Elon Musk and the Magic of Names

Yesterday a strange thing happened. You have probably seen it:

Elon Musk's about Russian invasion to Ukraine

I’m not going to concentrate on all the ways posting this was wrong. I expect there will be a shit storm strong enough without my five cents. In the spirit of this blog I’m more interested in the questions relating to thinking and knowledge. And there’s an obvious one.

How do we know that we really know what we think we know?

Wow that’s a stunning example of a well-formulated question right there.

I admit, I’m kinda using Elon Musk here as a screaming example of publicly talking about things you have no clue about. But we’re all guilty at times of doing the same. Even if we’re not public.

But let’s keep using him as an example. There must be some foundation under his opinion about Crimea: after all, he confidently states that:

Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).

And there lies the trap that most people will fall into. They will try fact checking this statement, reading the Wiki article on Crimea , trying to figure out was it really formally a part of Russia. Reading and arguing about how Crimean Khanate was conquered and if Crimea wanted to be a part of Russia.

And they will totally miss the elephant in the room. The “Russia” he talks about doesn’t exist. And it didn’t exist for over a century.

Wait what?

This little thought was nagging me for a long time, maybe 10 or even 20 years, and I could never put my finger exactly on it. Until I did.

Being Ukrainian, for me this was kind of obvious1 on an intuitive level. But until today I didn’t see it for what it was — the most ingenious piece of Russian propaganda.

It’s all in the name

Long time ago there was a country called “Russia”. Well, maybe there was such country, it’s hard to tell by now, after rewriting history so many times. But there definitely was a country called Russian Empire , and we can tell exactly when it started.

The term and the entire ideology was coined by a Ukrainian2 scholar Theophan Prokopovich (ukr. Феофан Прокопович) , a very educated guy lacking any moral compass. After Peter I tried destroying Kyiv Mohyla Academy , the only real university in the region of that time, he promoted Theophan to some important role in Saint Petersburg. There he coined the whole concept of Russian Empire, following a good European tradition of claiming to be the Third Rome3.

In any case, in 1721 he renamed the Tsardom of Russia into Russian Empire, and that’s when the country officially started. And that country was normally referred to as Russia in the West. That’s important.

Before World War I it was a pretty big country. As Elon Musk says, Crimea was formally it’s part. As were other nice places, like Poland, Finland and all the Baltic states.

Right until it stopped existing.

The “Great October Revolution”

You need to understand, that I’m doing this as quickly as I can before I get you bored. We’re almost there.

In 1917 after a series of revolutions caused by the terrible decision to participate in the Great War, there finally seemed to be a clear revolutionary winner — the Bolshevik Party, which later became the Communist Party.

And they wanted nothing to do with the former Imperial past. They renamed the country into Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , also known as the Soviet Union. And that was the country I was born in.

Some places got lucky and broke off early, when this abomination of a state was just forming: like Finland. Others tried, but didn’t succeed, like Ukraine4.

But even those places that didn’t succeed, were not part of Russia. They were part of the Soviet Union. Multinational. Multicultural. Calling themselves “soviet people”. Not “Russians”.

USSR was a scary country with a scary ideology, and we’re all lucky it didn’t survive the Cold War. But until it’s later days that country had principles. I don’t agree with it’s ideology, but it had one. I don’t agree with the future it wanted to build for the humanity, but it was looking into the future.

That country fought in World War II and a bunch of other wars. That country was one of the founding states of United Nations and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Right until it stopped existing in 1991.

Devil’s work

The Devil’s cleverest wile is to make men believe that he does not exist. – Charles Baudelaire

Modern day Russia is like that, but it tries to convince the world (and itself), that it’s somehow, magically, the same country as USSR and Russian Empire. The whole idea behind rashism is trying to bring back the past, not to build some brighter version of the future (even if it doesn’t seem brighter to everybody else, like in the case of the USSR).

And it’s not the first time something like this happens in a dictatorship. Mussolini used to address the Italians as Romans, and insisted that his Italy was magically the same country as the Roman Empire.

So saying that Crimea was part of Russia, and should be left to Russia is like saying that Greece was a part of the Roman Empire, and should be left to Italy.

And the only reason it doesn’t sound absurd is because during the Soviet times we kept calling the country “Russia”.

Returning to the original question

So how do we know that we really know what we think we know? I’m afraid this question is so big, that it’s impossible to cover in an essay. But there are some tricks we can use:

Look for alternative points of view and alternative sources

And by point of view I don’t just mean “opinions”, but also other angles to look at a the subject. Because if the subject is even a slightly bit controversial (and most interesting subjects are), and you only used one source — by definition you only heard one side of the story.

Question fundamentals

Try questioning the most fundamental parts of the subject. Like with the Musks tweet the fundamental part was not whether Crimea is or is not part of Russia, but in fact whether the “Russia” he talks about even exists.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

  1. If something seems “obvious” it’s a true sign that almost everybody else sees it differently ↩︎

  2. Fate is a bitch ↩︎

  3. Read up on translatio imperii, but read something good ↩︎

  4. Read up on Ukrainians People’s Republic ↩︎