I am Ukrainian – or, more precisely, of Ukrainian origin. Like many Jewish Americans, my ancestral roots reach back to Eastern Europe. My father was born in Kiev (now Kyiv) and thought he was a Russian. Other relatives lived in the Pale of Settlement between Poland and Russia created by the Tsarina Catherine the Great which was part of Ukraine. They thought they were Russian too. Of course this was more than a century ago.
My grandmother died in Russia/Ukraine in 1941, likely at the hands of the Nazis. I never met her and knew very little about her life. My father, who came here in 1921, did not speak to me about her but what little he told my mother she passed on to me. It’s very little, yet she has been a presence in my life for years. I want to write something about her, a kind of testimonial to her life and existence. I decided to write a fictional version of her story based on reading and perhaps eventual travel to Ukraine. I began last winter, looking for clues about what life in Kiev was like between the world wars.
I was fairly steeped in my reading when tension began to build over the presence of 200,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s border. Suddenly the two landscapes, past and present, seemed to converge over my head.
So much has been written in the past three weeks about the terrible calamity that has befallen Ukraine, the crisis that hovers over us all, threatening to bring on a world war of apocalyptic proportions.
The media has become a choir of imprecations. Putin is the aggressor illegally transgressing on sovereign territory, bombing civilians, forcing three million Ukrainians to flee from their homes to become refugees in Europe – a tyrant, a maniac, a madman. Nancy Pelosi called him “diabolical”. He has become a sort of archetype of the ruthless killer who embodies everything we fear and hate. Haven’t we had enough? First the two years of pandemic, economic misfortunes, and now, rising prices at the pump, food prices skyrocketing inexcusably, especially wheat, all due to strict sanctions of questionable usefulness. Perilous times!
And the forces at play! Fifteen nuclear power plants in Ukraine; missiles on high alert in Russia and the U.S., ICBMs ready to travel across the world in 30 minutes. We might have known this would happen eventually. “You don’t build these bombs and not intend to use them,” my mother used to say. Eventually.
For the past 75 years since the bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, we’ve been remarkably lucky. During the Cuban Missile crisis we came close, but Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to avert it; they were able to talk to each other. They made an agreement, and the Soviet Union backed off.
Our leaders now can’t seem to talk to one another. They move their mouths, the words come out, but you can see the words crossing the airspace in front of their faces like the crossed swords in the Tarot deck. No entiendo. Although Putin insisted he was not going to invade, Biden kept saying he would, threatening to hit Russia with the worst sanctions imaginable when it did. It’s commonplace to assert that Putin lies, but according to a recent article by James Risen, the CIA has determined that Putin actually had not made up his mind until just before he did so. Did Biden’s threats push help inflame Putin’s wrath? Putin has many complaints with the West: that NATO had encroached upon Russia’s western border despite promises not to; the failure of the Minsk Accords and the presence of neo-Nazis in the Donbass, even among the military; the encirclement of Russia by NATO; and the West’s lack of respect for him or for Russia. These claims are all true.
The disgusting business of war and violence makes liars of all governments. Remember Colin Powell’s assertion that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons? It was the pretext for our invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq, as illegal as the invasion of Ukraine, and it wasn’t even true.
Has this whole scenario been planned? You have to wonder. Risen notes, “In the first few months of the Biden administration, U.S. intelligence officials began working more closely with Ukrainian intelligence to help the country prepare for a possible invasion, the senior agency official said.” Invasion from whom? The U.S. has been looking to weaken Russia ever since the end of the Cold War. Have a look at the RAND report, “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia” (2019). Didn’t the U.S. participate in the 2014 coup that overthrew Yanukovich? Don’t we sell lethal arms to Ukraine? CodePink’s Medea Benjamin argues that America is responsible for this war.
Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based watchdog of developments at Los Alamos, writes in his blog, Remember Your Humanity: “The tragedy is that few people seem to understand that at the root of the Ukraine crisis is a specific strategy known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine.” Mello quotes the 1992 neoconservative document: “Our first objective…is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival [to the United States], either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere.” Mello asserts that “the Wolfowitz Doctrine triggered the post-Cold War use of NATO as an instrument of bloody aggression against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…A resurgent Russia led by Vladimir Putin was next, and on the horizon, a risen China.”
Pronouncements by Biden portray America as the defender of freedom all over the world. This is patently untrue; America befriends dictators all over the world. His words in response to the situation developing over the winter months struck me as sanctimonious and sly. I am no expert in foreign affairs, but analysts more experienced than I have documented America’s role in the current crisis. Underneath the smooth talk, there is an agenda, to use its position as the sole superpower to rule the world.
Writing in Counterpunch, Richard Rubenstein provides a useful framework for grappling with the perverse power politics of the nuclear age. Without by any means excusing Putin, he writes, “The causes of this struggle go far beyond Mr. Putin’s bad choices, and solving the problems that produced the conflict go far beyond punishing the Russians. The causes of this conflict are systemic…The word that best describes our current system is imperial.
“Four major empires currently compete for regional hegemony and global superiority…The eruption of violence in this case should not come as a surprise.”
