Philosophy Weekend: Ukraine as Puzzle

Last weekend I suggested that we attempt the exercise of visualizing global conflicts as Sudoku puzzles, and explained some of the basic techniques typically used to solve these puzzles. I then got a bit carried away discussing the difference between Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, and how some KenKen techniques could also be applied. One commenter was smart enough to ask: just what difficult questions was I trying to answer? This question brought me back to earth, and I promised to respond today.

The broad question I want us to consider is the same one I’ve been asking here for a long time. Why are we stuck in a militarized society, so stuck that most people don’t even realize an alternative is possible? What are the conditions that can enable world peace?

This is the broad question, and in this sense the entire history of the world leading up to today is the puzzle I want to solve. This puzzle contains other puzzles within it. Europe is a puzzle, Africa is a puzzle, Asia is a puzzle, North America is a puzzle. These puzzles also contain puzzles. Within Europe, Ukraine is a puzzle, Russia is a puzzle, France is a puzzle. In order to focus on something very relevant right this minute, let’s look at the stunning events of the last couple of weeks in Ukraine — violence and determined protests on the streets of Kiev, hot dealings between Russia and its puppet government, news flashes arriving by the minute — as our first case study.

Far from the action, here in my United States of America, we constantly hear of Ukraine as a mystifying place, a cauldron of dark ethnic, economic, historical and ideological conflicts that nobody outside Ukraine can fully understand, and that many inside Ukraine may not fully understand either. Let’s take up the challenge and propose Ukraine as a puzzle that we can attempt to solve.

I’m presenting on this page six images from Ukrainian history, and I ask you to help me find a pattern or formula that will reconcile these six images into a coherent narrative. I also ask you to imagine these six images in a row of nine squares containing three blank squares. What three additional images would you place in these three blank squares to help fill in a coherent narrative of the history of modern Ukraine?

The first of the six images is a pleasant city map of Kiev, Ukraine’s embattled capital city, that I found online. This is the only one of the six images I’ll show today that is not dark or violent. Perhaps it shows Kiev in the best light, as a peaceful place to live. On the right edge of this map, you see Independence Square, where protests are taking place today. The photo below shows the recent explosive confrontation taking place as we speak at this spot.

Now, let’s dive into the 20th Century, which was not kind to Ukraine. In the 1930s, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union — not a satellite, like Poland and Hungary later became, but a part of the nation itself. Many anti-Communists and nationalists in Ukraine fought against the Soviet Union, and this was the political motivation behind Stalin’s horrific campaign of genocide by farm collectivization and starvation that killed many millions of Ukranian peasants and rural workers. This genocide is known as the Holodomor, and here is one of many images from this horrible time.

Things stayed terrible after the Second World War began. This is the Babi Yar massacre that took place after Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine as part of its invasion of Russia, and Nazi death squads rounded up and shot every Jew they could find. (Sadly, they found most of them very easily.)

At Babi Yar, the Nazis killed the Jews, but there were also massive pogroms at the same time in which Ukranian citizens tortured, raped and killed Jews, emboldened by the Nazi takeover of Soviet Ukraine. After years of terrible repression under Soviet rule, the Ukranian nationalist violence against the Jews was apparently not inspired so much by religious or ethnic anti-semitism as by the identification of the Jews as Communists or Soviet agents. It seems doubtful that these two terrified Jewish women being tortured on the streets of Lvov were Soviet agents, but they were the closest thing the rampaging Ukranians could find.

The Soviet Union ended up beating back the Nazis and reabsorbing Ukraine into the Soviet Union. By the time they retook Kiev, it looked like this. These are Soviet soldiers walking past the city, which was entirely destroyed after four years of total war.

These six images, then, are the puzzle we want to solve. How do they fit together? What patterns can be discerned? How does this relate to the hopefully happier future history of Ukraine that is unfolding as we speak today?

I’d like to continue this exercise next weekend, at which time I will explain my own answer to this question, which will be, of course, only one of many possible answers. I’d also love to hear any thoughts you have.

