I work for a research company that specifically touts itself as above politics. I’m also a Ukrainian citizen who still lives in Ukraine so I don’t vote or have any say in U.S. elections. What I am is a researcher who thinks every American should look closely at the natural experiment happening between Eastern and Western Ukraine.
In Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s Russia spreads propaganda that offers simple answers to the region’s economic problems. By contrast, in the more European Western Ukraine, long hard reforms are slowly starting to pay dividends. The western part of the country is experiencing a cultural rebirth; the eastern part of the country has devolved into a war zone.
Trump praises Putin’s political leadership, viewing it as a model of how he will “make America great again.” I’m neither a Trump or Clinton supporter but I’m here to share a cautionary tale for what can happen when you turn to hate, blame and discrimination as a response to a region’s very complex problems.
I was born and raised in the eastern city of Luhansk, the part of Ukraine that makes news in the U.S. for all the wrong reasons. When I was young, the region was an industrial center, much like the Rust belt region of the United States. But even before the Malaysian Airlines crash and the Russian-backed war, heavy industry left the area and unemployment skyrocketed. Alcoholism became rampant. Ukrainian men now have the lowest life expectancy of nearly any other western nation in the world.
It’s fortunate that I managed to go to college and get a masters degree in statistics. I also started my own consulting business, primarily servicing European customers remotely. I met success yet still, my parents were disappointed. They expected me to work in factories or government institutions, the industries that are central to the region’s economic culture.
But those days are long gone ― in Ukraine, Russia and the United States. High-skill work is the new reality around the world. While the region suffered, I was able to make a decent living in the growing tech and high-skill industries that are reshaping our world.
American media made it seem like Russia invaded my home in 2014. The reality is: Russia had been waging hidden ideological war long before.
Once the Soviet Union fell, Russian politicians acquired local plants and factories, closed them, and then blamed Ukrainians. Russian television stations in Ukraine ran propaganda films about “the horrible western world.” The “documentaries” supported intolerance, homophobia and fear of capitalistic relations. All spheres of life in other parts of Ukraine, the U.S., and Europe were demonized, including equal rights for women. Western culture, morals and values were turned into jokes.
I firmly believe in the collective intelligence of the human race. But when an area is as battered as eastern Ukraine, people start searching for answers. Why are death rates of previously healthy populations rising? Why aren’t there enough jobs? Why does life seem so hopeless?
These questions have extremely complex answers that I hope the company I currently work for, ProofPilot, will help academics find answers to one day. Getting to those answers take time but with it, we can create real and meaningful solutions; it may take an entire generation.
Russian propaganda provided simple, quick but false answers to those complex questions. “Why do alcoholics’ livers hurt so much? Because American companies spread GMO altered ingredients.” “Why do children behave so badly? Because they are under the influence of American culture.” “Why is the birth rate so low? Because of Europe’s pro-LGBT influence.”
This propaganda is unbearable for me but Luhansk was my home. I’m a scientist. To my very core, I believe in forming a hypothesis, collecting data and analyzing results. But people in eastern Ukraine craved quick answers where there are none. Russia provided these answers and the people of eastern Ukraine had no means to check the facts.
By contrast, the western parts of Ukraine have a stronger connection to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of highly qualified IT workers collaborate with European and American tech companies every day. In 2015, Ukraine passed anti-discrimination laws for the LGBT population.
The Revolution of Dignity started in Kiev. These more western oriented parts of Ukraine made a choice to favor Europe. Putin is enormously unpopular in central and western Ukraine. Those more western focused Ukrainians dramatically overthrew the Ukrainian president with close ties to the Kremlin in favor of closer trade ties to Europe, joining the Schengen Zone and maybe even a NATO alliance.
That’s when daily coverage of Ukraine was on the homepage of every major news publication worldwide. Russia quickly came to rescue the people of eastern Ukraine from the influence of dangerous and awful western culture by backing separatist rebels. That rescue meant drowning the region in more stifling poverty and suffering. It meant creating an international crisis. Those rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. But people who believed Russian propaganda thought, “At least we are not in Europe.”
As administrative and infrastructure in the east fell into Russian-backed rebel control, I realized the banking system would no longer operate and I would have no means to receive payment for my work.
So I was forced to leave my home city, and escape to western Ukraine, specifically Lviv, the center of Ukrainian culture ― about 40 miles from the border with Poland. Here, the attitude of hope, optimism, diversity and entrepreneurism is creating an environment that American and European expats describe as Prague 35 years ago.
Still today, in eastern Ukraine, simple answers based on hate and vitriol have thrown millions into major hardship. It’s killed thousands. It continues to force thousands of others like me to flee our homes. There’s little true hope left in the region.
I’d encourage voting Americans to carefully consider whether quick sound bites filled with hate and blame are the answers that will make America great again. Look to Ukraine as a natural experiment case study as a warning, and proceed with caution.