The Great Gates of Kiev

The important thing to remember is that by the time these words land in your brain, everything will have changed. Things are moving so fast that I won’t keep repeating the phrase “as of now,” but please just factor it in.

To start, if you’re wondering what you can do to help an embattled Ukraine, let me right at the top here add to the list of organizations you may already have compiled. Here are two more, but important ones. The Kyiv Independent was envisioned and launched by former staffers of the Kyiv Post, a well-respected Ukrainian newspaper whose owner shuttered its doors and fired the entire team only three months ago, in a move considered to be retaliation for editorial independence. Now, relying almost solely on support from readership and donors, The Kyiv Independent faces continued financial challenges as its journalists work to provide the world with credible news from Ukraine in English, and to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation. In view of the past twelve day’s events, the challenges of the paper have grown tenfold, and its survival is more critical than ever. You can explore their website, subscribe, support them by donation or in other ways, and also get up to the moment independent news from Ukrainians themselves about what is happening in the country. In addition, there is UKRINFORM.NET–a multimedia broadcasting platform in multiple languages.

Now, a note about our unrealistic reality. I must call it that because I can’t use “surrealism” for what I want to describe: the weirdly out of body experience of watching a war in real time take place before our eyes, live, instantaneous, streamed: Outlawed cluster bombs, oxygen-sucking explosives outlawed by the Geneva Convention, nuclear plant on fire, 8,000 people demonstrating in Russia against the war, and a million and a half real refugees–98 percent women and children. Real tears, real blood, real war.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 16 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, in hopes that they will volunteer to fight the Russians—as indeed many if not most have. This means that it is women and children who constitute almost all of the refugees, which in fact mirrors the international refugee situation itself. It sears the mind–thinking about the cases of physical and sexual assault these women are already enduring, and will continue to face. While these refugees (not even counting internally displaced persons) are staggering through and from Ukraine, across the country, thousands of people, also virtually all women and children, are cowering in subway stations and in makeshift shelters and basements, clutching their smartphones and wondering how in hell their 21st century lives have overnight become a reenactment of 20th century European horror. Russia lists its casualties so far in Ukraine as 419 dead and a little over 1500 wounded; Ukraine reports that there have been 5,710 Russians killed, and Ukraine reports 2000 civilians dead.

Before we continue, though, we need to pause and talk about those refugees. First, we can’t help but notice that the solidarity the world is expressing for Ukrainian citizens—while totally and understandably earned through individual and collective bravery rarely seen—this solidarity is in no small part due to an unspoken reality. So let it be said: Ukrainians are very white. Since 2011, more than six and a half million people from the global South, and also from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Eritrea, etc., have sought asylum in Europe. Nationalists boast that antipathy toward such migrants is a centerpiece of their agendas. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán has built a razor wire border fence to keep out them out. Poland pushed back refugees from Belarus in the bitter cold last year releasing tear gas and icy water from cannons. And this past week, Black people, many of them foreign students living in Ukraine–many carrying Ukrainian passports–were not allowed to board with other refugees on the free train fleeing to Poland. These were Black people from Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, and Brown people from Syria, India, and even one totally lost soul from Afghanistan who had just escaped 4 months earlier from that hellhole. By the end of last week, the European countries above named and the rest of the European Union were scurrying to promise they would accept everybody coming from Ukraine. But the practice often lags behind the promise, as we know.

Surely we must ask what it means when suffering humanity fleeing oppression by trying to board a train at the border of a country where they may well be killed if they stay, when these people physically throw off the train two women, each one a mother of four children, doing this so forcibly that one of the women cracks her head open after falling? Never mind the so-called deNazification of Ukraine, as Putin falsely claimed for his motive. It’s the deNazification in all of us we have to lookout for.