14 Responses

  1. Well, Mr Asher, I requested
    Well, Mr Asher, I requested from you last week to put out some difficult questions and even said I’d be waiting. Now I find myself waiting for answers to pop up from these questions of yours, i.e. “… How do they fit together? What patterns can be discerned? How does this relate to the hopefully happier future history of Ukraine that is unfolding as we speak today?”

    No doubt you have a scenario planned out in your mind or else you wouldn’t have proceeded as you have, right? Somewhere tucked way back in your mind you see a pattern that has emerged and can apply that to these questions, being a “Sudoku kinda guy”, but things are not quite as simplified as that for me, a “unSudoku kinda guy”.. but that does rule out the possibility that I’ll have something to say about this puzzling arena you have placed you readers.

    Until that time…

  2. Mtmynd, I can tell from the
    Mtmynd, I can tell from the relative quiet (crickets) out there that I am asking a difficult question. In fact, I am trying to solicit answers from others about their impressions of the situation in Ukraine before I present my own. The question is, what does the very disturbing history of Ukraine in the past 100 years (famine, genocide, world war, death squads, pogroms, Communist/USSR domination, denial of language and religion, nuclear accidents, a pretty terrible list) tell us about the conflict that is taking place today? How can we use logic and evidence (rather than prejudice and slogans and news sound bites) to help us understand what is happening right now in Eastern Europe?

  3. You have choosen some images
    You have chosen some images that don’t resemble the status quo.

    I guess 20th and early 21st century Ukraine has a synchronous theme of violence that pervades it’s late modern and early post-modern epochs. To dwell on what happened during WW2 has no bearing on the present day. Look at Nazi Germany compared to modern DDR.

    Germany perhaps has created the most equal and free society on mainland Europe if not the world. Sure the Khmers were bad, the Soviets were bad and the Irish had to eat potatoes.

    We get into this concept of world peace. If the Ukraine was a NATO member this wouldn’t be an issue.

    Former Soviet puppet countries always do better being the West’s allies and friends than muppets that have their string pulled by whatever autocrat happens to be living in the Kremlin at the moment.

    The Russians aren’t likely to interfere with the internal affairs of any European nation allied to the Brits, French, Italians, Germans, Spain and the minor states. The statement is a strong defense is the best offense comes to play here.

    Strange how the Russians have been an existential threat to the existence of democratic nations in Europe since the Soviet revolution.

    The Poles, the Czechs, Greeks have largely forgiven the past indiscretions of the Germans but no one wants to be friends with mother Russia.

    If WWIII would have broken out on the plains of Poland in 1984 even the so called neutrals (eg Eire, Austria, Sweden, etc) planned to mobilize against the Russian horde.

    It is all about people getting to decide which side they are on. Turns out most people in the Ukraine would just as soon be dominated by the interests of the West of Europe instead of Moscow.

    A large part way the West of Europe stays strong is that they are very able to wage war.

    The French probably could defeat the Russians by themselves.

    I don’t know why some countries act like such bullies to their neighbors (and yes the Irish have largely forgiven the English). Other then that brief campaign in the War of 1812 we have never invaded Canada.

    We generally stay out of the Mexican internal affairs.

    You can’t solve human affairs with math. It is just too squishy for that.

    The best outcome for the people of the Ukraine is be members of NATO and the EU.
    This is what the majority them want.

    No one wants widespread warfare to break out in Europe. It’s probably best of the west to keep involvement limited.

    If this was as simple as a game of Ken Ken there would be no world hunger would there?

  4. Hey Josh — you say “If this
    Hey Josh — you say “If this was as simple as a game of Ken Ken there would be no world hunger would there?”.

    Well, there might be if it is as simple as a game of Ken Ken but we haven’t solved the game of Ken Ken yet.

    Still, of course I agree (as I wrote in my original blog post last weekend) that there’s nothing simple about world politics. But when you say that what happened in World War 2 in Ukraine has no bearing on today, you are also treating the situation as if it were simple. I think it’s pretty obvious that every major historical event has a bearing on us today. It’s how we got here, after all. With that said, history is not a prison sentence, and history does not have to repeat itself. I hope it’s clear that I didn’t choose these six images to make Ukraine look bad, or to bring up uncomfortable historical parallels. Ukraine has been terribly victimized throughout the 20th century, and I’m hoping to find words with which to change a sad course of history, not words with which to blame or judge.

