I am reluctant to get caught up in the current war fever (or, I suppose, sanctions fever) in large part because I remember how ginned up the spurious casus belli was twenty years ago as the Cheney Shogunate prepared to invade Iraq (aluminum tubes! Chemical weapons! WMDs! “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud!”). Public sentiment was being lashed forward across the spectrum of media outlets, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Hell, a dozen years before that, under Bush the Elder, there was something like the same drumbeat, delivered along a then narrower media spectrum, and even I felt the pull of the (under those circumstances significantly less meretricious) propaganda ringing across the public discourse.
These latter weeks we are invited to condemn and excoriate the Russians for their conduct of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and you know what? I’m all in with that.
Some context, not qualifications: I recognize that to the extent that this country could ever claim the moral high ground in matters of armed conflict, it surrendered any pretense to the commanding heights with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (initially, it is reported, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” until some Pentagon staffer was alert enough to note the appropriate yet awkward acronym). These latter years the USA has tended to conduct its offenses against human rights remotely, and at retail, which was of course scant comfort to a given wedding party in the Helmand Province when a drone operator near the end of his shift at Langley decided to toss a couple of Hellfire missiles in the general direction of the bridesmaids. So this and sundry other deviations from decency noted, OK? Also, nothing like this level of popular outrage hereabouts when the victims in Africa and the Middle East are slain by other national actors, because They Don’t Look Like Us. Got it.
For a number of reasons not really important just now, I was fascinated with Russia/the USSR, first during my childhood in the first decade of the Cold War—I watched Khrushchev’s motorcade traverse my Southern California suburb in 1959—and particularly beginning in 1972 when over the course of a few months I discovered Nabokov (entry to come anon), read Edmund Wilson’s collection A Window on Russia, and acquired a sweetheart whose diction did not betray in the slightest that she was the daughter of émigrés who had herself grown up speaking the language of the Old Country, which was still in use at home.
I was disposed, in the seventies and eighties, to cut the Soviet Union a certain amount of slack. I always thought that Nikita Khrushchev was never granted sufficient credit either there or abroad for attempting to cut the USSR loose from Stalinism. Certainly in our domestic propaganda he was portrayed as the despot’s bloodthirsty successor (rather than blood-soaked inheritor—no one, at the end, in Stalin’s Præsediem had emerged from or survived his inner circle since the thirties with clean hands). There was little to admire in the corrupt and lazy Brezhnev, but he also wasn’t Stalin or even close to it. The Soviet Union’s lesser and greater black sins in the Khrushchev and post-Khrushchev eras are nicely described in Francis Spufford’s commentary here.
I entertained some hopes for a reformed USSR under Gorbachev. I never had high expectations of his successor, a feckless sot who rose to glory for a single moment when he mounted that tank in August 1991 and who, had some Red Army sniper put a slug in his heart on that occasion, would be justly remembered as a martyr today. Instead, he went on to break up the joint for a transient political advantage and spent the next ten years on an extended alcoholic binge before he surrendered the presidency to a successor who was apparently prepared as a condition of his elevation not to ask any awkward questions about the financial irregularities of Yeltsin’s family and cronies. And here we are.
Vladimir Putin, my near-contemporary—I have exactly two months on him—and I agree for different reasons that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a historical misfortune: I because, perhaps naïvely, I believed with Gorbachev that “socialism with a human face” was an achievable goal, that a reformed and relatively humane USSR with, perhaps, the Baltic bone removed from its throat, could join the broader human community while still maintaining a distinct social and economic model, a countervailing alternative to Capital not-Red in tooth and claw. The withdrawal of the Soviet alternative, however imperfectly(!) realized, has freed late-stage capitalism to indulge its bloodiest, most predatory and exploitive instincts, with consequences the ends of which we have begun unhappily to descry. And on the Russian side, Putin now embodies a bitterly revanchist mindset, consumed with dreams of empire, yearning for the old days of global dread and respect: Oderint dum metuant!
So… for these and other reasons I’m a little reluctant to join in the latest spate of Russia-bashing, but you know, I’m going there anyway, notwithstanding our recent sins in Wogland, because Putin’s casus belli is even more preposterous than the Dauphin’s twenty years ago, and because the war aims, between the documented atrocities and what the country’s official news service has stated as its agenda, are nakedly genocidal (like “fascism,” this is a term that has been tossed around rather casually for a long time; like “fascism”—nakedly arisen in our own country’s diseased political ecosystem—the term is appropriate to what is in fact now Russian state policy).
I have, I repeat, been sympathetic toward Russia since childhood: it fascinated me then as the “evil” mirror image of our own polity. I have Russian friends—one actually returned to the Rodina last year after spending his childhood and young manhood stateside since the end of the former century—who I fear are all-in with the invasion: I’ve been at pains not to engage them since February. It’s accordingly painful to find myself leagued on this occasion with those who have always detested the Rooskies, and also with what I sense to be a kind of opportunistic moral outrage from certain quarters. But the outrage, wheresoever it proceeds, is well-deserved by its object. Whatever the merits or demerits of Russia’s historical grievances—and not every one of these is entirely unfounded—its conduct under Putin has placed the country outside even the most modest standards of civilized norms. Let it be, and let it remain, a pariah state, isolated and despised by the developed world. Let it rot confined within its barbaric imperial dreams. I hope that there’s a route back—Germany, after all, within living memory the very exemplar of evil, is now among the most humane and civilized countries in the world—but I’m not seeing it from here.