreign-language blogs, some of whose writers live in their own countries and in some cases might never have spent any significant time in Russia if they have visited it at all, I can see why some people might be wary about a blog called Russia Without BS. The title even sounds like the state-funded publication Russia Beyond the Headlines or the laughable pro-Kremlin site Russia Insider. In the past few days, the bulk of my work has been critical of the Ukrainian government. The only clue that tells you you’re not reading a Kremlin hack are the comparisons I make with the Russian government in my criticism.
The heuristics of Russian politics are a result of the Kremlin’s propaganda blitz over the past few years. You can’t know who to trust so you look for key things that you’re sure this or that faction wouldn’t say. The problem is that like a lot of our hardwired heuristics, these new ones don’t work so well either. For example, I was attracted to the organization Borotba based on what I had read from them in the pre-Maidan years. They looked far more left-wing that Russia’s phony, conservative, nationalistic “Communist” movements. Even their name is a reference to local Ukrainian socialists. In the early days of Maidan, they had a slogan against the EU association agreement and the Russian Customs Union, which appeared to be a very independent position. As the events after Maidan unfolded, however, it became increasingly clear that they had gone over to the side of the Kremlin’s right-wing nationalist and cossack organizations, repeating the same lies as the state-run press. It’s not entirely clear whether they were always connected to Moscow, or if they sold out, but the point is that I got duped because I was looking at certain key salient features.
I really hate this tendency because it leads to so much confusion and many needless arguments. Our minds tell us that pro-Kremlin hacks won’t say anything positive about Ukraine or the Ukrainian government. A Polish writer couldn’t possibly support Putin’s Russia. A far-right Ukrainian nationalist won’t write mostly in Russian and criticize capitalism or the EU. In America you see the same thing as a result of political illiteracy. Left-wing demonstrations in support of Palestine or events like Occupy get infiltrated by right-wing populists and even white supremacists all because these naive leftists couldn’t possibly imagine that neo-Nazis would actually want to associate with anarchists, liberals, Communists, and people of different races and sexual orientations. It never occurs to them that neo-Nazis often spend every day around people of different races and sexual orientation, carefully concealing their views. For them to infiltrate a protest movement for their own motives is no different from what they do every day at their workplace. And if some intrepid blogger recognizes one of those racists at your demo, rest assured that your opponents will use that to smear the whole cause. It happened with Occupy on numerous occasions.
The other terrible side effect of the heuristic is that it seems to be fueling the rigid binary thinking that characterized discourse on Russia long before Maidan and the Ukrainian crisis. Because many talking heads or writers could be working for Western think tanks or the Kremlin, some Russia-followers unconsciously develop a strong desire to see a strict orthodoxy. Any comparison between Russia and the US or European countries is apt to be labeled whataboutery or a false equivalency, even if the analogy is in fact dead on. Any condemnation of Russia’s foreign policy may be taken for slavish support for NATO and the US government. Realistically, it tends to be the Putin fanboys who are most often guilty of not only dismissing anyone who criticizes the Dear Leader as a “neoconservative” warmonger, but also accusing them of working for the CIA. That being said, there are plenty of honest-to-God Russia-haters out there who will throw out accusations of Kremlin whoring at the drop of a hat. A single tweet is all it takes to set some people off.
The heuristic which in turn drives the desire for rigid orthodoxy is why you have people who insist that no one criticize anything the Ukrainian government does simply because it was at war, totally ignoring the very important fact that wars, politics by other means, are largely won or lost based on the decisions and policies of governments. By the same token, that same pressure is why you have many career leftists lining up to defend a proudly right-wing, proto-fascist dictatorship with staggering wealth inequality, portraying it as a victim when in fact it is clearly the aggressor. I can’t condone it, but I understand why someone who made their entire career criticizing US foreign policy would be hesitant to stand up and say that the US government happens to be on the right side this time. That is not a lecture I’d like to give.
So what is the solution to his heuristic problem? Do we let paranoia of the Kremlin’s “information warfare” turn us against anyone who doesn’t toe the “Western” line 100%? Do we start looking at Russia in a vacuum and never compare its bad points to those of other, more democratic countries? Do we rewrite history for the sake of EU solidarity? No, no, an no. Suspending critical thinking and reason never works out in the long run. Logic will win out. RT’s conspiracy-laden songs are certainly enticing to many, but their message is ultimately incoherent. What is more, the ridiculously self-contradictory nature of the Kremlin’s line paralyzes and ultimately destroys concerted political action. That’s what it did in Russia- it spread mistrust and fear to the point that civil society, and thus any possible resistance to the corrupt oligarchy, is in ruins. In other countries, it gets people wasting time on forums talking about chemtrails, secret societies, and New World Order plots as opposed to engaging in real political action. Of course this means those people will be sympathetic to Russia, but the latter will never actually derive any benefit from the former. In short, actively waging war against the very fabric of reality generally doesn’t bode well in the long term.
Aside from sharpening our critical thinking skill and taking more time to get more info before making judgments, scrutinizing details and not just major points that stand out, I think the solution lies in a new generation of Eastern Europe pundits. We need people whose connection to the issue is rooted more in personal experience and connections rather than academic study in their home countries. We need people that aren’t mouthpieces for think tanks or lobby groups. And yes, we often need people who actually worked inside the Kremlin’s media machine, the Euromaidan movement, or in various radical political movements. How else can we get realistic information about their inner workings, goals, and ideology?
Luckily, I think this new generation is already here. You can usually spot its members because they’re continually being accused of being both pro-American government, fascist junta supporters and paid Kremlin whores or vatniks at the same time, with almost every article they write. Key word, usually. If you’re not careful, that can become a heuristic too.