  5. Thank you, Wo — yes, we can
    Thank you, Wo — yes, we can see all of these images, and I think your point is clear.

    In fact, I think I see it the same way as you. The history of Ukranian atrocity (either atrocities committed by them, or, more often, committed upon them) pretty much mirrors the history of atrocity everywhere in the world. And we — whoever “we” are in whatever context the word appears — are not likely to be much better.

  6. Hey Levi, I hoped you would
    Hey Levi, I hoped you would start with something like a tutorial, not a “hard” level game!

    So, are we to learn “tools of trade” during the play?

    I will try to fill the three gaps.

    A Mil “Hind” gunship – Ukrainian has a strong heavy industry, especially in the military sector, strongly connected with Russian interests. The bond with Mother Russia is very strong and difficult to break.

    Chernobyl disaster – and after that, as if the disaster were not enough, Ukraine is still dependent from Russian energy; just before the last events, when Ukraine was about to sign a pact with EU, Putin promised 16Bn$ of discounts on gas price, et voila, the agreement disappeared.

    Crimean landscape – The soil is fertile and Ukraine is a great grain producer. Ukraine can be a really beautiful place, and Crimea is a renowned tourist destination, with a mild climate. A place people will fight for.

    …but I had no method, no “21-add”, just the intuition of beginner Sudoku player… I hope we will learn soon some methods.

  7. Hi Levi, I follow this with
    Hi Levi, I follow this with curiosity, but I can’t get past the feeling that you sodoku-model has the character of an analogy. In an original sodoku the solution gets nearer with every square you fill in (if you fill them in rightly). But I would say that with every image you place in this Ukraine sudoku – and these are very disturbing images – the opposite happens. And resetting is probably not an option(?)

    I hope my English comes through ok, I am not a native speaker.

  8. Hi Jerry — I agree with this
    Hi Jerry — I agree with this, but this is an exercise that can be built upon in several different ways. I am presenting here a row of 9 squares — 6 filled in, 3 blank — and asking for help filling in this single row. But maybe the next step is to imagine a 9×9 grid of squares, exactly like a Sudoko puzzle. Perhaps the vertical rows could represent individual countries. The horizontal rows could represent, say, political events — revolution, invasion, civil war, genocide, democratic election, recession, economic boom. At that point we’d have a multi-dimensional picture to look at. This first exercise is just that — a first exercise.

  9. Got it. To be honest, my
    Got it. To be honest, my knowledge of Ukraine and its history is limited, and my propositions to fill in the gaps seem to be quite obvious:

    Ukranian independence in 1991. The image shows the Ukranian soccer team, as a reference to national awareness (also a major cultural reference).×900

    The Orange Revolution of 2004. The image shows Victor Yushchenko, in those days the personification of a better and more democratic future.

    I like Subject Sigma’ s suggestion of “Crimean landscape” – together with your picture of the city map it seems to add a different perspective to row of squares.

  10. Thanks, Jerry — I’m glad you
    Thanks, Jerry — I’m glad you’re posting some “positive” images (I didn’t mean to make my own choices so relentlessly negative).

    By the way, nice Flickr page.

  11. I am surrounded by what may
    I am surrounded by what may be the most oppressed group in the United States, the Lakota Sioux. Three of them sit next to me in the library.

    No doubt the Whites did terrible things–but that doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior. I’m not arguing that history doesn’t sent a precedence-it most certainly does. However you can only blame other people for so long.

    The problem with revisionism is that it is about accurate in the real world as Ken Ken Ken Ken Ken Ken is to world hunger.

    The good news is that it looks like the people of the Ukraine have prevailed and they are allied with the West.

    Talk softly and carry a big stick???

  12. The problem is not with
    The problem is not with revisionism. The problem is with Truth. I do not know if there are good news, as people of Crimea is menacing secession from the rest of Ukraine, because they want to stay close to Russia. Saying that West is good (and, implicitly, East is bad), seems to me a little bit simplistic. Again, the problem is with Truth.
    Just my two cents.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!