We stand with Ukraine

This is a difficult blog entry to write. It involves war. But not a flame war. A real war where people are dying. Innocent people. You have all seen the pictures and videos, it is not my task to describe that.

MariaDB Foundation has been slow to react. This is because we have strong ties to both Ukrainian and Russian developers and we want to do the right thing, as individuals and as the Foundation. Let it be perfectly clear that MariaDB Foundation stands with Ukraine; that said, the rest of the blog is not written in first person plural. There is a reason for that. Yes, I am the CEO, but the reasoning of this blog is based on my personal career in databases, well before MariaDB even was started. Hence, the rest of the blog is in first person singular.

So what can I do?

Like so many others, I ask myself what I can do to make a difference. Not much, but perhaps something: My life with MariaDB and its predecessor MySQL has given me a perspective on Ukraine and on Russia; sharing it may help especially my current and former colleagues think and act differently. In all its absurdity, this war is not abstract to me.

The MariaDB ecosystem at large can perhaps also benefit from connecting the dots between our everyday lives in databases and the geopolitical happenings. I will arrive at a conclusion, and it involves the responsibility of individuals to cope with the past of their nations. And I will use the trajectory of my past 20 years in the database industry as a starting point.

Caveat: I have to give you a trigger warning. This blog entry is not nerdy, not techie. Its bearing on the mission of MariaDB Foundation is indirect, as it is not about the adoption or openness of MariaDB Server. But it is about our third core value, continuity.

A few words on MariaDB’s relationship to Ukraine …

Many MariaDB developers and users come from Ukraine. I have known several of them for nearly twenty years, when some of them were still living in Luhansk and we were all working for MySQL AB. Several of them fled to Germany after the Russian occupation of Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk. And there are still MariaDB developers living in Ukraine, although most already fled due to the 2014 war.

I hope the remaining MariaDB developers in Ukraine will survive the Russian bombings all across the country. I hope they find shelter, food, clean water. I can hardly imagine what they are going through. I see familiar views from Kiev, Kharkiv, Odessa, Lviv – with devastation in the heart of Europe.

… and to Russia

On no other topic have I seen such unanimous support. The atrocities committed by the current Russian regime has united diametrically opposite people, across political affiliations and across countries in a way I would have never imagined.

Living in Russia is a different story entirely. Former MySQL AB CEO Mårten Mickos puts it this way:

I don’t want innocent Russians to be hated. I wrote a couple of articles on Ukraine, for Åbo Underrättelser, Finland’s oldest newspaper. One of them argued: Make a distinction between Pushkin and Putin. Pushkin – good, Putin – bad. “Do not forget that the Ukrainian is the victim. But do not despise ordinary Russians.”, that was one of my tenets, in an elegant Google Translate rendition from Swedish. That was an important point to make, I thought.

MariaDB has many developers and users who come from Russia. Many of them live in the West; the majority of them still live in Russia. I know them for as long a time as I’ve known our Ukrainian current and former colleagues. In both groups, there are close acquaintances. Friends.

I would like continuity. Joint work on common goals, including developers from Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere. But that is going to be tough. Let me explain why, and let me start from an incident from nearly twenty years ago, that I had always looked back to with pride. Now, I no longer do so.

An email to life@mysql.com

During MySQL AB times, there was an email list, life@mysql.com, where one was supposed to share important life events. An unnamed Ukrainian employee shared that he had lit a candle in his window, to commemorate Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine started by Stalin in the 1930s. Oops, I thought. But good that he creates awareness. Stop spamming life@mysql.com with your politics, an unnamed Russian employee immediately replied. This isn’t politics, this is just a fact, something that happened, the Ukrainian replied, in full view of all. Oh no, I thought.

Minutes later, I got a private email by the Russian: Kaj, make this stop, now!

Formally, there was no reason to ask me. I had no HR related position. Sure, I had started the habit of performing songs by country, to make the various cultures of MySQL AB understand each other better. Melancholic Slavic love ballads made introverted developers into instant stars with the American sales team, and the Russian in question may have thought of me as a cultural interpreter.

Interested in Slavic culture as I am to this day, I also happen to be a native of a country that was brutally attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939. In Finland, we made zero distinction between Russians and Ukrainians, when they were shooting at us. And now their descendants approach me, to mend fences between them?