Black writers have no trouble grasping this concept, familiar as they are with the “strange fruit” of imperialism, born of white supremacy and racism. Black Alliance for Peace posted its analysis on its website. “The conflict in the Ukraine emerges from the ceaseless and single-minded drive of the U.S, NATO, and European Union for global dominance. The genesis of the current crisis…is in the 2014 US-backed coup of Ukraine’s democratically elected government…NATO’s expansion has become an existential threat to African people and all oppressed and colonized people around the world.”
Environmentalists and activists, but for them, the name of the system is capitalism; they say that capitalism is fueling climate change. It must be transformed. We need to change our high-consumption western lifestyle. The glee of weapons corporations observing “the opportunity” in this tragic situation [link] is a testament to the rotten behavior capitalism favors. According to Eric Draitser, on March 15 Forbes reported that Northup Grumman and Lockheed Martin’s stocks had risen by 20 percent. The fossil fuel industry is also revving up for renewed growth, as Naomi Klein explains in her brilliant article, Toxic Nostalgia: “War is reshaping our world. Will we harness that urgency for climate action or succumb to a final, deadly oil and gas boom?”
“The root problem is war,” writes Timothy Braatz, “not Putin.”
Listening to Biden respond to Putin, witnessing the devastation caused by Russian military maneuvers, and Zelensky’s repeated plea to NATO to “close the skies” evokes yet another culpable system, patriarchy – we all live in a patriarchal system based on domination and conquest that overcame and replaced the peaceful Mediterranean cultures of early Europe. War itself may be said to be the creation of patriarchy.
This system – imperial, capitalist and patriarchal, and yes, predominantly male – is rotten. As well as propelling us into endless wars, it is responsible for climate change. It is killing us. It has got to go. We need to fashion a different way of life, one that is collaborative more than competitive, a more respectful, more thoughtful use of nature’s resources, with an empathetic regard for one another – a more conscious life.
We have seen glimpses of it throughout history, but especially since the 60s, when the threat of nuclear war and the diminishing environment freaked out an entire generation.
Coincidentally, two days before the invasion, Kenny Ausubel, co-founder of the Bioneers Conference, released a nine-segment documentary called Changing of the Gods, based on the extraordinary work of historian and astrologer Richard Tarnas, which asks the question, Is there a pattern here? Without falling into the trap of seeing planetary movements as causes of our individual and collective lives, Tarnas has meticulously examined possible correlations between specific planetary alignments and human affairs, and he has discovered that the Pluto-Uranus transit, which occurs every 12 years, is reflected in transformational upheavals on earth. We are at the end of one of these cycles now.
The parallels are stunning, and the interpretations offered by scientists, philosophers and visionaries are fascinating. Tarnas’ work suggests that these patterns are the expression of an intelligent universe steadily guiding us toward the creation of an evolutionary way of life, one of balance and beauty. If we are willing to shift our perspective and assumptions, we may detect the emergence of this new paradigm even through this worst of times – if we choose it.
How we are going to get there is yet unclear, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Maybe this war, this flashback to World War II in Europe, with its precipitous nuclear danger will wake us up. All over the world we’ve seen tremendous support for the people of Ukraine. When the UN General Assembly voted against Russia’s “unprovoked” invasion, representatives got up and said things like, “We don’t need this war. We have other problems.” I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but it’s extraordinary.
Yesterday several hundred people came to the Plaza in Sonoma to listen politely to sugary speeches expressing the speakers’ appreciation for Ukraine’s bravery and cheering as if at a baseball game for our side – whatever that is. Friends of our Ukrainian Sister City, Kaniv, has already collected $13,000 that will go directly to the Mayor there. Tarney Baldinger, a great advocate for the Ukrainian people, has already sent $7000 she raised, mostly at two local vigils. Who lifted up this kind of support for Afghanistan? Sudan? Libya? Ethiopia? Ukraine has touched our hearts, opened by the two-year pandemic, frightened by the worsening IPCC report, and subjected to the biggest propaganda blitz since the Spanish-American War. It’s great that we care, but raising money for more lethal weapons for Ukraine may not be the best way to express our love.
Fortunately, all this, and the heavy sanctions, which threaten to destroy the Russian economy, as well as the bravery of the Ukrainian people (and the reluctance of the Russian soldiers to carry out this war against their own relatives), has already had an effect. The loud call for negotiations has been heard, and at last report the two parties are making progress toward an agreement that could have been reached before this stupid heartless war. Draitser reports that two pro-Putin oligarchs on pro-Putin Russian TV, inconvenienced by the sanctions, expressed their desire for the war to end.
Noam Chomsky writes, “The game is not over. There still is time for radical course correction. The means are understood. If the will is there, it is possible to avert catastrophe and to move on to a much better world. The invasion of Ukraine has indeed been a severe blow to these prospects. Whether it constitutes a terminal blow or not is for us to decide.”
The effects of this hideous chapter in world history will be felt for years to come. But perhaps we have recognized once again that we are all connected; what threatens one, threatens all. Wasn’t that the message of the pandemic?
In France in 2015, when a terrorist attack destroyed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a popular magazine, people went into the streets chanting, “Je suis Charlie!” (I am Charlie.) After the murder of George Floyd, masses of people protesting police brutality claimed “I am George Floyd.”
We are all Ukrainians.