Some Notes on Ukraine, mostly, (21Feb-16Mar’22)
Over the last 24 days, I have had many thoughts about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or colored by that criminal tragedy. A number of these thoughts are in response to the questions, or accusations, I have received about the opinions I have so far expressed publicly about “Ukraine.” I offer this chronological string of some of my selected “notes on Ukraine” as a snapshot of this man’s state of mind at this time, primarily to share with people like my questioners. This is not a polemic (“a verbal war”) aimed at the many who disagree with my perspectives on “Ukraine,” “leftists,” “anti-imperialism,” and all that; it is just a fragmentary personal testimony, a series of reflections during a dark time.
It is my impression that for most Americans — and perhaps for most people everywhere — that their political awareness boils down to confirmation bias and witch burning.
“The lands of today’s Ukraine were the center of both Stalinist and Nazi killing policies throughout the era of mass killings. Some 3.5 million people fell victim to Stalinist killing policies between 1933 and 1938, and then another 3.5 million to German killing policies between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat or as an indirect consequence of the war.” —
[Timothy Snyder, ‘Bloodlands’, p404]
The 1939 population of the Ukraine was 32,425,000. So, a loss of 10 million people between 1933 and 1944 represents 30.8% (nearly 1 in 3) of the 1939 population (used here for comparative purposes). For just the 6.5 million people lost between 1941 and 1944, because of the WWII German invasion, then 20% (1 in 5) of “1939” Ukrainians were killed. If we reference the 3.5 million Ukrainians killed between 1933 and 1938 (pre WWII), by the combination of Stalin’s enforced Terror Famine (1932-1933) and Great Purge (many gunshot executions, 1937-1938) to the 1939 population, that mortality ratio is 10.8% (about 1 in 9). Ukrainians remain very conscious of their 20th century history, especially those Ukrainian people in their 80s and 90s, who lived through that history.
There is no justification for Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine whatsoever. None of Putin’s accusations and characterizations of Ukraine are true. All Russian military operations in Ukraine are by definition war crimes. All apologetics of Putin’s invasion are complicity by ideological denial of truth. (See: “Vladimir Putin’s Hall of Mirrors, the Russian president sees the world through the lens of maskirovka and provokatsiia,” Timothy Snyder, 21 February 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/02/putin-ukraine-invasion-maskirovka-provokatsiia/622874/)
Why is Volodymyr Zelensky the President of Ukraine today (since 20 May 2019)? Given the history of Ukraine, and Russian actions in that country, it is not hard to imagine why an arbitrary “Russian speaker” as a presidential candidate who “looks East” (as Viktor Yanukovych did in 2004-2005) would not get elected to lead Ukraine’s government and formulate its foreign policy. Additionally, Ukrainian voters were disgusted by political corruption in the 2010s, and Zelensky was seen as a reform candidate as well as an Atlanticist — politically and economically oriented toward Europe. It is Ukrainian history, and not US lobbying, that is the driving factor in the Ukrainian public mind setting its direction “toward the Atlantic.” Putin’s invasion only reinforces this point, and also adds to the argument in favor of Ukraine becoming a part of NATO, as an elementary matter of national self-defense.
I think that the fundamental issue has always been one of trust, not economics or energy supplies, and the lesson I am sure Ukrainians have arrived at from their history (and especially today) is that they can never trust the Russians ever, and that they should always try to acquire protective alliances to shield them from Russia — when their country can act as an independent nation. Despite the imbalance of military forces today, and perhaps a temporary ‘win’ for Putin’s military this week or next, over the long term Ukraine is lost to Russia forever as a willing subject (slave) or borderland ally. Russia can act out, and invade and destroy (as in Syrian and now Ukraine), but it has lost all moral authority and welcoming agreement from others, to expand territorially, and also enlarge its influence in defining political ideas internationally.
