Many have quoted Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” in order to make sense of the current Russia-Ukraine war. In the quote, Dostoevsky argues that even if man knew he were nothing but a piano-key, he would still act out of spite. This is relevant to the current situation because many people are speculating that Putin is acting out of spite against Ukraine.
For years now, Russia has been involved in a protracted conflict with Ukraine. The fighting began in 2014 when Russia-backed rebels seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Since then, the conflict has escalated, with both sides exchanging fire on a regular basis. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced.
Throughout all of this, the Russian government has remained tight-lipped about its involvement in the conflict. They continue to deny that they are providing any assistance to the rebels, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This blatant disregard for the truth is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” where the government controls everything and lies are commonplace.
What makes this situation even more tragic is that the Russian people seem to be buying into these lies. A recent poll showed that nearly 70% of Russians believe that their country is not involved in the conflict at all. This disconnect between reality and perception is truly alarming, and it shows just how effective the Russian government’s propaganda machine really is.
Dostoevsky’s quote has been used to support various claims about Putin’s character. Some say that Putin is a rational actor who is simply protecting Russian interests in Ukraine. Others say that Putin is an irrational actor who is lashing out against Ukraine out of spite. There is evidence to support both claims.
On one hand, it could be argued that Putin is acting out of spite. Russia has been steadily losing influence in Ukraine ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. As Ukraine has become more democratic and pro-Western, Russia has lost its grip on the country. This must be sorely frustrating for Putin, who has made it his mission to reestablish Russian power and influence in the world. Moreover, Putin views Ukraine as an essential part of Russia’s history and identity. To lose Ukraine would be a profound blow to Russian national pride. Given all this, it’s not hard to see why Putin might be acting out of spite against Ukraine.
On the other hand, it could be argued that Putin is acting out of a desire to protect Russian interests in Ukraine. Crimea, for example, has been home to a Russian naval base for centuries. It is also home to many ethnic Russians who do not identify as Ukrainian. Given this, it’s not surprising that Putin would want to Annex Crimea and keep it under Russian control.
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Moreover, Putin may believe that if he does not act now to stop the spread of democracy in Ukraine, Russia will be next. After all, there have been numerous protests in Russia calling for more democracy and an end to corruption. If Putin doesn’t want democracy to take hold in Russia, he may feel that he needs to act now to stamp out any hint of it in neighboring countries like Ukraine.
It’s impossible to say definitively whether or not Putin is acting out of spite against Ukraine. However, what we can say is that there are both rational and irrational reasons for why Putin might be behave the way he is towards Ukraine. Only time will tell what his real motivations are.
In 1869, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote the following in a notebook: “And indeed this is the odd thing that is continually happening: just when someone appears who really has something to say, who really has discovered some thought, some new shade of meaning in life and is burning with a desire to communicate this to others, then without fail the first words he thinks up are those which have been exhausted and trampled underfoot for centuries; he throws away his chance by using ready-made formulas, and instead of marching straight ahead he slides back into the old ruts.”
Dostoevsky’s words ring as true today as they did over 150 years ago. In Russia’s war with Ukraine, we see Dostoevsky’s statement play out time and time again. Russia claims to be fighting for “freedom and democracy,” yet it relies on the same tired rhetoric and outdated methods that have been used countless times before. This method of warfare is not only ineffective, but it also does a disservice to the Russian people.
In order for any war to be fought, there must be a clear objective. Without a clear objective, a war will only result in needless bloodshed and destruction. For Russia, its objective in the war with Ukraine is to reestablish control over Crimea and eastern Ukraine. However, Russia has been unsuccessful in achieving this objective. In fact, the war has only served to alienated Ukrainians even further from Russia.
One of the reasons why Russia has been unsuccessful in its war against Ukraine is because it has relied too heavily on outdated methods of warfare. For example, Russia has placed a great deal of emphasis on propaganda rather than actual fighting. It has also attempted to use economic pressure as a weapon, but this has only served to further damage Russia’s own economy. In addition, Russia has made minimal use of ground troops, instead relying on air strikes and artillery barrages. This approach has done little more than level entire city blocks and increase civilian casualties.
“And, indeed, this is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbours simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one.
Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.
It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point!”Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky