Show Me Your Ear!

A year into its invasion of Ukraine, how and why Russia has weathered Western sanctions

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

There’s a bit of Soviet physical comedy I remember from my student days in Leningrad that I’ve been thinking about ever since Russia invaded Ukraine. In the joke a doctor tells asks a patient: “please, show me your ear.” The patient lifts his right hand and then instead of reaching for his nearby right ear, bends his whole arm over his head and pulls on his left. “Here it is!” He declares with great, idiotic pride.

Patience, a mind for systems and numbers, a nose for corruption and a facility at working one’s network of connections are all that’s been needed to evade Western sanctions.

This habit of reaching the long way round to grab something that should be right at hand is baked into Soviet thinking. In the days of the USSR a married couple living in a tiny studio apartment in the boondocks of outer Moscow might over the stretch of decades make their way to a two-bedroom in the center by combining their property with a series of falsified leaseholds of dead relatives and a cluster of leveraged favors from various friends and relatives. Soviets who emigrated abroad often followed the same labyrinthine pathways en route to their economic goals. As the New York Times reported in 2012 more health care providers in the Russian-dominated Brighton Beach ZIP code were barred from Medicare and Medicaid programs for malfeasance than from almost any other ZIP code in the United States. For those raised in the tit-for-tat Soviet economic system, working one’s network of “блат” (connections) was often viewed as a more rational path to compensation than an honest day’s labor.

Theoretically the need for this kind of thinking passed away with the Soviet Union. But the generational memory of following long-and-winding-roads to intended goals persists. That plus what might be considered another Soviet characteristic — dogged, almost pathological determination to oppose those standing in your way — accounts for Russia’s facility at evading Western sanctions to date.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago stories have proliferated on different…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org