About “Nazis in Ukraine”: There are more neo-Nazis in Russia than Ukraine, and Putin is basically one of them. The totality of neo-Nazi ultra-right parties in Ukraine only garnered 2.5% in the last parliamentary elections, and failing to break 5% gained zero seats in the parliament. The “Ukrainian neo-Nazi” trope is Russian/Putin disinformation.
“Putin absurdly claims that he must invade Ukraine to denazify it. Zelens’kyi unlike Putin is a democratically-elected president. Zelenskyi unlike Putin does not support racists and white supremacists [and homophobes — MG,Jr.] around the world. He interprets the Second World War from a Ukrainian perspective… ‘How can you call us Nazis when we gave millions of lives in the Second World War?’ It is a fair point. Ukrainian soldiers died in terrible numbers in the Red Army: more than Americans, British, and Frenchmen combined during the Second World War. He adds: ‘Tell it to my grandfather, who fought in the Soviet infantry and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine.’ President Zelensky does not mention that his grandfather’s father and much of his family were murdered in the Holocaust.” — Timothy Snyder (24 February 2022, https://snyder.substack.com/p/do-russians-want-war).
What about Climate Change? Can the nations of the world ever stop generating an endless sequence of wars — which are always wasteful fossil fuel intensive and high CO2 emission disasters — and instead unite to cooperate on an effective socio-economic response to slow the acceleration of global warming? Today, it certainly seems not.
I think Global Warming Climate Change (GWCC) will cause many societal and political problems, and that we all will never arrive at one “perfect” solution to it all, we will always have to dance with a wide variety of interrelated and conflicting situations, and much of our dances will have to be ever-changing improvisations — forever. So, it is good for us each to keep doing the good we can do, because regardless of what Nature imposes on us, the better our personal, local and global human societies are, the better equipped they will be to face those challenges from Nature. And, really, this is true even without GWCC — but GWCC does make it more pressing.
On 1 March 2022, U.S. President Joseph Biden gave the televised “State of the Union Address” to a joint session of Congress. My abstraction of the Republican Response is as follows (and was written without any need to actually listen to the televised Republican Response): ‘Look folks, if Biden gets everything he’s asked for, the billionaires and corporations we work for will make less profit that they can stash overseas, and we will have a harder time getting elected, so we can keep our high paying government jobs working for those billionaires and corporations to keep making those tax-free profits. So don’t back any of it!, and don’t vote for anyone who will! Don’t listen to Biden when he tells you that passing his bills would lower your taxes, medical costs, daycare and grocery bills, raise your wages, and make it easier for you to vote! NONE OF THAT MATTERS! We know, because WE are the ones doing what really is important!, which is preventing all of that waste!, and keeping America PURE!” Who could doubt that there are more neo-Nazis in the U.S.A. than in Ukraine?
Ukraine in 2022 is a “great revealer” of people’s political biases and orientations, in the same way that Spain was during 1936-1939. May Ukraine’s fate be much, much happier (and that happiness occur much, much sooner) than Spain’s was from 1939 to 1975-1982 (Franco’s dictatorship). The Spanish Civil War was the prelude to WWII in Europe; would that the present Russian war in Ukraine could be the final coda of that cacophony of bloody dictatorial ambition, never to be seen or heard from again anywhere in the world, because the people have united and their oppressive regimes have been burned away.
How does it feel to be propelled through the portal of eternity into the full might and fury of God exploding into you? Feierlich, misterioso, bewegt lebhaft, schnell, langsam, feierlich. I listen once again to Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, and I think of Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Warsaw, Spain, Wounded Knee, Gettysburg, Fort Pillow, Boudica, Spartacus, Melos, Troy, Cassandra, and so many more — too many more. And I am reminded not to live superficially, self-absorbed and uncaring, for that would be ingratitude for so far having been spared their fate, by the capricious currents of history. — BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor / Haitink · Concertgebouw Orchestra (https://youtu.be/K5QZrxe54gU).
