Smekalka: the inner workings of the Russian mind

Why Russia is always getting one over on the West

Only one summer in the Soviet Union, if you spoke the language well enough, was all the observant “cultural warrior” needed to figure it out. Regardless of how much the Soviet — and later Russian — governments tried to control the people, the weaker the government became. The more complex and official the system, the freer in a chaotic way that Russians became. The more rules the less enforceable they became.

30 years ago I arrived in the Soviet Union — to Leningrad. It was the famous White Nights and I became enamored; perhaps fell in love with a silvery-white sky that turned the waters of the great Neva River bitter-chocolate black; the complete lack of advertising; the sincere desire of everyone to learn as much as they could about you in the minute or two they might have —like speed dating only without the rejection at the end. We were one of the first waves of foreigners whose every step wasn’t being tracked by the secret police, known as the KGB. It was a rather intoxicating time — in more ways than one.

As any foreigner who has ever lived here will attest, be it caused by something in a professional, personal or public setting, you will mutter to yourself once a day: What the hell is going on here? In the beginning, I too was overwhelmed with frustration and my emotions ran hot. I argued and fought — literally, fists flying — and cursed and yelled and divorced (twice) until one day at the headquarters of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, Russians — by accident surely— uttered a word that lit the proverbial light bulb over my head.

In a room with forty Heads of Communications and investor relations (IR)from Russia’s elite companies, we were tasked with coming up with a contribution to the world of business Russia had made in the past. The white board was empty. The chief of staff for a famous Russian economist fidgeted, waiting for someone to say something. And then the Head of IR for one of the top, Kremlin-friendly oligarchs uttered rather matter-of-factly:

“Well, of course, there is ‘smekalka.” Everyone present agreed and a rather lively discussion about “smekalka” ensued for the next hour. As the only foreigner present, I raised my hand and asked what that word meant.

Seemingly shocked that a foreigner was now privy to their secret, they reluctantly, and quite briefly, explained to me the meaning of “smekalka.” Suffice it to say, no one was able to explain the meaning of the strange word beyond “well, you know…it’s kind of like…ummm, well, it’s a form of wiliness but not really in a bad way but sort in bad way…ummm.”

Right, that was helpful.

But it wasn’t and so I fell silent until the very end of the meeting. I stopped everyone before they could leave and asked if my assessment of “smekalka” was right:

“Guys (Rebyata, in Russian), from the discussion it seems that smekalka could be described as ‘negative creativity’…or ‘negatively creative.” They agreed and a couple joked that it took a foreigner to accurately sum up their national call-to-action (or, inaction).

Russians are world-class chess players. One of the reasons they are able to so adeptly bewilder masters from other countries is because passive creativity is applied. By taking the creative offense of their opponent, for example, the master will proceed to dissect it from within in ways that an active creator could never see! The act of creating is, in a sense, like giving birth to an idea and then implementing it. Smekalka is the counter to this process — it absorbs the creative idea, entering its DNA in order to dissect it; weaken it; to replace key parts so that the original idea stops functioning in the way it had been intended. The idea then begins to do the exact opposite.

After the first wave of Soviet emigres arrived to San Francisco in the late 80’s, something happened that left the local government bewildered. For decades, San Francisco was able to count on a predictable income from parking meters located all over the city. Suddenly, that steady flow slowed to a trickle. The streets, however, seemed as full as ever and on first glance the meters were in use and paid-up.

But then one fine, San Franciscan day a Russian immigrant offered a “parking discount” to the vice mayor and the great mystery was solved. Upon accepting the discount, the vice mayor watched as the middle-aged man walked up and slid a dime into the meter legally purchasing 12 minutes of parking — turning the meter green; next, he inserted the small, metal piece off the the top of a can of Pepsi into the slot — and time on the meter stopped, eternity commenced. For the price of four quarters, $1, the vice mayor was able to park as long as he liked. That scam ended shortly after that chance meeting but not without taxpayers covering the cost of upgrading all the meters — a substantial opportunity cost for the Bay City.

When I share this story with Russians, they laugh wholeheartedly. Such “cleverness,” getting one over on the system, on the nameless, faceless and unseen wizard is something that genuinely invokes a sense of tribal pride — not national; the “Russian people,” as opposed to other citizens of the former Soviet Union, look at this as being their power source, their identity and even though it is called “negative creativity,” it isn’t considered a bad thing. A bad smell is negative. Obesity is negative. Smekalka is a creative way of tearing down other people’s creativity to either use it against them or to creatively benefit from the Frankenstein that stalks the world in the original idea’s place.

Let’s apply smekalka to the present day state-to-state relations. Many of the so-called experts in the US State Department are kids whose parents were either donors to one party or the other; or, kids being churned out of the “elite” colleges and DC-area universities like George Washington and Georgetown. I will say this with the certainty that I know my name: No one at the “Russia Desk” in the US State Department understands smekalka. If they did, President Putin would be working with us and not creatively against us.

Americans are naive, Russians will say. Our naivete lies in that we genuinely believe people are innocent until proven guilty — good until found to be bad. This sentiment leads to an inherent desire to trust people. As an American, my gut instinct says that most people mean well. These two traits, however, make us sitting ducks for Russians.

In Russia, only a fool trusts a stranger. It is easier to accept that people are guilty first making it their responsibility to prove innocence. Let’s take this to the level of state actors. Every time the West conducts these big, hyped-up investigations that take years to conclude, the long-awaited announcement, “Russia did it,” sends the Kremlin into hysterics (Of course, we did, they think, but we didn’t — wink-wink). The wasted time empowers Russia for the longer a cancer sits unattended, the more damage it does.

