The Ukraine is at war, Kiev is besieged, and the postwar order— the international system that generally kept the peace— is in shambles. To answer the question about how we have arrived at this dire point, it’s helpful to know where to look for the beginning of the historical chain of cause and effect. Roberto Calasso starts one of his works on antiquity, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by asking playfully where it all began. But whenever he settles on a beginning, he instantly feels obliged to mention something else indispensable that preceded it. The result is an infinite regress. For Herodotus, aetiology– the study of the causes of things– was essential to his method of studying the past. The “Father of Histories” saw the Trojan War as the root cause of the hostilities between the Persian Empire and the Greeks in his own day. Calasso seems to be satirizing the very idea of aetiology. Aetiology as infinite regress as humor: one may recall the apocryphal story about old lady who (in the version I heard) told the naturalist J.B.S. Haldane after his lecture that, say what one will about outer space, the fact is that planet earth rests on a turtle. When he asked her what the turtle stands on, she shot back, “Very clever, young man, but it’s turtles all the way down!” That is, there’s nowhere you can really start, no beginning. One has to set an arbitrary limit. But when and where?
How did we get here? How far back do you want to go? More soberly, or actually less soberly, given the setting in a midtown bar, there’s W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, in which the poet ponders the aetiology of Hitler, throwing in a bit of then-fashionable Freudianism. “Accurate scholarship can/ Unearth the whole offence/From Luther until now/That has driven a culture mad,/Find what occurred at Linz,/What huge imago made/A psychopathic god:/I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.” And there you have it. That’s where it began and how we got to September 1, 1939, the first day of the Second World War. It was the unjust punishment of Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that fueled and stoked the resentment and fury already inherent in German chauvinist fanaticism. That brought Hitler to power. Evil was done to them in 1919 and now, twenty years later, the Luftwaffe is bombing Warsaw. Auden himself grew to hate the poem, but Clio, the muse of history, is also the mother of irony, and “September 1, 1939” is among his most famous.
Translate this into the politics of today, and move the stage of events eastward. Let’s say it began in the late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union, but in 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Two years later, an earthquake devastated Soviet Armenia. In the summer of 1991, a hard-line junta tried to overthrow Gorbachev. The experiment in socialism with a human face faltered and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics shattered at the end of that year into fragments.
The fourteen constituent republics fell away from Russia, often into the grip of ethnic nationalists. That was exactly thirty years ago. Instead of assisting its fallen rival, the United States, the victor of the Cold War, speeded Russia’s impoverishment and humiliation. Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago economists with their snake oil “shock therapy” nurtured gangster capitalism and the rise of the oligarchs, those latter-day boyars. Russia, with its bandits and prostitutes, its feeble attempts at revival through the Orthodox church, became the laughing-stock of the American-run global media and entertainment industry. NATO, which had been created originally to protect Western Europe against a Communist takeover, was repurposed as a purely anti-Russian alliance. The West assured the Russians that Central and Eastern European countries would not be allowed to join NATO. It broke that promise. When the Russians pointed that out, the Americans laughed in their faces and pretty much said, we don’t care because we don’t have to.
What humane, democratic, pluralistic values, exactly, has NATO been defending lately? Lithuania, which recognizes its own Nazi collaborators as national heroes and whitewashes its very proactive role in the Nazi Holocaust, is in NATO. Estonia, a short drive from St. Petersburg— the same. And then there’s that bastion of Western democracy, Erdogan’s Turkey, an Islamist dictatorship that has imprisoned more journalists and teachers, in both relative and absolute terms, than any other country.
A year ago, Turkey, which to this day denies the Armenian Genocide ever happened, backed Azerbaijan with intelligence, drones and other weapons in its war against Nagorno-Karabagh/Artsakh. Armenians are native to that region, an enclave within the borders Stalin drew for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has recently sponsored the publication of “scholarly” volumes claiming that the fourth-century Armenian churches in Nagorno-Karabagh aren’t Armenian at all. But Turkey is a NATO ally, and, in the words of the Bard, “they are all honorable men.”
In 2014, when crowds gathered in the Ukrainian capital to overthrow the country’s pro-Russian president, Yanukovich, who didn’t want to join NATO or the EU, some (that is, a minority) of the demonstrators were Nazis, white Aryan nationalists, members of revived organizations that had supplied most of the executioners to the killing fields, then the death camps in World War II. If they had been in Charlottesville instead of Kiev, you would never have heard the end of it. Employees of the American consulate were sent out to support the demonstrators, to hand out (bizarrely) loaves of bread. Yanukovich fled to Russia. A pro-Western government was installed in the Ukraine. The Russians regarded this as meddling in their back yard. They retook Crimea to protect their one big southern naval base, Sevastopol. They also moved into the Russian-speaking border districts of Donetsk and Lugansk.