“He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.” — Jonathan Swift (1666-1747), his epitaph for himself.
A PRIVATE WAR (2018), a very powerful movie about MARIE COLVIN, a journalist (for The Sunday Times) who covered wars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, among them: Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. She focused on the real story: the effect of war on people: civilians, families, children. She was well aware of the “politics” behind the wars, which are pushed by the egos and ambitions of dictators and “empires,” and she went to record the truths about the desperate resistance to those murderous governmental ambitions, resistance by the people massively outgunned and fighting for their independence, dignity, and survival while living constantly with unimaginable fear because of the extreme likelihood that they would soon be visited by a very violent death. The segments on Libya and Syria were particularly good at showing the reality of what Gaddafi and Assad (later with massive help from Putin) had done and were doing to their own people to merit the revolts that rose up against them. I think back to LOUIS PROYECT in 2011, when our separate anti-dictator rage converged sympathetically, over Libya, and of his massive output of writings over the next ten years in support of the Libyans and then Syrians, despite the continuous flack he received from the idiotic “anti-imperialist” Tankies and Campists who could care less how many brown bodies were shredded by hot metal bits to be dumped and hurriedly buried in mass grave pits by their favored dictators. These comfortable Western “anti-imperialists” were merciless in their criticisms of the failings of the Western democracies but were ready to tolerate the worst crimes by their favored perpetrators as long as they are committed in the name of the “proper doctrines” (a.k.a. “anti-imperialism”). And now we have Ukraine. I wish, for our benefit, that Louis was still here to breath his righteous fire in defense of a just cause, as he was so good at doing; the only consolation I can think of to his departure last August is that maybe his generous soul can no longer be wounded by the aggravating pain of seeing another unnecessary and murderous societal catastrophe perpetrated by Vladimir Putin. What you would see in A PRIVATE WAR is not exactly like Ukraine in 2022 — but then again it really is — for the people. “A Private War Trailer #1 (2018)” (https://youtu.be/TTf0Lc5YAcc), and “Telling legendary journalist Marie Colvin’s story in ‘A Private War’” (https://youtu.be/vdOPRLykvFA).
I just started reading LIFE AND FATE, an 841+ page Russian-Jewish novel, and Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece, the 20th century’s ‘War and Peace.’ Grossman was a journalist who accompanied the Red Army (at the front) from Stalingrad (1942-1943) to Berlin (1945), was the very first to write a ‘discovery’ report about the Nazi death camps (Treblinka), and survived as a Soviet dissident author through Stalin’s antisemitic campaign (proto-purge, ~1943-1953) and Khrushchev’s spiking of too embarrassingly truthful Russian literature (1953-1964). After he submitted his typescript of L&F for publication in 1959, the KGB raided Grossman’s flat to confiscate all copies and even the carbon papers and typewriter ribbons used: “his book was arrested.” He had made copies stashed secretly with friends who did not know each other. It was eventually smuggled out (by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov — ‘Father of the Russian Nuclear Bomb’) and published in the West in 1980, after Grossman’s death (stomach cancer) in 1964; it was first published in Russia in 1988. Vasily Grossman was a Ukrainian whose mother was killed by the German Nazis there. ‘Life and Fate’ is an epic meditation on the origins and consequences of totalitarianism, Nazi and Soviet equally (an equation the Soviet authorities wanted suppressed), and told from a human experiences point of view (as was the reporting by Marie Colvin between 1985-2012, but she was writing newspaper war correspondent reports whereas Grossman’s L&F is a novel summing up all his war correspondent and postwar anti-Stalinist dissidence experiences). Through the many characters in this novel, Grossman is able to describe many types of hellish experiences people between Berlin and Moscow, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, and in the Gulags, were subjected to between ~1930 to ~1945.