Vietnam was the first war to be televised, with films a day or so old flown in and then broadcast, and it’s often credited with finally ending the conflict, because when people actually saw the face of war, they didn’t like what they saw. We’ve come a long way since then. Perhaps enduring a process of rhinocerozation, the coarsening of sensibilities that allows us to coolly regard what’s on our television sets (and smart phones, tablets, and computers) if not quite as entertainment, possibly as a step closer to that than to what we witnessed in Vietnam. Then again, we don’t show dead bodies anymore. I find myself remembering that when I ran out into the street to look downtown at the Twin Towers on September 11th that fateful year, as one tower fell in a plume of flame a guy standing next to me exclaimed, “Wow! It’s just like in the movies!” Life imitates art? Cooking dinner while watching Kyiv fall? Is life now one long video game? Is the world all virtual?

I tell myself that on the other hand this is good because ours is, after all, a tech world, so communication can travel fast (almost as fast as miscommunication). But surely, I think, if people can see with their own eyes, then won’t they rise up and stop the carnage? When the U.S. Civil War began, the Unionists thought it would be over very quickly, so they brought picnic baskets to hills overlooking the battlefields and settled in to watch what surely would be short shrift for the rebels. Instead, what happened was the start of four blood-soaked years of war.

We’re not that naive, certainly. But I wonder, as I watch otherwise gutsy, principled reporters asking traumatized mothers and terrified kids standing in endless lines or crying huddled in basements, such calloused questions as “How do you feel? What’s it like to leave your home and whole life behind? Do you have any idea where your husband is?” Perhaps weirdest of all is watching those being questioned try to respond—because they too know how all important it is to get the word out–about their suffering, about the plight of Ukraine. There are no innocents in this exchange, except the very youngest children. Everyone else collaborates, turned into actors in this tragedy.

In general, we rally well when history presents us with a single bad guy as an adversary. But it’s also undeniable that for decades Vladimir Putin has been intent on weakening democracy around the world, and he’d be the first to admit it. He is the central force keeping authoritarian strongman Lukashenko in power in Belarus, he deployed Russian troops to invade Georgia in 2008, and he annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014—as well as interfering in the 2016 and 2020 elections of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. And of course, the USA. Furthermore, this has been fairly effective. As the New York Times noted, “just one in five people now live in countries designated as “free,” down from nearly one in two in 2005.”

The truth is that the world, now wired and globalized, has never had to deal with a leader accused of this level of war crimes, a leader whose country has a landmass spanning 11 time zones. This is not about the 21st century or NATO–this is back to where Russia was before the USSR; it’s about Peter the Great, Catharine the Great, Mother Russia–and Empire. Russia is also one of the world’s largest oil and gas providers and has the biggest arsenal of nuclear warheads of any nation. I’d say that the Biden administration has been wise in not taking Putin’s nuclear bait and in responding coolly to his provocations. The U.S. hasn’t changed its nuclear force posture and the alert level has not been raised. (This, despite a little noticed decision by Belarus in December, to change its constitution and allow Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons there; Belarus borders Ukraine and three NATO members: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.)

Oh, by the way, there are some 13,000 nuclear weapons on earth, in the arsenals of nine countries. This is new. And if this is not verifiable insanity, I don’t know what is.

That’s partly because democratic leaders (and, it must be said, populaces) have done too little to become engaged, to stand up for themselves, while at the same time autocratic regimes have increasingly worked together to create a cushion against punishment from other governments. (For instance, China approved Russian wheat imports this past week, effectively softening the impact of the West’s new sanctions.) Yet there is a way that this could be turned around to face in the same direction as democracy, to be part and parcel of the very democratic progress we need and want to see. As one of many examples, since Russian oil fuels heavy attacks on democracies around the world, that’s all the more reason to disbelieve the lies of fossil fuel companies about their necessity and underscore the critical importance of green energy investment.

