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Mar 24, 2022

Changing the name of this blog and the question of identity

"It used to be called “The Russian Bear’s Diaries.” When it started in 2006, I was at the University of Northern Colorado, whose mascot is a bear. Sometimes my gay friends teased me that it sounded like a porn character, but I kept the title for nostalgic reasons. However, the imagery of a Russian Bear has now taken on a much older and more menacing tone. So many things have changed. OK, now it is “Admin Diaries: Weekly Musings of a Philosopher Dean.”

Most Russians living outside of Russia now face an uneasy reconsideration of our ethnic identity. Suddenly, the country we all love has shifted from being troublesome but still respected for its culture and its people, into an evil category. We are the Nazi Germany; we are the Mordor of this planet. It is hard to look into the eyes of our Ukrainian friends and neighbors without some guilt, even if you opposed Putin for decades. I guess the closest nightmare scenario for an American would be if Trump managed to override the elections and then invaded Canada – with missiles hitting neighborhoods in Toronto and Vancouver.

We cannot shed our identities and must bear their weight, even when the weight changes. White people in this country cannot stop being White, cannot unload the bad baggage of racism and keep only the good bits of freedom. Many people would like to, but they cannot; it simply is not up to us. We have no choice and should work through this complex legacy. Similarly, it is easy to be Russian when you listen to Tchaikovsky or discuss Tolstoy. It is much harder when your country is killing unarmed people in the neighboring country under a ridiculous pretext. Of course, we all are running around, trying to organize help for Ukrainians, writing open letters, forming anti-Putin committees, and all of that. Yet all these seem like too little too late, not making enough of an impact. There are 20-30 million ethnic Russians living outside of Russia, including about 8 million in Ukraine. Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians are enlisted in the Ukrainian army or the territorial defense units, fighting against the invading Russian army. Those of us in other parts of the world are seething with rage, praying, and trying to help the best we can, while feeling powerless.

One of the most painful disappointments is realizing how many Russians in Russia support this senseless war. It is not likely to be 70% as the official numbers tell us, but a good guess is that about half of the population is evil or stupid or both to believe the propaganda. Despite all the restrictions, information in Russia is available and can be found if you want to. Like die-hard Trumpists here, they have chosen to believe in only one source of information and talk themselves into denying reality. We may entertain a fantasy that one day they will wake up and comprehend the enormity of what they have done. Realistically, most of these people will never acknowledge the truth. Does the fact that I share a language, culture, and history with them make me one of them? The answer is more complicated than I would like to admit. Perhaps our identities are only canvases on which we can write our own stories. Yet sometimes, the canvas becomes so dirty, it is hard to see the writing."

Mar 14, 2022

Compartmentalizing and its discontents

In one part of my life, a horrendous war destroys cities I know and love. In another part, we need to organize our requests for faculty hires to start in the fall of 2023. In yet another part, I am responding to a paper by a British philosopher who examines Dostoyevsky and the concept of vulnerability. The only way to do it is to erect walls dividing all these and other concerns. One develops some sort of separate personalities to think about these things, and by necessity they must be semi-independent. If you go too far with this, you end up with a dissociative disorder. However, going there just a bit helps to maintain functionality in different spheres of one’s life. This is how we maintain the semi-separate spheres of work life, parenthood, civic engagement, or an involved hobby, etc.

You may move down the road of compartmentalization one step further, when one of the spheres causes a lot of stress. This means erecting fences just a bit higher, keeping the different spheres more separate. This is because you don’t want the sick part of yourself to contaminate the relatively healthy ones. It is a bit like an internal quarantine for the part of your soul that is aching.

I am sure many of us go through this experience sometime in our lives. Your mother dies, and yet you need to do your taxes. You are going through a divorce, and yet grades are due. You almost died in car accident, and there is a meting to attend. The chasm between the profound and the mundane never feels natural or pleasant. It always feels like a little betrayal, of is you denigrate the profound by paying attention to the mundane. Yet there is no other way, because the mundane deserves our attention. That is where life happens, where other people depend on us. We all must compartmentalize sometimes.