Recently I was reading some feedback on my article about vatnost (Russia! is going through a site overhaul so here’s the cached link), and I noticed a curious misunderstanding some Westerners have when it comes to the concept of vatniks and vatnost. To some, it seems that vatniks are just the Russian equivalent to, for example, American conservatives. One reader made a direct link between vatniks and the Tea Party movement, for example. To be sure, I myself have made such comparisons in the past, but I would never imply that they are identical.
Still, there is a valid question which arises any time we speak of vatniks or the mentality of vatnost. Are vatniks and vatnost actually unique to Russia? In fact we could ask a number of more specific questions, for example: Is there such a thing as a Ukrainian vatnik, and if so how do they influence the relationship between Russia and Ukraine? These are all perfectly good questions that deserve concrete answers. Here at the Dmitry Kiselyov Institute of Vatnik and Vatnost Studies (Институт Исследования Ватников и Ватности имени Д.К. Киселева, ИИВВДК) we endeavor to provide those answers using the most rigorous scholarly methods.
Is there such a thing as a Ukrainian vatnik? Yes! Meet the Vishivatnik.
The term Vishivatnik refers to the vishivanka (spelling varies), which is the term for embroidered shirts and blouses that are traditional clothing from Ukraine. Now some might dismiss the vishivatnik as a tit-for-tat meme cooked up by pro-Russian trolls; while such a meme exists, the real vishivatnik appears to have been created by the same people who popularized the vatnik meme, meaning Russians (and possibly Ukrainians) who are most of all opposed to Putin and his system. I strongly suspect that there is Ukrainian involvement in the creation of the vishivatnik, and that he may be a creation of Ukrainians who are pro-Maidan but openly concerned about some of its more negative elements.
What are the features of the vishivatnik? Well for one thing, all of Ukraine’s woes, big and small, are blamed on Russia and in particular, the Soviet Union. Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, but things didn’t get too much better so that means the country was still ruled by Russia. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was supposed to change that, but somehow president Yushchenko’s constant efforts to whitewash and glorify the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Stepan Bandera inexplicably failed to resolve Ukraine’s economic and corruption problems- so that means it was ruled by Russia then as well. Of course when Yanukovych was in charge Ukraine was ruled by Russia, even though it was Yanukovych who initially set Ukraine on the path to the very same EU association agreement which ultimately sparked Euromaidan. Then of course Yanukovych punked out and ran to Russia, but guess what- Ukraine is still ruled by Russia!
The vishivatnik is a practitioner of what I dub “voodoo politics.” That is to say he might not necessarily be a nationalist, but he believes that paying homage to the cult of Stepan Bandera and the OUN is an essential requirement for being pro-Ukraine, if not Ukrainian itself. Thus, acceptance of the myths concocted by “scholars” such as Volodymyr Viatrovych, a major backer of Ukraine’s recent historical revisionist laws, is seen as a solution to the problem of Russian “5th columnists.” If you fail to at least tolerate and voice approval the diaspora-concocted, Disney version of Ukrainian nationalist history, you’ll be suspected of having pro-Moscow sympathies.
How does this mesh with vatnost in Russia? Well for one thing, vatniks believe the world revolves around Russia. America is the great puppet master pulling the strings, so that when other countries refuse to approve of Russia’s actions, they’re part of the conspiracy. For example, this is why most countries don’t recognize the Russian annexation of the Crimea- America is forcing them to withhold recognition. But wait a second- staunch Russian allies, members of the Eurasian Union, in fact, also don’t recognize the annexation. Belarus doesn’t, neither does Kazakhstan. None of the so-called BRICS countries other than Russia recognize it either. Is Belarus controlled by America? Is China?
In similar fashion, the vishivatnik believes in a massive worldwide conspiracy against Ukraine which is orchestrated by Moscow. Polish testimony about the ethnic cleansing suffered at the hands of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1943 is nothing but lying propaganda. Or wait, maybe those Poles deserved it, because they were nationalists! Or perhaps those UPA units that committed atrocities were really NKVD men in disguise, unless the victims were actually working for the Communist regime, of course. Modern-day Poland is spreading a Communist myth about the ethnic cleansing of Volyn, because we all know how much Poland loves Moscow and the Soviet Union! All documents which reveal the fascist ideology of figures like Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists are forgeries! Even the internal documents maintained by the American CIA after the war are obviously Communist forgeries. The KGB must have been in control of the CIA at the height of the Cold War! Accept this unless you want to be branded a tool of Moscow!
Here we see the same general theme as with the Russian vatnik. Separate, often radically different states and governments have been engaged in a conspiracy to malign and slander a heroic, tolerant, liberal democratic nationalist movement (the only one of its kind at the time!), and this conspiracy has now stretched on for nearly a century. Why? Because Moscow is somehow manipulating the entire world into crushing Ukraine’s glory, which of course can only be achieved when there’s a monument to Bandera in every Ukrainian city.
There we see the commonalities between the mentality of the Russian and Ukrainian vatnik strains, but we must also look at what sets them apart. The vishivatnik is typically of a younger generation. Russian vatniks tend to be older. There is a far more glaring difference, however, in the way that vatniks and vishivatniks relate to dissent and political change. The Russian vatnik scorns people who protest or organize to air grievances against the government. This is rocking the boat. This threatens their precious stability (which isn’t stable at all, as it turns out). Stop demanding things from the government! What? You’re not? Then stop demanding that the government leave you alone so you can do things yourself! Shut up and stay home, you filthy 5th columnist! Don’t you know they rape dogs in Europe?
The vishivatnik, quite admirably in fact, does not hold this mentality. Vishivatniks were a part of Maidan, for example. They have not been kind of the present government either, sometimes threatening another Maidan when they don’t get their way. In fact, Ukraine’s recent anti-Communist laws may in fact be an attempt to throw a big bone to that demographic. Just as Russia distracts people with tales of how bad life is in Ukraine and non-stop WWII imagery, the vishivatnik can be sated with the sight of a toppling Lenin statue, or a law which bans any criticism of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which is incidentally a movement that never garnered the support of anything but a tiny minority of Ukrainians, even in its strongest regions. In short, the vishivatnik, despite so many negative qualities and despite being a drag on Ukrainian society as it struggles to enter the 21st century, at least possesses one very admirable trait- a favorable view towards standing up to power and authority.
The Russian vatnik doesn’t get out in the streets, except for maybe 250-300 rubles at a time. Moreover, vatniks are almost explicitly against protesting and disrespect for authority on principle. When they do mobilize, it is always against authorized targets. These targets will either be distant, like the United States, or they are extremely marginalized and unprotected Russians such as gays and lesbians, or members of the opposition. In other words, the vatnik is usually a bully, picking on the defenseless and weak, and in this he is encouraged by his government which gives signals as to what targets are acceptable for venting rage. The vishivatnik can also be a bully sometimes, and their worldview is very similar to that of Putinist Russia, but at least he doesn’t demand people shut up and stay home for the sake of some non-existent “stability.”
Denims? American vatniks?
In the beginning of this article I alluded to the idea that the Russian vatniks are analogous to American conservatives. In an earlier article (link in the beginning), I coined the term “denims” for these folks, rooted in the idea that denim is more commonly associated with America. Truth be told I’m not married to the name, and I’m open to suggestions. But while there is much similarity between Tea Party types and Russian vatniks, the differences are profound and in fact much deeper than those we see between the Russian and Ukrainian vatnik varieties.
For one thing, Russian vatniks are usually very impoverished. We typically associate American conservatives with “rednecks,” but this is a very poor stereotype. In fact, many hardcore conservatives and Tea Party types are basically middle class to upper-middle class types who are feeling the squeeze and directing their rage towards the wrong targets- minorities, immigrants, etc. They tend to have all the trappings of American consumerism, in some cases they lived far beyond their means. Now they have failed to achieve their dreams and they look for a scapegoat. So while the Russian vatnik says, “Shut up and be happy living in mud,” the Tea Partier is basically saying, “Don’t touch my stuff!” The vatnik is happy to live in filth in a decaying village or town, so long as he believes the world fears Russia and he gets to hear how Russia is humiliating its neighbors. This won’t do for the American conservative. Though they love lecturing and insulting the poor, they won’t settle for less just because America has a powerful military. They want, no need, a jet-ski, and they can’t afford it because of all those damned illegal immigrants!
Another aspect of the American conservative is the disdain for “government handouts” and state control. Of course they tend to be oblivious to the real nature of government intervention, as they always consider government intervention that benefits them personally to be righteous and just, whereas any support or subsidies that don’t benefit them will be labeled as wasteful. The Russian vatnik wants government handouts. They’ll exchange their freedom and rights in the vain hope that some day the Russian state will intervene and roll the price of sausage back to Soviet-era lows.
