No bombs fell in downtown Durham yesterday. No rockets slammed into City Hall or its police station. Most of us here, and I assume pretty much the same about you, went about our appointed tasks and pleasures, tending to jobs, walking dogs, meeting someone for coffee, picking up kids or grandkids from school, getting a hearty something out on the dinner table to feed body and soul.
The basic stuff of life, which we often take for granted and then look back on as its best, most memorable and enduring pieces that we take to our graves with a gladdened heart.
That said, my day was only partially like that, because a good part of it was spent obsessing about the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian dictator and war criminal Vladimir Putin.
I couldn’t do enough reading and watching and listening to slake my thirst for absorbing the full impact of this momentous and horrid event, potentially the most consequential of this still young millennium, with impacts we can only speculate on in the vaguest terms as we, the entire civilized world, really, enter into the forever unpredictable Fog of War.
I do know this, however: I am dismayed, and very afraid for what lies ahead.
One of the memes making the rounds in these early days of anguish is that the vast majority of Americans “couldn’t find Ukraine on a map.” O.K., so let’s start there, with the map above.
Let’s put ourselves there as an imaginative exercise. Imagination, after all, is the beginning of empathy.
‘Surreal’ seemed to be the word of the day—every person-in-the-street (or shelter) who had a microphone put in front of them struggling momentarily for words to describe their emotional state, until surreal stepped in to do the work.
Ukraine is second only to Russia as the largest country by land mass in all Europe, encompassing 233,000 miles, its 43.6 million people the continent’s seventh largest population. More than any other aspect of this event that will likely reverberate through the geopolitical world for decades to come, it is those 43.6 million people I have been thinking about in recent days.
In an era of ubiquitous media that includes everyone with a smartphone, words and images fly instantaneously around the world. Sometimes that highlights cat videos, other times the winning goal in a key World Cup game.
Yesterday, it was much more about Russian tanks rolling across the Ukrainian border unimpeded, Kyiv residents hurrying into underground subway stations that double as air raid shelters, and massive traffic jams on all roads leading out of cities and the rich target zones they are for Russian bombs and missiles.
“Surreal” seemed to be the word of the day—every person-in-the-street (or shelter) who had a microphone put in front of them struggling momentarily for words to describe their emotional state, until “surreal” stepped in to do the work.
How could it be anything but?
And curiously enough, it feels much the same here as I venture out to the street and wave to the UPS guy, stop to chat up my very pregnant neighbor as she presides over her 2-year-old son sloshing through rain puddles in knee-high boots, having the time of his young life.
His antics cause a grin to break out that stretches far west to far east on my face, mirthful down to my bones.
And then back into my warm and tidy home and the news coming in from its perfectly functional communications grid, telling of dark clouds forming over the world order, courtesy of a man with a powerful nuclear arsenal, which he is figuratively waving over his head, like an ape beating his chest, warning off all other pretenders to the dominance he claims is his and his alone, over all he sees.
I have found myself thinking repeatedly about Mikhail Gorbachev these past days. Him with his easy smile and intriguing port wine stain forming what resembled an island country on his balding pate.
For the six years (1985-91) of his heyday, initially as general secretary of the Communist Party and a final nearly two-year stint as the heavily reformed Soviet Union’s first president, Gorbachev was a kind of rock star, hailed by world leaders and the public alike as a man of modern sensibilities, committed to democratic ideals and the dignity of his and all peoples.
He seemed to have hoisted the entire Soviet Union and its long tortuous history on his back and dragged it into the modern era of governmental, cultural and personal openness (“glasnost”) and a restructuring of the economy and military (“perestroika”).
If the seemingly impregnable Berlin Wall could become nothing but dust and dark memory, and the menacing colossus of the Soviet Union dissolve into free self-governing parts, all of it without even a shot being fired, then every optimist’s fondest hopes for the arrival of a New Age redolent with peace and brotherly-sisterly love was surely, finally, at hand.
This dawn of a new era meant, among many other things, that we would be done with one country invading and intending to crush another sovereign, internationally recognized other country for no reason other than it wants to, and can.
Pundits were proclaiming the “end of history,” the final, long-delayed triumph of the Enlightenment brought to bear for humanity in a liberal world order committed once and for all to human rights and economic freedom.
That was all barely 30 years ago, a mere blink in historical time.
But if so, how could so very much have changed?
Why, suddenly, do the bad guys seem to be winning?
