How to Think about Ukraine

There is a routine, I imagine typical: I found an Instagram account called withukraine. I scroll through it several times a day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. In the morning before I get up, I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the first thoroughly, the second and third mainly on Ukraine, politics, and business. Sometimes I read until I feel heartened; sometimes I let the blast of awful news hit me.

Conversation with an Israeli friend who has family in Slovakia, Ukraine, and Israel offered perspective. Family members want to stay in Europe so that they can return to their homes–if–she says, shrugging. The Ukrainian and Slovakian communities in this country are sending supplies and organizing whatever support they can. The Israelis in her family are caught between anguish over Ukraine and the rise of attacks on Israelis at home. She ran a half marathon this weekend as a way to cope. We talked about the guilt we were feeling and how to address it.

“And in it we must find a place for equity.”

Charles M. Blow‘s opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times returns me to thoughts I have struggled with since Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine. He asks, “What is our moral obligation in Ukraine?” The final paragraph offers this probing answer:

Human suffering is human suffering. It has been a constant in the story of mankind. Sometimes it overlaps with our national interests, and sometimes it does not. But our sense of morality must remain constant, and in it we must find a place for equity.

Images of children’s bodies pulled from blasted buildings haunt me. The Mariupol Theater, above, shelter to hundreds, many of them children, reduced to rubble yesterday, haunts me. An interview I heard today of a young man in a detention camp in Iraq, a young man who had been a child soldier for ISIS and who repudiates his past, wants to start a life as a mechanic, and yet is hopelessly detained–that young man enters into the gallery of children’s pictures in my mind as I struggle to say what is a moral obligation. It is all that I can do. Charles Blow reminds me that we failed to act in Rwanda. If I don’t struggle with this question of equity, I am blind and I am complicit.

A Librarian in Kharkiv

Every day I choose a woman like myself to imagine, putting myself as close to her as I can in mind and heart. Reports of the Russian war against Kharkiv yesterday outlined a picture of libraries and museums wrecked, the staff having made desperate efforts to shield precious artifacts of Ukrainian and Russian culture. If you scroll long enough, you will find mention of this work. So today I am with a librarian in Kharkiv. The Instagram account withukraine has brought me closer, it appears, to what Ukrainians are witnessing. Reports on this account are generally aligned with what I am reading in The New York Times and other papers. They appear to be posting both official statements and shots from people on the ground. It is the latter that compel me.

Mariupol; China

A glimpse of the particular against the general horror of the war: a maternity ward in a hospital complex in Mariupol struck today. My heart goes there, weeping. I wake up nightly imagining myself there.

Michael Kimmage and Paul Krugman have convinced me that Putin loses if he wins and loses if he loses, perhaps the greater the win, the greater the loss. It is a slender thing to grasp. Reuters reports that China has sent $800,000 of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. How much destruction will China tolerate and still support what it calls Russia’s “special operations”? And then my mind returns to Mariupol, imagining myself picking through the rubble, looking for food, trying to figure out how to light a fire, over a week without running water, electricity, heat.

Writing does not so much console as release.

Bearing the Unbearable

This day feels unbearable. These days of war unbearable. They grate you down. They peel your skin.

This century accelerates the unbearable. To witness children and families suffering, besieged, starving, forced to migrate. The horrible litany of the times: Syria, Yemen, the Northern Triangle, Myanmar, Tigray and Ethiopia, Afghanistan, now Ukraine. Amid the Pandemic.


Bearing it is what we are left to do, no matter the expedients, the gestures to alleviate, reaching to do something, anything that might help.

I wake up thinking night after night how it feels to be in Mariupol.

My son took a day to go birding, the comfort he could find. He saw an osprey, an early migrant.

Ukraine, March 6, 2022

Scrolling through news of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — a sovereign country striving for democracy — has pushed me to exhaustion. I need to find resources for thinking wisely about this horrendous situation. I need to let that search help to steer my emotions, nourish my daily experience, provide me with steps I can take and ideas I can share. As an ordinary person who cares about democracy . . . .

Listening to the 1A on March 3, I was moved and influenced by an interview Jenn White did with Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon St. Julian-Varnon knows Ukraine deeply from living and studying there and from her current doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies the history of race and Blackness in Russia and Germany. At this moment, she has assembled resources to help refugees, focusing on intersections of race, ethnicity, and disability status among people who are seeking help across the countries most immediately active in helping. She is also fighting disinformation and interpreting the situation in Ukraine, including the fate of foreign students from India and the Middle East who are trapped in Sumy.

Then I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Fareed Zakaria The interview refocused my thinking about the war. Zakaria urges people to think beyond binaries of East and West, of democracy and authoritarianism, and to consider what options are possible for international leadership that do not lead to nuclear war. He convinced me that the US and Europe need to work actively with China and with other supporters of Russia like Venezuela.

