complex simplicity

When Russia moved into Ukraine with tanks and missiles in February, I was reminded… of a Seinfeld episode. If you watched the show, or have been anywhere near an internet meme since Russia’s “special military operation” began, you might know the one I mean: Episode 98, “The Label Maker,” in which Jerry’s uber-eccentric neighbor Kramer and uber-annoying mailman Newman play a game of Risk. They move the game to a New York subway, and as Kramer balances the board precariously, he gloats, disparaging the military might of Newman’s last controlled territory: “The Ukraine is weak.” A fellow passenger, who happens to be Ukrainian, takes exception and makes it abundantly clear that Ukraine is not weak, a fact that’s been evident ever since Russia invaded.

As a territory on the Risk gameboard, Ukraine has an interesting history. When the game was introduced to the U.S. in 1959, its global map featured Ukraine as a massive expanse that somehow bordered Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Scandinavia, stretching all the way from the Caspian Sea to the Arctic Ocean. It’s likely that many children failed geography tests as a result, but this representation of Ukraine owed more to a Cold War-era reluctance to place Russia on the map than anything to do with actual geography. The 2015 edition of Risk relabeled the Ukraine territory as “Russia,” and Ukraine disappeared from the map. Let’s hope that wasn’t a hint of things to come in the real world.

In Risk and in real life, Ukraine isn’t weak, but it is difficult to defend. Still, the potential prescience of a board game is not the most surreal thing about this war. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a former actor and comedian, best known for a TV series in which he played… the Ukrainian president. Among the leaders of Ukraine’s resistance are two former international boxing champions, Wladimir Klitschko and his brother Vitali, who’s the current mayor of the capital city of Kyiv. And that’s Kyiv, not Kiev—the spelling was changed in 2019 to a form that derives from the Ukrainian language, rather than Russian, and is meant to show Ukraine’s independence. For similar reasons, it’s no longer “The Ukraine,” just Ukraine—both Kramer and Newman got it wrong on Seinfeld.

The internet tends to cast everything into a familiar framework, whether the subject is trivial or consequential. Thus, like online arguments about mask mandates, pronoun usage, and Chick-Fil-A, the players in the Ukrainian conflict are subject to Godwin’s Law, which states that “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.”

There is an important distinction: observers noting the similarities between Putin’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland have a legitimate comparison, while Putin’s claims of “de-Nazifying Ukraine” are patently absurd and easy to identify as such, since the President of Ukraine is Jewish—something that, last I checked, was not an acceptable prerequisite to joining the Nazi party. Putin also claims to be rescuing ethnic Russians who were being discriminated against in Eastern Ukraine, which sounds like the same self-serving logic I used in the kitchen recently, when I “liberated” a box of doughnuts that had been cruelly discriminated against when it was neglected in favor of some chocolate chip cookies.

Meanwhile, the social media-driven cancel culture (which may have reached its lowest point in 2021 when it was suggested that San Francisco’s Abraham Lincoln High School be renamed because of the 16th president’s ethical shortcomings) has a new, richly deserving target: Vladimir Putin. Putin’s actions, and the world’s reactions to them, have made him the least popular Vlad since “The Impaler,” and he’s responded by canceling Facebook, or more precisely, blocking access to it.

There’s so much bizarre stuff going on: Russian government officials threatening to strand a U.S. astronaut in space and demanding the return of Alaska; the rest of the world playing “find the $500 million yacht” with Russian oligarchs. Through this surreal lens—if we squint a bit—more parallels to Seinfeld can be seen. We have our protagonist, a comedian (Zelenskyy), whose home is periodically invaded by an unpredictable character with a mysterious background and a knack for creating trouble for the other people in the area. In Europe’s neighborhood, Putin is the ultimate wacky neighbor.

But Kramer isn’t malicious. In the world of Seinfeld, Jerry’s true nemesis is Newman, so any representation of Putin also needs to incorporate elements of the obese postal worker’s personality. In the episode “The Big Salad,” Jerry says about Newman, “I’ve looked into his eyes. He’s pure evil.” That sounds a bit more on the mark for Russia’s president, and in this alternate-universe sitcom, it’s easy to imagine Zelenskyy disdainfully greeting his enemy with “Hello, Putin,” or, after realizing the havoc his enemy has once again created, shaking his fist and exclaiming “Putin!”

Of course, the Ukraine conflict isn’t a game or a sitcom. The fighting is savage, the cost in damages and civilian lives impossible to justify. As I write this, Ukraine’s defenders are fighting bravely, while the United States and its allies have passed severe economic sanctions on Russia, resulting in, among other things, a rise in the price of gasoline. This time we’re fighting mostly with our wallets, and hopefully, American consumers can show the same stamina in this battle as Ukrainians have in theirs. Ukraine is not weak, and now it’s time to show that America isn’t either.

Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His latest work, “Suburban Complaint #1988: Skunked” can be read at themetaworker.com. His book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).

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