The answer is that bad guys will always return, as they have today in multiple venues around the world, from Russia to Hungary, Afghanistan to Syria, China to Venezuela, and most chillingly for the fate of our own country, to an embittered Vladimir Putin admirer in Mar-a-Lago.
Human history is nothing if not an endless cycle of repelling such ogres for a time as the arc of goodness ascends, deluding us into thinking our work to elevate the good and vanquish evil might finally be done, peace and prosperity ascending to its rightful throne forevermore.
There’s indeed a place where that is true: its name is “Heaven.”
However fanciful or literary that term may be, we do well to remember it is projected in all sacred texts as another place, in another dimension.
Not as heaven on earth, wherein there is none, save but for those moments, those occasional, fleeting but all-seeing moments, when we know the furthest reaches of love and contentment and can see through to them as the ultimate expression and experience of our humanity.
That all seems far away on this portentous day, and likely on many days still to come, when the world teeters on ancient animosities borne of difference and suspicion and fear, and the upwellings of aggression that remain intrinsic to our species, all species, really, in the heave-ho struggle for advantage and survival, whose beating reptilian heart is perfectly reflected in a man currently residing in Moscow, with the world at his feet, under his hollow, vacant eyes.
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Andrew – Did you read Madeline Albright’s essay the other day in the NYT? She described her thoughts on meeting him in 2000 as cold, almost reptilian. Watching a bit of his announcement of independence for the two separatist regions, he seemed so incredibly full of bile and hate, twisting so many things round in doublespeak. He IS evil – and Trump admires him, how he got a whole country for “$2 worth of sanctions.” I’m so so dismayed by all this.
I did read and was struck by that description, too, Marilyn. It seemed perfectly in accord with my own observations of the man from afar. Thanks for sharing it here for the benefit of other readers. Here’s the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/opinion/putin-ukraine.html
This one was so well written that I was taken aback. One great paragraph, right before Dylan’s song. It’s hard to stay away from CNN.
I hear ya, Cindi. I also channel surf over to others, moving with the tide of commercials, while also scanning my phone for podcasts. Every now and again, I peek over at Fox News just to make sure they haven’t changed their tune, and sure enough, they remain steadfast in their chorus of, “It’s all Biden’s fault, and whatever isn’t, belongs to Obama.”
We have a close friend an neighbor who is Ukrainian, bringing all of this tragedy close to us. We spoke to Natalia last night about how she is doing, ways in which we could help (babysit for 3 year old Zoya, etc.) and were devastated, though not surprised, to hear the distress and fear that she expressed as many of her family are living in Ukraine. Fending off ogres long enough for good to prevail for stretches of time is, indeed, fundamental to life in this dimension. It is true in the historical cycle of institutions and organizations as well as the geopolitical realm. Most organizational histories reveal times of relative tranquility and interpersonal prosperity that is squashed with leadership change hell bent on oppressive and heavy handed top-down power. Many thanks for the link to Albright’s piece. She clearly confirms the impression and reporting on Putin’s ruthless soullessness. It is horrifying that Trump, Tucker Carlson, et al are praising his evil genius and cunning. Moreover, there are millions in the U.S. who share this view with their cult leader Trump. Thankfully, protests in Russia indicate that many citizens are not buying Putin’s Big Lie and subsequent assault on Ukraine. Followers of The Don cannot seem to bring themselves to question his assault on our own government. In the long run, I suppose that this too shall pass. In the meantime we must hope that these ogres can be contained so that reason and good can prevail for awhile.
World War II was over and Hitler was dead by the time I was born so the extent of man’s potential for cruelty to man was not as vivid to me as it might have been. Your lament that “the bad guys will always return” reminds me of a quote by John Steinbeck at the peak of WWII. “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” I’m afraid we are descending further into a pit of evil and will have to wait decades for goodness to triumph again.
It is times like these, Al, when I am given to wondering whether Steinbeck might not have been a tad optimistic in holding that evil never will win. Which never means we give up on the good, but man, it sure makes one harbor a despairing thought or two, however temporary they might be. In the end, the cosmic battle between good & evil plays out on all these all-too-human scales, and always will. It’s only in the unrelenting fight for the good, perhaps, that true goodness is made known, and prevails. Thanks for this Steinbeckism; sure sounds like him!
Another thought comes to mind and it is about a more positive possibility regarding Putin’s naked, cruel aggression. Could it be that the Ukranian commitment to fight for freedom inspires our country to not take our freedom and democracy for granted? Could Putin’s attack reveal to Americans the danger of Trumpism’s desire to overturn our government and to see Jan 6 as an attack similar to Putin’s attack to overtake Ukrainian government. In other words, has Putin “outed” Trump and his supporters?