After an initial feeling of being overwhelmed, I decided there is something I could do about the situation. I described an event happening half a year before, when MySQL AB had had a developer meeting in Terijoki, renamed Зеленогорск by the occupying Soviet forces in 1948. In this place, MySQL AB developers met, dined, drank and sung, in the same space where our ancestors were busy killing each other less than seventy years earlier. In addition to us from Finland (like Patrik Backman, now of Open Ocean), Russia (like Peter Zaitsev, now of Percona and in the US), Ukraine (like Sanja Belkin, now of MariaDB and in Germany), Sweden (like Tomas Ulin, now of Oracle), and Germany (like Georg Richter, now of MariaDB). All countries formerly fighting in Carelia represented! (Footnote for the historically interested: Germany came to Finland’s considerable aid in 1941-44 and we wouldn’t have retained our independence without them; Sweden sent volunteers to Finland both in 1939-40 and 1941-44).

My message to the Russian upset about being reminded of Holodomor was a public message to all of MySQL AB: I would like the company to be a place where we can rejoice at being able to work together and celebrate together regardless of country and background, and I cherish the fact that we could do that exactly where our ancestors had fought.

This was accepted, as evidenced by no further debate entries in the Holodomor chain coming, not from the Ukrainian side, nor from the Russian.

Right afterwards, I felt pride in completing a small diplomatic feat. A young nerd from a country which was a victim of Stalin’s terror could make peace between “two different kinds of Russians”, that was my simplified story when I bragged outside hearing distance from Slavic people.

Today, I look back at the incident with mixed feelings. Now, I would never say “two different kinds of Russians” even tongue-in-cheek, but that’s not my main point. My main point is that I respected the hurt feelings of the oppressor as much as those of the victim. I went for the quick solution, neglecting that the Ukrainian was right, the Russian just perpetuating the censorship going on at least since Stalin times.

I still don’t know a way that would have peacefully and harmoniously ended the Holodomor / Голодомор email feud, but I did not take sides for the oppressed and I am not proud of it.

So what about 2022?

Fast forward to today. MariaDB Server has users and developers across the world, and a tightly-knit ecosystem. I see discrepancies which I fear to be outside the scope of what anyone can mend.

But this time, I will take sides. I will not gloss over and merely utter meaningless words of me “hoping for peace”. What I hope for is that people (namely Russians) associated with the aggressor (namely Putin) start thinking in similar terms as another people (namely Germans) associated with a former aggressor (namely Hitler).

Russians have to cope with their past

The Germans have term for this: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A long word. It means “coping with the past”. Germans were associated with Hitler for a long time after 1945, and still today have a collective sense of guilt. That’s why the German Bundestag has had such an enormous problem coming to do the right thing even nearly eighty years later. That’s why the speech last Sunday 27 February 2022 by Chancellor Olaf Scholz was such a revolution.

Dear Russians! You face a tremendous task. You have to somehow make the world understand that Russia is not the embodiment of Putin. Quite like many Germans even in the years right after WW II, a huge share of Russians today still believe in the propaganda of their regime.

If I may conclude with a wish, it is the following: I hope that the community started around MySQL AB and now continued by MariaDB, Percona, Oracle, and others can somehow contribute to the understanding necessary for coping with the past. The present has created bonds between developers, from Ukraine and Russia, from Finland and Sweden, from Germany and France, from the UK and the US as well as other countries inside and outside Europe. These bonds are hopefully strong enough for us to continue working together, at the very least in the database world.

MariaDB Foundation stands with Ukraine.

Further reading

Further reading (first in Swedish, then in English/Russian):

  1. Är Ukrainas sak vår? (Åbo Underrättelser 28.2.2022) – English version: Is Ukraine’s cause ours?
  2. Håll Putin och Pusjkin isär! (Åbo Underrättelser 25.2.2022) – English version: Keep Putin and Pushkin apart!
  3. Ukrainas sämsta startup (Åbo Underrättelser 24.2.2022) – English version: Ukraine’s worst startup
  4. Slava Ukraini! (Affärstidningen Forum 31.8.2021)
  5. Kaj Arnö hittade sina artiklar för Svenska Yle översatta till ryska: Propaganda eller genuint ryskt intresse för väst? (Svenska Yle 24.8.2019)
  6. Kaj Arnö: Vad lär oss Sibirien i dag – från Gulag till instagram 26.8.2018 – Russian version by inosmi.ru, (28 comments, 10124 views) Yle (Финляндия): Сегодня мы изучаем Сибирь — от Гулага до Инстаграма
  7. Kaj Arnö: Kalla den vad du vill, Lviv, Lwów eller Lemberg – i den ukrainska staden har minoriteter levt sida vid sida i hundratals år (Svenska Yle 29.4.2018) – Russian version by inosmi.ru, (122 comments, 39519 views) Называйте его как хотите, Львив, Львов или Лемберг: в этом украинском городе меньшинства всегда жили бок о бок