Before I get into the body of this piece, I’d like to say that the conflict in Ukraine is especially interesting and tragic because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland during the mid-nineties, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was sent to Rzeczpospolita Polska—I still remember quite a lot of Polish—to do teacher training and help establish and develop a new kind of educational institution that would produce teachers of foreign languages in that part of the world.
During my time in Eastern Europe, I fell in love with the region. In fact, if given the opportunity, I’d return there in a second. It doesn’t matter what country, really. Just about any locale east of Germany would do.
Please take note of my title. I did not call this “Russia’s” war. I certainly think that Putin has his followers, but I feel—and this is confirmed by much of what I’m reading and learning about the situation—that the average Russian is horrified by what Putin is unleashing next door. And I am sure that this will become truer over time.
It is my nature to observe and attempt to learn something of value from all the things I see going on around me. I’d like to share some of what I’m learning—“learning” is probably not the right word because I already knew these things but hadn’t (perhaps) thought about them very much recently—while watching what’s taking place in a part of the world that is beloved and used to be very familiar to me.
Too much power and wealth can make us sick and stupid. There’s lots of speculation about Putin being “unhinged.” That may well be the case. Even if he’s still “all there,” he’s in possession of too much might and money. These things can intoxicate, and Putin appears to be “drunk.” The uber-powerful and wealthy can come to see themselves as being extraordinary and thus in possession of special powers of insight and such. In fact, though, Putin is showing us that these things have blinded him, have caused him to behave irrationally and to miscalculate. (This can happen to countries too. In fact, Superpowers always end up thinking of themselves as exceptional.)
Living in extreme isolation is psychologically unhealthy and poor preparation for making important decisions. We see scenes of Putin talking a lot on TV, but he comes across as someone who doesn’t listen very often to very many people. We see him having meetings at very large tables with him sitting at one end and his interlocutor sitting at the other. There is physical separation that symbolizes other kinds of distance. To remain connected with others (and with reality too), we need closeness. We need to open ourselves and to hear other voices and opinions. Putin appears to be someone who’s stuck inside his own mind. He’s listening only to himself and trapped inside a very tiny echo chamber.
Most people are drawn to good things and repulsed by ugliness. The Trump years confused me. I began to think that the world really was equally divided between those who were attracted to bullies and bullying and those who wished to stand against these things. In fact, I see the entire world coming together against Putin and the horror he is unleashing on his undeserving neighbors. The situation in the Ukraine is restoring my faith in human beings. Unfortunately, lots of people are going to die and suffer during this period. Why does it so often take tragedy and bloodshed to bring countries and peoples of good will together?
Violence never pays off in the long run and violent people never prevail. Aggressors may have the ability to harm and kill others, but they almost always end up losing. Their nasty behavior causes others to rise in opposition. Their opponents grow in number and become more and more determined. Even if their antagonists or the law don’t end up getting them, they become emotionally and spiritually scarred by their sadistic behavior. They may begin their lives as predators, but they eventually become prey, and they often die at the hands of someone who was seeking revenge.
I want to finish by declaring that I stand with the brave people of Ukraine as well as ask what this conflict is teaching you?