Freedom itself is just an illusion to the Russian vatnik, whereas your average conservative can’t shut up about “Muh freedums!” Naturally American conservatives, and on occasion even libertarians, can be really hypocritical about what freedoms they support. They want the right to own almost any kind of firearm with virtually no restrictions, yet they want to restrict women from having abortions and getting birth control. They insist that any attempt to keep them from shoving their religion down people’s throats, often on the public dime, constitutes an attack on their freedom of conscience. They’re happy to lobby the government to prevent the building of mosques, though. In spite of all this, however, freedom is a major theme among American conservatives. In fact the problem is that they rarely appreciate how much freedom they have, and this is why they will liken things such as Obamacare as “Stalinist tyranny.”
In general, talk about freedom or rights sails right over the heads of vatniks. The freedom to protest or publish something is seen as useless, whereas having a low-paying but stable job that buys black bread and pelmeni is crucial. In a way, this comes down to the difference between negative freedoms, i.e. that which you are allowed to do, and positive freedoms, that which you can actually do. The problem is, that modern-day Russia lacks a lot of negative freedoms and it provides little in the way of positive freedoms. Many people in this country just barely get by on tiny salaries and pensions. With increasing crackdowns on negative freedoms, they aren’t even allowed to organize and voice their complaints about this situation without fear of harassment or arrest.
One might be tempted to believe that both American conservatives and vatniks are very religious, but this is an illusion. Far more vatniks profess orthodoxy than actually go to church. Even then, they tend to display poor knowledge about their faith and it has little bearing on their actions in the real world. By contrast American conservatives tend to be far more sincere and knowledgeable about their religion, and that religion does guide their every day actions. Yes, they view porn, have pre-marital sex, and occasionally get caught with a gay prostitute, but on the whole if you meet a church-going American conservative, you’re unlikely to run into him at the local strip club any time soon.
The reader may note that here we focused on the differences between American conservatives and vatniks first. What about commonality? I feel that is to be found in the patriotism factor. For the American conservative, the country is like a father figure, and they look up to him as a young boy idolizes his dad. When exposed to facts that reveal dad’s flaws, conservatives get upset. That history book is “political correct!” The “libruls” are re-writing our history! We need patriotic history classes! The American conservative simply cannot fathom that self-criticism and a realistic view of the past is actually positive and in fact crucial for a country to succeed. The conservative doesn’t want that. He wants a simplistic, fairy tale narrative that reassures him of his worldview. Critics are traitors. I don’t think I even need to explain how this is nearly identical to the patriotism of the vatnik or even the vishevatnik.
Conclusion: 50 shades of grey, cotton-stuffed material
As we see from this brief survey, Russian vatnost has analogs, but it still maintains its uniqueness.The common thread is ignorance, binary thinking, the ability to hold mutually exclusive ideas, and personal insecurity, but the outward expression varies depending on the country. In some cases, the vatnik merely exceeds other nations’ own incarnations. For example, the Russian vatnik’s ability to hold mutually exclusive, contradictory ideas simultaneously is simply uncanny. For example, Lenin was a German agent sent to destroy Russia…But Ukraine is run by fascists because they knocked over some of his statues. Or for an even better example: Russia didn’t invade the Crimea, but then it did, to save the people from what happened over a month later in the Donbass, but Russia isn’t doing anything to save those people, who are being slaughtered and starved to death. And in spite of that, Putin is still a great leader, even though he is essentially letting poor Russians be murdered en masse by Ukrainian Nazis. If we had an Olympic event for mental gymnastics, the Russian vatnik would take the gold every time.
I have written on the idea that understanding vatnost is key to understanding Russia. Some have seen this as a silver bullet approach- read about this meme and you’ll suddenly “get it.” That was not my intention. There is obviously a lot more to Russia than vatnost, and more importantly, there are many Russians who revile vatniks and vatnost. After all, these ideas were produced by Russians. However, the understanding of vatnost is essential when trying to interpret and predict the reactions of the Russian public to foreign and domestic policies. Smaller neighbors of Russia such as the Baltic countries and Poland definitely need to study this phenomenon. Poland in particular needs such a lesson, as recently there were stories about Poles forming volunteer militias against a potential Russian invasion. Lithuania has also made more extensive preparations. There’s nothing wrong with strengthening national defense within reason, but these public moves only bring joy to vatniks. “They’re afraid of us! We’re a superpower! We’re an empire! Thank you Putin!”
Governments and individuals need to understand vatnost so they can implement policies with integral anti-vat aspects. Instead of feeding the vatnik ego, they should stress the irrelevance and failure of Putin’s state. Statements should be carefully worded so that they don’t come off as fearful or panicky. And most of the time the best statement is no statement at all, to remind the vatniks how irrelevant their country has become, and how that is Putin’s doing. To that end, it might be a good idea for European governments to fund the creation of a special think tank to focus on these matters- The Vatnost Policy Centre.