Some people have asked what my opinions are about Ukraine. Despair, outrage, impotence. Probably the same as you. I was in Kyiv once, though only the airport. I was planning to go back to visit friends, during a summer which became the summer of COVID. Because Ukraine was making it: coffee shops and tourists and rehabilitated public spaces. Cleaning up some messes from the soviet times. It is a tumultuous democracy, a corrupt democracy – but aren’t they all? Didn’t Winston Churchill once say “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others!”
Same can be said for corruption. “Democracy is the most corrupt form of government, except for all the others.”
I am enthusiastically cheering on little Ukraine in the face of an unjust war. We Americans do that – we love an underdog, we hate a bully. We rally behind what we know is right, and rage against what we think is wrong. People all over the world call us ‘simple’ or ‘black and white’ because of this; but it is one of our great strengths. For the past months I’ve seen the United States more united than we have been in a long time, and that is nice. So sad it comes at the expense of a nation being pulverized to dust.
There is an epic shift going on. The short version is that Anne Applebaum’s old “The Bad Guys Are Winning” narrative; the 21st century story about a resurgence of authoritarianism as a challenge to Edmund Fawcett’s ‘Liberalism’ is at its end. Liberalism won. Authoritarianism is suffering a spectacular, neigh on irrecoverable setback. The assumption behind the surge of nouveau authoritarianism was that liberalism could no longer solve the hard issues. Our democracies had become bloated and soft. Swift action was only possible in dictatorship. COVID China seemed even to prove that. “Who cares about the misery of the people? We have to stop a disease.” The assumption too was that nouveau authoritarianism was rational and even benevolent not in an individual way but benevolent to important causes of history.
Putin ended all that (as did our rapid and concerted response, more on that in another essay). The invasion of Ukraine is irrational – it emerges from the nostalgia of an old man, from a movie or a novel of how things supposedly were. As I get older I start to understand better this nostalgia, this conservatism which seeks for a glorious past. “Mythology is something that always is but never was,” Osip Mandelstam once said. Same can be said about nostalgia. “Nostalgia is the yearning for something that always is but never really was.” But Putin’s irrational nostalgia is a lose-lose-lose. Let’s say by some miracle he actually wins, what does he get? A country in ruins with no money to rebuild it; 40,000,000 Ukrainians who hate him and a burning insurgency to prove it; a Russian economy that has tanked by 50% – hunger and 3rd world status. How is this ‘win’ a win? And he very well might not win. What then? WWIII that starts nuclear – because if Putin can’t beat tiny Ukraine he certainly cannot stand against the might of NATO…? Perish the thought, except we’re all thinking it – including him.
Putin also ruined China’s chances for a generation. Xi was planning to annex Taiwan and march into his Communist Party Congress the great new Mao. But can he do it now? No. China’s economy is far more dependent upon the West than Russia’s is. Russia has stoic poverty and oil; China has greed, digital totalitarianism and cheap plastic exports. China would not long endure the sanctions we have proved we are willing to unleash.
One quick point, because this is something that deserves mentioning. Liberalism’s victory is not a victory of the culture warriors. They might try to say that, at the end of the day to return from their own hiding places (how much have we heard from the leftist totalitarian culture warriors lately? This is not a fight they are comfortable with. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’? ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’? Smacks too much of ‘him’ and ‘her’. Of God and the Bible…) to re-exert that it was the fringe elements of American society that defeated Russia. Putin’s only derived sympathy in all of this comes from his ability to portray himself as a defender of Christendom or a warrior willingly fighting the aberrations allowed by liberalisms great prosperity. An argument that holds no sway with me, a Christian from a Christian family united behind our understanding that the greatest underdog fight in history was that of Jesus against the multitude. Yes, also against Rome decadent and bent and perverted. This is a victory of right against wrong; and of the goodness that we have in our spirits product of our Judeo/Christian national philosophy against an evil that destroys theaters with children in them and massacres people standing in bread lines.
Which perhaps brings me to my final point, at least right now. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? That’s the age old question. I read a lot of Russian literature. I still have trouble understanding Russians. They are such a strange mix of ‘east’ and ‘west’. They are such an extraordinary civilization with such an inferiority complex. They are such a part of European history that is always lashing out because they feel like they are not considered enough by Europe. They are able to suffer great tribulation. Their leaders, like the Butcher of Mariupol who destroyed Aleppo six years ago and is now reducing Mariupol to rubble (a character out of Dr. Zhivago), are so often wicked. Putin with some demonic Rasputin whispering in his year – there is so much of “War and Peace” in all this. But Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Leo and Alexei) and Aivazovsky and Tchaikovsky – Ayn Rand: Poets and novelists and painters and scientists capable of extraordinary acts of creation. Much of which comes from their ability to endure, and then to channel their desperation into their work. How to understand this paradox?
I have no doubt that the war in Ukraine will spark another cascade of Russian art. The world order is changing, I’ll write about how next. It is epic, and sudden. And nothing will ever be the same. Because history has returned to Europe.