KANAL (1957) (https://youtu.be/e0P66M4bVkI)
A company of the Polish Home Army soldiers with civilian stragglers, in September 1944, is relentlessly being decimated by the Wehrmacht during the Warsaw Uprising on the west side of the Vistula River, while the Red Army was halted on the east side waiting for it to be all over before continuing west toward Berlin — shades of the formally defunct Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. For this “free” version of this amazing classic gem of world cinema, knowing Polish or Portuguese (subtitles) would help, but neither is really needed as the story virtually tells all of itself visually. Scenes like some in this movie are becoming (and have become) more familiar again in places like Syria and Ukraine.
THE BOMBARDMENT (‘The Shadow In My Eye,’ 2022, https://youtu.be/h4jVysnRisI)
This is a deeply felt, and I would say deeply philosophical, Danish movie about the human costs of Operation Carthage, the March 1945 Royal Air Force (RAF) mission to bomb Gestapo HQ in the center of Copenhagen. The movie is entirely accurate about how that mission turned out: Gestapo HQ was destroyed, but a Catholic girls school was mistakenly destroyed as well, with 125 fatalities. In terms of the visuals, sound and pacing, the movie is top notch; the acting is all “natural” and entirely believable; and the interwoven plots of the children and their young funny and existentially anguished teacher, Sister Teresa, are how this story infuses the viewer with a feeling of what war does to the human spirit (and to bodies, as well). That dispiriting effect of anguish and dread in the adults during warfare: Danish parents and RAF pilots, is also shown quite effectively. While there is certainly a good bit of tense action in this movie (with beautiful deadly airplanes), that action is at the service of the human/psychological story, and for that reason I see this as a “philosophical” movie. Maybe Danish film-makers are all imbued with Kierkegaard and steeped in Bergman movies, so a film like this has the clarity and deep perspective of slant angle sunlight in far northern slate-gray skies. In the chaos of war even goodness and self-sacrifice are tragic. What is most important at all times, theirs and ours, is to remember the human connection. This film shows that, masterfully.
Benjamin Ferencz (age 102) on Ukraine, 2022:
“Two of the 22 Nazis he prosecuted then, high-ranking members of the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi extermination squads responsible for the deaths of around two million, were architects of the massacre of Babyn Yar in Kyiv in September 1941. When he learnt Putin’s forces had blasted the mass grave of its 33,771 largely Jewish victims on Tuesday, he was crushed. However, hearing the International Criminal Court (ICC) announce this week it was already sending war crimes investigators into Ukraine, that it would hold Russian perpetrators at the highest level to account for any war crimes committed, has given him cause for renewed hope. His voice raised, shouting at times, he said: ‘The crimes now being committed against Ukraine by Russia are a disgrace to human society, those responsible should be held accountable for aggression, crimes against humanity and plain murder. As soon as they start dragging the criminals before a court the happier we will be.’ For Putin and his circle to be tried, proven war crimes would need to be linked directly to them. To enable their arrests, potentially a whole new government would need to be in place. Russia has previously quit the ICC. But Mr Ferencz is certain Putin can be jailed – maybe here, [UK] like Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.” — [“Last surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor says Vladimir Putin should be ‘behind bars’” 4 March 2022, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/last-surviving-nuremberg-trials-prosecutor-26389664]
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
UK Polish Leftists on Ukraine (14 March 2022, https://manuelgarciajr.com/2022/03/14/uk-polish-leftists-on-ukraine/) note:
Q: Why did Putin attack Ukraine?
A: To finish what he started when he took Crimea, and incorporate the “fake nation” of Ukraine into Russia, duh. For centuries, Russia suppressed the Ukrainian language and culture, and it’s what they are planning now. Putin’s talk about Russians and Ukrainians being ”one nation”, or about Ukraine “not being a real country” is just preparing ground for russification of Ukraine. Do you know that Ukraine used to be called Malorossiya? (Little Russia)? During Putin’s rule, he and his supporters have long peddled the idea of “ruski mir” – “Russian world” – an ideology that says Russian civilisation extends to anywhere Russians live. Do you see where this is going? Get it now??? If not, read this article that the Russian “news” outlet RIA Novosti published by mistake, that was supposed to run AFTER Russia’s “obvious” victory over Ukraine. They promptly removed it, but not quickly enough. It had already been screencapped by multiple readers, and translated into English by a Pakistani newspaper: “The new world order,” Petr Akopov (https://thefrontierpost.com/the-new-world-order/).
