[the following is a Pipeline Artists "Currents" piece, intended to capture a specific moment in time related to the arts, politics, and culture]
Today, I can do little else except write.
My heart breaks watching the violence unfold all across Ukraine, which has tried for years now to free itself of the corruption and the history that has kept the nation firmly nailed to the cross of the Russian order. I am bolstered knowing that anti-war protests are taking place all across Russia, though I fear for those who are being detained and for the Russian people in general with the fresh buffet of U.S. and EU sanctions that will punish the innocent and guilty alike—mostly the innocent. There is really only one solution to this madness. Just one.
Putin must go.
As a writer and Russianist, I will admit that while I’ve been able to predict many of Vladimir Putin’s actions, and while I have long understood his motives for various hair-raising maneuvers, the authoritarian has quite simply gone off-road and off-script with his—yes, his—invasion of Ukraine. Putin says it is no less than America did in Iraq. Perhaps, but there is rather something off with the comparison, as well as with the speech he gave recently, which will go down in history as the biggest piece of revisionist garbage since Stalin’s reign.
Reality is indeed stranger than fiction.
Many of my Ukrainian and Russian friends and colleagues did not expect this sharp detour, this sordid plot twist. Not at all. Most of us took the media hype and the Western intelligence reports warning of the impending invasion with several grains of salt and felt certain that the palpable hysteria was as much to blame for the rising tensions as Putin himself. By all calculations, an invasion proper of Ukraine made no sense to anyone with half an understanding of the region and its history—ethics and morals aside, such a move was riddled with plot holes. Russia’s economy cannot stomach the cost of bringing Ukraine into the fold (or even just Eastern Ukraine), so then what could such an invasion bring except the guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO for several years at the least? And in this case, couldn’t the same thing have been achieved by simply perpetuating or rekindling the conflict that began in 2014? Conflict perpetuation, after all, has long been Putin’s M.O. in all the former Soviet bloc states and even parts of the Middle East, a sizable and serviceable playpen for an authoritarian with lots of domestic problems from which he’d rather distract than solve. If I had written such a full-scale invasion in a novel or screenplay, any reasonable Russian or Ukrainian would have called me narrow-minded or just plain stupid. However, something has changed fundamentally in Putin’s calculations which apparently no strategist or historian is able to comprehend, and, thus, we have arrived at this point-of-no-return that has most of us shocked, even those who said it would happen.
Twenty plus years of power has clearly done a number on the man in the Kremlin. Well, now what? We can only gesticulate, guess, and gawp at this monstrous, illogical development. To quote a Russian journalist I highly respect, Leonid Ragozin, whose feelings mirror mine precisely: “What Putin is doing right now seemed genuinely unthinkable to me until this very moment. It is completely irrational from any standpoint, and of course it is insanely criminal. Apologies for getting it wrong.”
Why did we not believe Putin would actually attack? Looking back on the events of World War II, I keep thinking of those weeks leading up to the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941; Joseph Stalin refused to heed the warnings from the West of an impending offensive by Hitlerite Germany. I admittedly used to think he was stupid to have ignored and adamantly quashed clear evidence of Hitler’s designs, but now, I am reconsidering. Of course, Stalin didn’t want to think Germany would go to Bonaparte lengths to try to conquer Russia, but he also just didn’t see the logic or feasibility of it—Hitler invading that behemoth nation with the goal of domination? Inconceivable.
Similarly, it appeared bizarre to those of us who have been watching Putin’s actions closely. We thought: perhaps Russia will invade, but why on Earth would he? Putin’s main goal, until recently, has been to keep the U.S., keep NATO, keep the EU out of bordering states wherein Russia has interests and vulnerabilities. To be sure, NATO has caused Putin a great deal of stress and concern. It’s an unpopular opinion in the West, but I could say that NATO had no business projecting itself so far east into Europe. I could say that the organization should have dismantled with the USSR’s dissolution since it was basically created to oppose the Soviet (Russian) order. I could say that if NATO had just reorganized, rebranded, recalibrated, and repurposed in 1991, Russia might have become a friend of the West, instead of edging back towards the path of pariah once again—and even predator. I could say all those things, but finger-pointing and rearview-mirror staring serves no purpose. However, NATO encroachment is a factor.