You bring up several intriguing points in this & your previous comment, Jay. I think a good part of my sense of despondency over this event, besides its obvious humanitarian aspects that should concern and grieve anyone, is that it strikes all the closer to home given what we have and continue to contend with in the assault on our own democracy. And yes, the fact that an u.S. ex-president is actively undermining his successor, expressing zero concern for the fate of Ukraine, disdaining the very existence of NATO, and hailing the “genius” of a half-mad dictator who, up until about five minutes ago, was anathema to absolutely everything the ex’s party has always stood for—and is STILL fervently supported by most of the party’s voters and elected officials rather than headed to the jail where he belongs—makes my hair stand on end. Considering all of that in its totality, I can’t shake the dread that it is not only the Ukrainians who are on thin ice…
AND: Is it possible that Putin has done some of the work that virtually no one in the ex-president’s party has been willing to take on in exposing the true depth of the ex’s utter disdain for democracy? And that this may, at long last, signal some at least minor turning point and wakeup call for our own country? We can only hope!
Most disturbing to me is that Republican leadership and its many followers seem to willingly and intentionally want to overthrow democracy and the rule of law. They are actively taking control of school boards, library boards, local and state governments to repress and ban freedom of thought, lifestyle, and voting rights. The fascist revolution is unfolding before our eyes.
Of course, the obvious comparisons between Hitler and Putin immediately come to mind. Afterall, they both seem to be drinking from the same evil water fountain. In 1938, Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland) claiming that the million-or-so Germans living there had a right to self-determination, so he goose-stepped into Prague. Putin seems to be following in Hitler’s footsteps. He charged Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy with genocide and can’t wait to do his own dance into Kyiv. However, I sense that his horrific, overtly immoral invasion of the Ukraine may backfire. Protests in Moscow and other Russian cities arose overnight. This did not occur in Nazi Germany. Berlin was quiet, even jubilant. Biden is not Chamberlain, and Kyiv will not become another Munich. NATO didn’t exist in 1938. Frankly, the world won’t stomach another agreement to appease. Too many are sickened by the images of Russian tanks plowing through the Ukraine countryside like locusts. I’m hopeful, probably overly optimistic, that this ugly, heart-wrenching invasion will bring Putin down, and maybe—just maybe–other dictators like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán will also find themselves impotent in their desire to destroy democracy.
Man, I hope you are correct Robert. My diminishing optimism is rooted in the attitudes and behavior of America’s own Republican Party. The vitriol is staggering and is now spilling over into support for Putin and placing blame on Biden for the Russian invasion. I fear that too many in this country are all in to support authoritarian regimes, including in our own country.
Jay, a headline in the Post that speaks to this truly staggering transformation of the Republican Party from ardently anti-Communist, pro-American Reaganites to isolationist, moral relativist defenders of Putin: “HOW REPUBLICANS MOVED FROM REAGAN’S ‘EVIL EMPIRE’ TO TRUMP’S PRAISE FOR PUTIN”
Amazing, unprecedented times…
Clearly the belief that Biden, et al, are driving a Socialist agenda and are empowering people of color (and hence soft on border protection) is enough for current Republican leadership to go along with Putin as justified in overtaking Ukraine. Hate and fear have substantial power.
The argument of those critics is so twisted and diabolical it almost feels like a really horrible and ill-conceived joke. Just trying to put the formula together here:
Dictator invades free and independent country aiming to wipe out its government and subjugate its people = people from impoverished and embattled lands trying to get to free country for a chance to improve their lives and enjoy the fruits of freedom and prosperity for themselves and their children.
And wouldn’t you know it: certain elements here admire the dictator and only wish we could bring him and his army to our border so we could crush the impoverished and embattled people seeking to enter here.
Got all that??
The comparison seems apt, Robert, and Putin has no doubt studied Hitler’s maneuverings and lies (and western Europe’s capitulation) in seizing Czechoslovakia. We can hear it in Putin’s false claims of Ukraine being the actual aggressor in the Crimea, and he’s just coming to their defense, blah blah. All rubbish, and the whole world knows it. And I just read tonite he is “warning” Finland and Sweden not to join NATO, or he will levy political AND military consequences. He seems to have appointed himself Dictator of All Europe, but I doubt either the Finns or Swedes are much impressed by that title.