3 min read

Poor Dumb Russians

Russian soldiers irradiated themselves in the forest around Chernobyl. Are we doing the same?
Poor Dumb Russians
Russian Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow in 2009. Credit: Chad McNeely via Wikimedia.

Recently, bus loads of Russian soldiers were transferred from Chernobyl to Belorussian hospitals, suspected of suffering from radiation poisoning.

They were driving tanks and APCs around willy-nilly, disturbing the soil in one of the most irradiated places on earth, and are rumored to have been digging trenches in the infamous Red Forest, so named because of the massive dose of radiation that it received when Chernobyl's nuclear plant exploded in 1986.

When I read this, I literally slapped myself in the forehead. How could they be so  dumb?

If the narrative is correct, these poor schmucks didn't even know that there had been an incident at Chernobyl. They had no idea that there was a risk of radiation posioning, like the brave firefighters who tackled the blaze back on April 26, 1986.

Of course, this is yet another shocking indictment of the Russian military, and the wider Russian education system, still too fragile to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.

But let us not take this as an opportunity to gloat.

It's easy, and almost enjoyable, to shake our heads at the ignorance of these young soldiers, and cluck about the uncaring state apparatus that doomed these men to early deaths, if not accute radiation poisoning (quite possibly the worst way to die).

But to stop there would be an even greater folly.

Russia is a mirror for the west. Everything they do, we do too. And unless our derision of them is directly followed by an honest assessment of our own side's failings, we're just as stupid as they are.

In this life, there's no shortage of things to be outraged about. I myself spend a fair bit of time in the grips of one unresolvable frustration or another. So what I am proposing below is not a skill that I have mastered. Still, I find myself returning to this idea:

Most of the problems in the world are directly attributal to mental myopia. Where people are getting hurt, there's usually a responsible party using plausible deniability to obscure the negative effects of their actions from others and themselves.

I'm not suggesting you shouldn't point the finger at other people. I'm merely saying that when we do, our next thought should be Am I doing this too? How are the groups I belong to doing this as well?

Because if we're honest, it's usually easy to find ways we're doing the same things we're angry about.

That's how the shadow works. We take all the negative stuff we don't like about ourselves, and project it onto someone else. For white people in America (a group to which I belong), Russia and Black people are where we most commonly project our own sins.

But nothing will change until we change ourselves, and that means looking more carefully at the effects of our own actions, not just at the actions of others.


Look at those dumb Russians.

They didn't even tell their own people the story of Chernobyl, one of the Soviet Union's greatest mistakes (and also one of it's most heroic acts).

Look at these dumb Russians, invading Afghanistan and Syria and Ukraine. What arrogance thinking they deserve an empire!

Look at those dumb Russians. They caused Chernobyl in the first place with cost-cutting, stove-piping, and fear of the truth.

Look at those dumb Russians, believing the propaganda pumped out of the TV.

Never mind our western wars of profit and the millions we've left dead.

Never mind the slow and agonizing deaths we've unleashed on our own people through cigarettes, sugar, and chemical exposure.

Never mind the exploitation and lies propping up our most celebrated figures.

And never mind the double standards that protect a few at the expense of the many.

Never mind any of it. Just look at those dumb Russians. How stupid are they?


Don't give heed to voices that only discuss the evils of the other side.

Limit the credibility you give to those who can't discuss their own flaws and failings. They are crafting a narrative in which you are an angel, and someone else is a demon, and that narrative will be used to manipulate you.

When I saw that Russian soldiers had been happily irradiating themselves in Chernobyl, I could not believe it. But then I remembered all the times my own government or employer has kept me in the dark. And I reminded myself of all the times that I have (and still do) play along out of ignorance, personal convenience, or opportunity.

Metaphorically speaking, we're all Russian soldiers, free-wheeling around a contaminated site, blissfully unaware of the damage we're doing to others, and ourselves.

Poor dumb Russians.