To understand what the Ukraine means to Russians, imagine how an American regards Texas or California. Either state is large and integral to the country. To understand what the seismic shattering of the USSR means to the people living with the aftershocks, open your history books, no, just open your back door and look outside. The USA also broke up, once, and the North fought to reconquer the breakaway South. It succeeded, but the Civil War killed one out of every hundred Americans, in the space of just four years. Remember also that the Ukraine was the second largest republic of the Soviet Union, its breadbasket, its industrial and mining heartland. Remember that most Ukrainians have Russian relatives (and vice versa), and that nearly half the Ukraine is Russian-speaking. It’s not a foreign country. Remember the shared trauma of the Russian Civil War after the Revolution of 1917, Collectivization in the 1930s, the Holodomor, the Great Purge of 1937. Remember the fascist invasion, the dynamiting of the Kreshchatik in 1941 by the retreating Soviet forces, the Partisan resistance. Remember Babi Yar. Remember the millions of Red Army dead, the heroes who died to liberate the Ukraine and drive the Germans out. It wasn’t a foreign country. To many of those soldiers, the Ukraine was home. Kiev is not an alien capital, but the Mother of Russian Cities. Remember Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? Listen to Svyatoslav Richter playing the Great Gate of Kiev on the piano.
Putin belongs to a generation that remembers all that history as though it were yesterday. He may have become a caricature, but he’s also a flesh-and-blood 68-year-old man. For him, the past isn’t dead. It’s not even the past. That’s Faulkner’s line, and Faulkner was a son of the American South. Putin’s dad Vladimir, after whom he is named, was an 18-year-old soldier holding the line at besieged Leningrad. His grandparents were starving, hiding from Nazi bombardment, in the center of town a few miles away. When the Berlin Wall fell and Putin, a young KGB officer in Dresden, asked for instructions from Moscow, there were none. Putin watched Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, the drunken buffoon Yeltsin, kowtow like a puppet to the Americans. The Americans bombed civilians in Belgrade, the once-capital of now-dismembered Yugoslavia. Yeltsin changed his mind about the Washington puppeteers. He appointed Putin as his successor. But when Islamist terrorists, most of them from the backward and tyrannical domains of an American ally, Saudi Arabia, destroyed the Twin Towers and killed three thousand of my fellow New Yorkers in the space of an hour, Putin immediately placed Russia’s military facilities at America’s disposal. He even suggested that Russia join NATO. He was rebuffed.
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Putin consolidated absolute power. Who knows, maybe it was inevitable: he had to contend with the oligarchs, like Tsar Boris Godunov centuries before him had to control the boyars. It made a criminal of him, even if he wasn’t one before. People who want power are often thieves, psychopaths, and criminals. Even if they don’t start out that way, they get plenty of on-the-job training. What else is new? How else could one describe our own political elite? Putin fits right in.
Did the incessant, hectoring accusations in this country about Trump and Russia drive Putin into his present frigid, calculated, devil-may-care anger and blind him to sense, reason, and charity? Have they driven him mad, created a little Hitler with a gripe and an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can end life on this planet? Because Putin is not just a criminal any longer. Now he’s delusional, which is even worse. Criminals can be practical and reasonable, in their own way, after all. He says his massive invasion is intended to “denazify” the Ukraine. Really? There may have been some genuine Nazis on the Maidan in Kiev eight years ago, but how, precisely, does one go about “denazifying” a country that has now elected as its president Volodimir Zelensky, a gentle, Russian-speaking Jewish former comedian, the grandson of a Red Army veteran? To describe the Ukraine as “Nazi” is not just defamatory, it is delusional. And Putin’s said that if anybody tries to stop him, they will experience something that’s never happened before in history. If that is not a nuclear threat, then what is? Hands down, it’s come to the point where there’s nothing for it but to stop him. Maybe he had a point once. He doesn’t make sense anymore and his sanguinary adventure is endangering the peace of the whole world.
There is a Russian expression that describes when both sides of a dispute are culpable, when they provoke each other to the worst: Все хороши, meaning, they’re ALL handsome fellows. Was this avoidable? Couldn’t the West, instead of stonewalling, have said to Putin, Okay, we’re pulling some weaponry out of front-line NATO countries, and we’re making a commitment not to admit the Ukraine into NATO— and let’s start talking about collective security? Instead, he said we’d backed Russia into a corner over thirty years and were not listening now either. If he meant to attack anyhow, we’d have called his bluff. But that’s over now, and with all the saber-rattling in the editorial offices of the Atlantic and the New York Times, you’d think America wanted this war. To make America great again, as one of the “liberal” op-ed shills had the nerve to put it, parodying Donald Trump, who did not get us into a single war. As though this were about America. Now Putin and the rest of the rogues’ gallery have their war, a war that neither Ukrainians, nor Russians, nor Americans want or need.
We’re coming out of what Auden called, referring to his own times, “a low, dishonest decade.” That’s how we got here. Now it’s begun, this criminal invasion, this hideous crime of a man who became an angry man who is now madman, all the uglier for being fratricide. And that word, fratricide, is the only clue you really need about where it began.
It began at the Beginning, at Genesis with the very first murder in the created universe, the tragic tale of Cain and Abel. God warned us in His Holy Scripture and we didn’t listen then and never have since. Will we have time? Is what we have got to, the beginning of the end? Хай живе вільна Україна. Господи, спаси и благослови Россию. Long live a free Ukraine; Lord, save and bless Russia. God help us all now. God save us from ourselves. God bless you.