The Baltic States, under George W. Bush, became NATO members in 2004, around which time we saw Russia edging closer to China for a handshake of mutual security, rather than friendship. And that list of former Soviet republics joining the cozy Atlantic Alliance has only grown. But Ukraine is certainly one state Putin will not allow the West to win, so to speak. However, his main goal of keeping Ukraine free of any permanent Western alliances, the goal he’s been wearing around his neck like rosary beads for years, was already more than accomplished simply by amassing thousands of troops on the Russia-Ukraine border under pretext of training exercises. And furthermore, Russia has been in Ukraine, since 2014, under the guise of weapons and training support and using flag-less proxy forces and mercenaries. So why go in now officially under the Russian banner? The “why” is difficult to answer, and those who do seem to be answering this question in the media are only, at best, guessing what Putin’s long-game is.
I hope by my complete surprise and outrage that I am conveying to those with interest in the region, and those with none, the gravity of this moment, this “climacteric”—if I may channel Churchill—for the modern world. It is not a moment to be taken lightly, upon which to capitalize for fleeting gain. It is rather a moment for us, as writers and artists and creators of all colors and shapes, to remember what and why we create. We create in the hopes of improving society, preventing conflicts, dissolving divides, and breaking barriers; we create in the hopes of cultivating understanding and inspiring connection where differences seem too pronounced to surmount.
And so, what can we do in the face of such demoralizing, unreasonable, unjust, and unjustified war? We can create and process through the very act of creation that which is so hard to comprehend, the pain and suffering caused by life-changing inhumane actions, to find our way through the tangled forest to the eventual other side. Because there is an other side, and how and when we reach that other side depends largely on ensuring that people in the West don’t fall prey to passivism, that creators don’t grow weary of capturing the catastrophe, and that we don’t allow the media to drown us with distractions—as it does, so very well.
If I may return to history again, I’m reminded of the way in which art and cultural products have been valued and protected in times of great turmoil. The Imperial Russian and then Soviet government made sure to protect works of art in the city of Peter the Great each time Russia came under attack, first by Napoleon in 1812, then during World War I, and then by the Nazis during World War II. The Siege of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg where so many anti-war protests are taking place) is thought to be the most appalling attack that any city has ever experienced.
Nearly 900 days of the Nazi blockade resulted in an essential genocide and great destruction. But a trainload of painstakingly accumulated artwork from the Hermitage Museum made its way out of Leningrad, unscathed, and many of the composers, writers, artists, and academicians themselves took shelter for the duration of the siege beneath the Hermitage where they were encouraged to keep producing and creating such that this piece of history would be memorialized. Symphony No. 7, commonly called the “Leningrad Symphony,” by Dmitri Shostakovich is just one example of an epic work—some 75 minutes in length—that arose from the war and that was even performed in 1942 in perilous conditions in the besieged city. Similarly, the artist Leonid Chupiatov sketched and painted some of the most famous representations of the Nazi blockade while he and his wife were quite literally dying of hunger. All of his artwork serves today to convey the horror and the emotions experienced by the people during those two-and-a-half years of living death.
Art conveys truth in ways that propaganda and misinformation of war cannot readily combat. And art is a means to a better future. If we do not see an abundance of creations arising from Ukraine and Russia from this time of great distress, I should be more surprised than I was at Putin’s unexpected full-scale invasion. As Western observers, we must continue to create and absorb the creations of those in critical regions of the world. In so doing, we strengthen our connections and weaken the deceptions. Culture must not condone conflict; it must condemn the crises and the crises-makers.
I stand with Ukraine, and I stand with Russia. Putin must go.
*Featured Photo: The Motherland Monument - Kyiv, Ukraine / Petkevich Evgeniy (Pexels)