Thinking of both these discussions, I am brought back to thoughts of Iran, where it could be possible to link a renewal of the treaty on nuclear weaponry to discussions with Russia, holding out the fragile prospect of a way for Putin to de-escalate. It turns out that oil in Iran could have a bearing on the outcomes of the invasion. I am beginning to think that Putin needs a way out, short of utterly destroying Ukraine, which he now seems bent on doing.

Live for Democracy

Having coffee in Istanbul a few years back, in 2017, I noticed a synagogue across the street, with colorful umbrellas suspended in front of it. A wedding party arrived and took pictures before the door. My friends and I observed from our table on the curb. I thought, this is a hopeful moment.

Democracy struggles in Turkey. I knew that then. I know it now even better. Is the synagogue still open? Was it then? I have no idea. Yet there it stood and there stood the couple before it, commemorating their marriage. Istanbul is full of such surprises. Maybe that is why I love it so much. Every time I visit, I feel hopeful for the future, for the future of relations between the East and the West, across the divides of religions and cultures. Istanbul is a place where people can celebrate being and breathing together, no matter who they are. It may be momentary, evanescent, but the feeling inspires, one breathes deeper, and the heart finds courage.

At that moment, I decided on a life theme and a motto: Live for Democracy. Today, March 1, 2022, as Putin tries to pound Ukraine into submission, my mind took itself back to the colorful umbrellas, the happy couple, the synagogue. The memory is helping me to recover my voice.

January 19, 2021

This is the last day of Trump’s unspeakable term.  When I wrote in September that we might have tipped off the edge of democracy, I had not felt, was not feeling, the vertigo of free fall.  I was grasping hope while still underestimating how bad things could get.  We don’t yet know the extent to which our government and the electoral process are damaged, whether the social fabric is beyond repair, whether the people are beyond healing. It might be.  But I am alert to hope.  I have been reminded often of Shakespeare’s trust in the decency of ordinary people. Shakespeare wrote during a period of authoritarianism and repression, yet from his plays flow hope and resilience in and from the people.  It is a point Stephen Greenblatt makes, that I heard him make in a presentation at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  That one observation has brought comfort to me again and again these past few years.

It is therefore a good time to revise the metaphor.  I no longer imagine a single precipitating event that produces a fall into authoritarianism.  January 6 failed.  I was fearful of something like insurrection.  We had one. It was farcical and tragic.  Now there is a collective cleaning up, too late and misdirected.  The scope of things with which we haven’t reckoned remains wide.  But we have come through, constitutional processes and bureaucratic actions held.

While I do feel pushed to the limit, so far as that part of the metaphor goes, I no longer imagine a falling off the edge.  That kind of thinking might proceed from the mindset of American exceptionalism.  For years I have argued against exceptionalism, but I think it was messing with my mind.  Too soon to tell, observed Mao.  What we have now is what we were and what we have been.  The racism, endemic, hits me harder now, the thing within grinding away at democracy.  Racism and the legacy of slavery has always given the lie to exceptionalism.  I know that, have known it, but did I feel it sufficiently? The Civil Rights movement sustained my faith in progress over decades.  The Trump years nearly destroyed that faith.  We aren’t exceptional in the US and it is too soon to tell if it is possible to make social progress as a democracy.

What we are doing is, we are slogging.  We have been slogging, and I imagine I will feel myself slogging for the rest of my years.  And yet there does remain the fundamental decency of ordinary people and the faith I haven’t lost that moments of uplift will never fail to surprise and comfort.

September 27, 2020

We may have tipped off the edge of democracy, and now my metaphor is in free fall.

Two thoughts occur in the last two months before the 2020 presidential election.

First, our political culture and system have offered democracy by deferral to a lot of people.  The Black Lives Matter movement speaks to dreams deferred. The vitality of the movement gives me hope.

Second, to achieve a more equitable society we are going to have to address race, class, and gender and their associated privileges in ways we have never as a society been very good at doing. That worries me.

The change we need is enormous.  And here we are, with democracy in crisis, the constitution under assault, and political power in the hands of a deeply conservative minority.  We are experiencing minority rule that is verging on authoritarianism.  That’s what Republicans want and that is where we may end up.  Getting to wherever we will be in 2021 is going to be hellish. 

In November 2016, right after the presidential election, I traveled for two weeks in Iran with a couple dozen Americans and Canadians.  I have written about that experience below.  For now, I want to tell a story—to mark my place in time. 

In Iran I met many people who love Americans.  I met them everywhere.  U.S. we love you, they told us.  They said that they distinguish between the people and the government when they think about the world.   The Iranian government, they observed, is not the Iranian people.  They think the same is true of the US.  More than once I heard sympathy from Iranians.  They told me how sorry they were that we in the US were going to experience what they themselves have known.  We are sorry, they said, for what is going to happen to you.

How bad could it be? I thought at the time.

Now I know the limits of my foresight in 2016.  At the same time, I am finding opportunities for action every day.  That is what keeps me going.

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