I FIND IT AMAZING TO HAVE TO SAY THIS, BUT:
I don’t play the “my war criminal is better than your war criminal” game. And I don’t defend any dictator, even if his purported “principles” are right (i.e., “left”). “We” (actual people) stop “them” (regimes) if we can and as we can. The inability so far to bring 20th-21st century U.S. war criminals to justice is not an excuse to allow for Putin, Assad, Gaddafi (till 2011), et. al., to continue with their crimes, if it seems possible to stop them. Lack of universal perfect justice in the world is not an excuse to accept and approve of ideologically sympathetic injustices (by ‘your’ war criminals) to compensate for the existence of ideologically antipathetic injustices (by ‘their’ war criminals). Churchill and Roosevelt (“capitalists”, “imperialists”) had no problem accepting Stalin’s Red Army (“communists”, imperialist-within-one-soviet-‘union’) fighting the larger fraction of the WWII land war in Europe against Hitler (real Nazis). And I don’t have a problem with NATO taking down dictators (like Gaddafi, Assad, Putin) who are prosecuting murderous wars today, if it is possible to take them down. Blunt weapons are far better than no weapons in catastrophic emergencies for targeted victim populations: ideology • does • not • matter — people do! “In politics, the choice is never between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.”
Let me say that one main inspiration for me to express myself on politics/international relations in the way I do was historian Tony Judt’s comment in one of his later books that it was important to bring morality into political discussions, and not just let them proceed as essentially soulless exercises in gamesmanship and “realpolitik.” And that is my point of departure. My chain of logic is: people (human solidarity) –> defines morality –> thus, bend ideology (ideally leftism/socialism, though alas so far always sectarian) to fit the human-centered morality (not “interests” centered politics) –> from there construct the “politics” (the mechanics of socio-economic relations and operations). With such a “moral” outlook, it is then easy to see through ideological obfuscation (like the “my war criminal is better than your war criminal” silliness of so much self-righteous victim-ignoring virtue-signalling in the propaganda wars over “Ukraine”), and know that dictators of any stripe are bad, unprovoked military invasions are bad, bombing civilians and civilian areas is wrong and bad, and that trying to conquer, subjugate and re-colonize, and destroy the culture of, a foreign people and nation is wrong and bad. I always reference back to “the people” who are getting hammered, and so I always think the “right politics” is whatever gives them relief from that as soon as possible, and then sets them onto a safe secure national independence of a form they select by a fair and transparent process of self-determination. For me human freedom trumps (sic) ideological purity and consistency.
Political ideology is based on abstractions about national regimes, both actual and as idealized projections, without regard to human individuality. Political morality is based entirely on the realities of relations between national populations, all seen as human individuals and not as politically abstracted masses (“regimes”), and all deserving the same degree of personal experience of political freedom and human rights as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published by the United Nations.
National policy guided by a consistency of political ideology will often require sacrifices of the political freedoms and human rights of individuals, domestic and foreign. National policy guided by political morality will require a continuing shifting, “dance,” and sacrifice of the preferred political ideology, in order to seek for the moral center action is to be aimed at in order to preserve a materially effective international human solidarity, in the midst of the ever changing external political conditions of human civilization.
It is more work with less profit to do what is morally right than what is politically-ideologically consistent. But unless the world’s nations can collectively learn “to do what is morally right,” we will never solve the global problems of nuclear disarmament and mounting real and permanent responses and adaptations that slow the acceleration of global warming and blunt the worst effects of climate change on biodiversity and on the habitability of Planet Earth.