This past month, as we’ve watched Russia – or rather, Vladimir Putin – do his best to crush Ukraine, I have struggled with writing. I’m not a political pundit and I’m no expert on Eastern European relations. I have too many thoughts, especially questions, and they’re all in a mess. But in the end, I think about it too often not to write about it.
Several weeks in, it is still mind-blowing to me that this is happening. That in 2022, when humanity has so much that’s real to worry about, this so-called world leader has fabricated reasons to bomb another country.
Here’s how I feel about bombing: it’s bullshit. Humans should not get to do it, ever.
We look at destruction wrought by forest fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and we know in our hearts that it’s pure, unmitigated tragedy. That we would never choose to have all those humans and animals suffer like that, or destroy all the beautiful surroundings on purpose.
Yet somehow, still, there are humans who do choose to wreak this havoc on other humans and their environments. How? How corrupted does a mind have to be to rationalize this? And how does a mind get so corrupted? Because this devastation can never, ever be worth it.
I don’t think this war has anything to do with Russia in general or Russians as a people. Putin has handily dumped his whole country’s economy in the toilet, so it seems clear that he doesn’t care about the actual people of Russia, who mostly did not ask for this. We know there are Russians protesting this war, at great personal risk. At this point, thousands of them have left or are leaving Russia because they don’t agree with attacking Ukraine, or because they dread the war’s consequences, or both.
It only makes sense that Russians would want this war if they are drinking Putin’s Propaganda Kool-Aid. So why does Putin want this war? Clearly, the reasons he initially listed, especially “de-nazification”, are baloney. Doesn’t he know that a) he is now being likened to Hitler by practically everyone, and b) the similarities are glaringly obvious? And I mean, the world in general agrees that Hitler was a bad guy.
This war has not gone the way Putin planned. Does he still think his country will be more powerful in the end? (The value of the ruble says no.) Does he still think he looks powerful? (His decrepit weaponry and failure in his mission say no.) Does he believe he’s creating some sort of legacy for which the writers of history will commend him? Au contraire, he has instead provided the perfect opportunity for Volodymyr Zelensky to become an icon defending his people. Zelensky looks brave; Putin looks pigheaded. And also kind of pathetically archaic.
Does he know that he has become a stunted human? Too trapped by patriarchy and oligarchy to admit that his plan is a failure, and too full of hubris to see that what he is doing is evil?
Putin, the guy
My habit upon encountering bad behaviour, as you know, is to ponder how a person got to this point. I looked at Putin’s history, but it didn’t shed a lot of light. Law school, KGB, politics. Is that enough to relieve a man of his humanity?
After joining Boris Yeltsin’s administration, he climbed through the ranks to acting president upon Yeltsin’s resignation – and then was voted in shortly thereafter. It seems that he was legitimately popular at the time – that Russians admired his cool-headedness in the face of conflict. (Although he was associated with corruption even then.) Was he already devoid of compassion when he became President? Well, we know that at least his soul was shrivelled enough that he felt it was okay to retain power through some pretty sneaky means from 2008 onwards.
At some point, he married, and had daughters. Now he even has grandchildren. (There is also an alleged family with his alleged mistress.) Can someone be a warmonger and a proper grandpa at the same time?
When I look a bit deeper, I wonder if Putin was set up to become a dictator from even before his birth. His grandfather Putin was a personal cook to both Lenin and Stalin. Vladimir had two brothers who both predeceased him. (According to Wikipedia, “Albert died in infancy and Viktor died of diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany‘s forces in World War II“.) That war injured or took several of his family members before he was born. Maybe love and compassion were in short supply by the time of his arrival in 1952. Maybe his heart never had the chance to be tender. That’s a very sad thought.
Not that it would excuse his behaviour. Now, here he is, embroiled in this snafu. I wonder what is left for him at this point. He must see that Russia is a mess. He must know that his popularity is gone. (Watching him get dissed by other world leaders when he tries to shake hands is almost enough to make a true human pity him.) There’s no legacy to be salvaged, at least not in the eyes of the world. Will he allow himself to regret?
Also – Putin can’t be stupid enough to use nukes. Right?
What about peace?
As a Quaker, there’s a lot that I struggle to process about this conflict.
Pacifism is the foundation of Quakerism, and has been since the beginning (mid-1600s, in England). The teaching was to “turn the other cheek,” which was a radical practice for any man of that time and place. But it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. I personally have trouble accepting that a peaceful society should turn the other cheek to unjust attackers. Ceding the path to megalomaniacs doesn’t seem like a way to further peace. I guess that’s why people don’t tend to argue that the Allies were wrong to fight the Nazis.
I am heartened that so much of the world has rejected Putin’s war. It felt like a big collective “NOPE” to his assumption that his plan was justifiable, or even made any sense. It’s also encouraging to see non-violent resistance making headlines. The sanctions, the UN diplomats walking out on the Russian foreign minister’s speech. Canada’s UN mission tweeting a heavily edited version of Russia’s letter to the UN (which the teacher in me of course finds brilliant, if unconventional).
The other thing that my pacifist background does is make me wary any time folks start speaking of national loyalties as if they’re simple. The words “I stand with Ukraine” make me uncomfortable, even though my heart goes out to all the Ukrainians who have lost loved ones, whose homes are gone, who have had to flee – or stay and endure the violence. This simply should not be happening to them. It’s an appalling waste of resources, infrastructure, health, history, and every single one of those precious, unique lives. I try to imagine their pain, terror, desperation, exhaustion, and my heart breaks.
I guess it’s just that my brain doesn’t stop there. I’m also concerned for the Russians whose lives have been ruined by this conflict. And struck with sadness and outrage for the people of colour – Ukrainians, residents, and visitors alike – who were mistreated by other Ukrainians and struggled to cross the border when people began to flee the country.
And I grieve for those who are suffering in human-created humanitarian crises and violent conflicts all over the world (Ethiopia, Myanmar, Yemen, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, China, Haiti, Mali, Nigeria, etc. etc.). Those conflicts may be longstanding and mostly domestic, no longer making headlines on a daily basis, but they are just as tragic for the people involved. Who stands with them?
Right now, these words feel awkward. It would be easier (and probably more socially acceptable) to just ride the blue-and-yellow current. But as you know, my relationship with the red-and-white of my own country is pretty complicated, so of course I can’t let things be simple. And for the record, I don’t believe that any of us can afford to let all of the sorrows of the world pile up in our minds – our spirits would be crushed.
At least I can make one statement that feels reassuringly certain: Putin’s war was a bad idea. He should have listened to someone with a softer heart than his.