The Kremlin, using the power of smekalka, will have again managed to distract the West — China, because they act in similar ways, seldom fall for the nonsense. Russia knows that if the Western nations remain undistracted, then they will use their penchant for positive creativity to pull further away from Russia, more acutely focusing a lens on Russia’s failure via the subtly of comparison.

The only move that can truly counter the power of smekalka, however, is to forgo years of investigations, fight the inner pull to be fair, and just call Russia out immediately. If you suspect them of ill deeds then never back down. Never concede any ground and no matter how times they say they didn’t do it, just pretend you heard them say, “yes, we did do it.” Western liberals, and even more so conservatives who have become so smitten with President Putin, will say that such an approach is not constructive to building a long-term relationship. I will tell you it is the only way to build one.

The Russians know they are guilty of whatever the matter may be; throwing up the usual veils of obfuscation, the switch is flipped to smekalka. Most likely, they will then demand fair and open investigations to be conducted by international teams monitored by impartial judges — they are playing perfectly to our naivete, our need to trust. The unknowing diplomat emits a sigh of relief and mentions how happy he is that Russia is taking the situation seriously — “if they are so willing to cooperate, then they might be innocent.”

But the rules of smekalka mean the investigation gets dragged on endlessly. They lie and hide stuff, destroying evidence and blaming the West of doing exactly what they are guilty of and then suddenly — we are dealing with some other issue and the one at hand gets lost in an election. The West has elections. Elections are certainly periodic events the Kremlin relishes. Elections are retreats in the eyes of the Kremlin — the need to be open and fair ignites smekalka.

Russia hacked our elections because it was the lowest hanging fruit. Russia hacked our elections because President Putin was absolutely certain that Hillary Clinton was orchestrating the 2012 protests in Moscow. The newly-created Russian middle-class came out in droves to protest him and it scared him. Seething, he assessed the situation in the only way he knew how — through the lens of smekalka and what he saw was the invisible hand of Secretary Clinton.

Smekalka is a powerful tool for dismantling an opponent’s defenses but it is a bitter and whiny one when trying to assess your opponents motivations. Putin is a master strategist and his maintaining power in Russia for so long hasn’t been as easy as it seems, I am sure — after all, he is dealing with very fickle Russians; and yet, he still holds it all together. The failure of his instinct to correctly analyze that Hillary Clinton had nothing to with those protests served him and the Russian nation poorly. Like we can’t see beyond our desire to trust, Putin can’t see beyond the firm belief that trust is a fools game.

Russia’s success in 2016 was not so much in that they managed to mess up the voting process. It was just the precise application of smekalka against not one person but an entire nation using arguably one of America’s greatest resources against it. A twenty-something kid in St. Petersburg, with bad English, faked a Facebook account and wrote about a child molestation ring headed by Hillary Clinton in a pizza parlor basement. The need to trust, the inability to see smekalka by Americans, in this case cynicism and fantasy, resulted in police racing to that pizza place to protect it from some gunned-up American determined to “free those children.” (Pizzagate)

That lunacy evolved into the QAnon idiocy. Putin and his pals in the Kremlin are still giving each other high-fives over the success of creating the QAnon dummies.

It was too easy, really. I don’t know the St. Pete kid who made that pizzagate stuff up but I have probably met him. He is surely someone who likes Americans and hangs out at the same cool craft-beer places I do. Let me tell you, “Sasha” (typical Russian name) is no great thinker. He is a mediocre fellow, nice enough, who was being offered a lot of money for making shit up to play on the aforementioned American weaknesses. When you are unprepared for smekalka, that is when it’s power to vanquish is at its greatest.

The question that the foreigner sooner or later asks, why can’t they just play fairly, not “make stuff up?” Or, just try to be great, try to succeed, and if they fail, try again, right? Failing in Russia, however, is as unacceptable as apologizing — both convey weakness, imply inferiority and when a nation is nearly crippled with an massive inferiority complex both the state and individuals lose the sense of right or wrong. The sole end goal is never the enjoyment of the process, a soulful enrichment, but to be the best, to be first regardless of the facts or methods for attaining that status.

The moment Russia became the host country for the Olympics in Sochi, it was expected that someone was going to do something to cheat. I have met many Olympic athletes from Russia and they just want to compete — quite a few have no idea they are taking performance-enhancing drugs. Many could win gold medals without the drugs; but the people who aren’t athletes, turn on smekalka — unconsciously — and in a way that only a Russian can understand, the eyes probe and uncover weaknesses in systems that can be exploited. The embarrassing fiasco of the urine-samples in Sochi is a perfect example. They didn’t need to do that but they couldn’t help themselves.

There is such a long list of instances of smekalka, both successful and failed ones and without ringing that big, stupid bell of conspiracy — only intellectually lazy people believe in them — I expect that Russians are active “just messing shit up” more than we know.

Sometimes, however, Russia is so good at succeeding in doing smekalka that they don’t get the necessary credit for it. If you don’t get credit, or at least tacit suspicion, for, say, an assassination, then your message is not getting through; and, this is why we sometimes see nearly comical attempts like the assault on Sergei Skripal in the England two years ago.

People died and that was not comical, of course. But the two guys sent there to do the deed were so obviously thugs, if not killers, that the notion they were “innocent tourists” was like a scene out of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels! The government had obviously been getting away with some really crafty behind-the-scenes stuff and so felt the need to openly brag.

It’s as if they are saying, “See, we can do whatever we want, when we want and you will always consider us innocent until proven guilty.”

Smekalka at its finest. We didn’t even know it — until now.

A writer, a father and a student of history, the past holds the answers to today’s problems. “Be curious, not judgmental,” at least until you have all the facts

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