Moreover, other connective elements are at work, three specifically: 1) Preindustrial conquerors could seize land and hold it, but you can’t get away with that these days, because arbitrary confiscation destroys incentives and any sense of security that an advanced society requires to remain productive. It also invites ongoing, relentless guerrilla warfare. 2) Furthermore, modern war uses massive amounts of resources. Premodern armies used limited amounts of ammunition and to some extent could live off the land: as late as 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman could cut loose from his supply lines and march across the state of Georgia carrying only 20 days worth of rations. But modern armies require huge amounts of ammunition, replacement parts, and most of all fuel for their vehicles. The Russian advance on Kiev has slowed and temporarily stalled likely as a result of continuing logistical difficulties. What this means for wannabe conquerors is that even if successful, conquest is exorbitantly expensive, leaving conquerors ruined or in permanent debt. 3) We now live in a world of impassioned nationalism. Ancient and medieval peasants didn’t care—or supposedly didn’t care—who was exploiting them, because it “came with the territory” and exploitation was assumed. But modern workers do care. They care a lot.

These are the kinds of connections that Biden sought, and often did, make in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday.

And you know what? It’s time we gave the guy a hats off. First, he entered the joint session with the most diverse cabinet ever in the history of the country. Could we just stop for a sec and think about that–and about what getting that accomplished cost, and means? Then, he delivered his speech standing in front of the Speaker of the House and the Vice President of the United States–both women, one African and Asian American and one Italian American. Look, you can never accuse me of being an apologist for those in power, but I mean really. That’s good stuff.

This fuddy duddy “sleepy old Joe” built 6.5 million new jobs last year, more in one year than ever in the history of the United States. He’s made such headway fighting COVID and its variants so that we now can celebrate a country where vaccinations are finally up and hospitalizations are down, and in his SOTU speech he announced the initiation of a new test-to-treat program where Americans can get tested at a pharmacy and, if positive, receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost. I mean, really!

He called himself a capitalist and then went on to say that capitalism without competition is not capitalism but exploitation. This garnered a confused standing ovation from Republicans, on their feet along with Democrats, and both sides of the aisle rose for his calls for solidarity with Ukraine, funding the police in more efficient and compassionate service, and new protections for veterans. He pushed hard for bipartisan infrastructure support and gave us a laundry list of necessities from child care to nursing homes, from addressing big pharma and negotiating lower prices for Medicare drugs, from affordable housing to deductions for energy-efficient use at home and at work. He negotiated his way around inflation, called for restructuring the tax system, announced a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud (that brought both sides of the aisle to their feet), and a new FBI unit seizing the yachts of Klepto Criminals (Putin’s oligarchs); he urged votes for the paycheck fairness act, to raise the minimum wage, and on controlling guns–and reminded us all that gun manufacturers are the only businesses in the country that cannot be sued. He urged passage of the Freedom to Vote Act. He looked straight at Amy Coney Barrett and insisted on a woman’s right to choose and maternal health care both. He banned Russian aircraft flying through United States airspace, but refused again to engage troops or extend the no fly zone over Ukraine, thus effectively keeping us out of World War III. He passed the largest economic package since the New Deal.

Not so bad for a shy working-class guy who read W.B. Yeats aloud to outgrow his stutter and who sometimes seems to drop into those misleading deceptive dozes. It was quite a powerful performance, and it demonstrated the leadership that some Americans have worried he was lacking.

Sometimes our own beloved Free Press outdoes itself by adopting an arbitrary, contrarian stance, especially regarding progressives and liberals–for fear of being targeted as . . . well, progressive and liberal. And sometimes we progressives exhale such rarefied airs of purity that you’d think we would explode from sheer arrogance. Waaaay to pure for the likes of Biden. (Personally, I was touched to see him on Ash Wednesday, dutifully and I’m sure sincerely, wearing his Roman-Catholic-ash-besmeared forehead one day after he had gone to battle for women’s right to choice; I like people capable of ambivalence, who can balance differing thoughts at the same time).

Biden gets it from all sides—too moderate, not moderate enough, wild-eyed radical socialist, rightward tilting conservative. Maybe, just maybe, he’s none of the above. Maybe he deserves a break—the kind of break you might longingly wish for if Donald Trump were still holding that office hostage. Maybe, just maybe, he’s the real thing. Maybe, just maybe, someday we will remember him as having been a great president in an exceedingly troubled time.