What are we seeing? What are we doing?
With Ukraine, we have decided to be onlookers. We cannot go in, so we have to suffer by watching, trying to see the truth in the lies. But for Vladimir Putin there are no lies, only opportunities to play with the truth which leaves the rest of us sorting through the rubble of his reality. So let’s begin at the beginning: Putin is an egomaniacal psychopath. The British historian James Meek directed us, in an LRB podcast six days into the war, to see what Putin had done to the city of Grozny in Chechnya in 1999 to understand that he does not recognize value in human life.
To imagine what Ukraine will look like for the foreseeable future Meek suggested we “Fly from Moscow — this hipster reservation — to this full on brutal, torturing dictatorship in Grozny where Russians aren’t protected.” Putin took the piece of Chechnya that he could and “literally destroyed Grozny with shellfire” because its people wouldn’t give in. “Resistance carries on to this day.”
The difference in this war in Ukraine is that we are not looking back at it, we are watching it happen “on our screens 24/7.” And the pictures are different, too. We’re used to dispatches from the front with dead soldiers on open fields or action shots of violence calling us to peace. But in real time journalists are showing a respect for the citizens of Ukraine.
The job of the journalists is to tell us to believe in Ukrainians believing in themselves. And from the other side of an ocean, move us to help them stand up to the bully. Convoluted as that may sound in image terms, the pictures are some of the best ever taken in war. And the hardest for us to live with because there’s no good place to go once you’re looking at the wake of evil.
Those locals coming upon a dead body in their street, seem as bewildered as we feel about the war. Do they know the deceased? They can’t help him now. They can’t even pick the body up and move him off the sidewalk. Neither could the young woman coming up behind them. Neither can we. We’re all helpless, and in that way, the picture ignites a kindred feeling. Pause. We can’t possibly imagine their experience. In that way, the picture is also important.
Meek says Putin’s motive in Ukraine is “greed and hubris.” The pandemic gave the embattled leader time to brood over an Armenian resistance in Nagorno-Karabakh that he had to concede to in 2021. The Russian leader mixed this in a mental stew with his nearly casual annexation of Crimea in 2014 and thought taking Ukraine would be a cinch. Note, the first people he sent in were Russian police! He was sure the Ukrainians wanted him to take over. Meek says this is not war it’s “murder!” And Putin is seeking his own righteousness.
Still, Meek doesn’t believe anything could have been done to prevent Putin’s moving in and the historian/reporter is against the free world sending in troops. Russia may be a reduced country since the Cold War, but China is buying the oil that we try to sanction.
Look at the chums at the Moscow parade commemorating 70 years of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany. This was just months after Putin had taken Crimea. America and most countries in NATO sat out in protest. “Isolate the bully” was still our strategy. But look and take note that Xi Jinping is turning on the charm for the pasty-faced Russian who seems to believe the smirk is his brand.
Look how much more virile Xi seems, animated for the camera. He is a natural with his open demeanor, like he’s throwing out ideas for fun or telling a joke. He likes to be photographed. Putin seems incapable of laughter. Is he furious that he’s so unphotogenic? So often he turns away from the lens. The two leaders are unlikely friends except that they are both dictators. A year later Putin was helping Donald Trump get in office to try to distort our process of seeing. Even more preposterous, Trump then tried to drag Ukraine’s first freely elected president Zelensky into a bribery scandal!
Zelensky had turned to NATO and America for support. If there is a point Putin is making in Ukraine it is that alliances have shifted — he’s with China and that’s what America better start worrying about and forget about Europe. He’s telling us Europe needs us more than we need them. We’d better be getting ready for the battle in Taiwan. Putin and Xi Jinping are seeing — foreseeing — how we need Taiwan, and Europe will be little help when China decides that island is theirs.
Trump saw the map through red eyes. And the reason he called Putin “a genius!” for invading Ukraine is that that’s another form of disrupting the free world, like discrediting our elections. It’s not just the destruction of little Ukraine that is tearing at freedom, pressuring our elections to move to the right, it’s our dilemma over a basic lack of generosity to others. Putin is shoving a million refugees a week down Europe’s throat. And in our huge, rich country America’s offer of taking in 100,000 displaced Ukrainians sound as if we don’t get what’s happening in Europe, or, worse still, we don’t care.
If we watch, we have to do more. But sometimes we like to think that mere watching is enough.
This photo was used to illustrate an Op Ed about America’s need to take in more refugees. The New York Times editors said we owed it to Ukraine to support them after making them think we would help when Russia invaded. There is a nostalgic quality to the image and pathos in the beautiful refugee’s face. It may remind us of the Dorothea Lange image of a woman and her children displaced by the dustbowl in 1936. But can our sadness help this woman? Or does it only flatter us?
There is an old-fashioned elegance in the muted colors and the mahogany wood framed window on the train. If this woman was an actress in a movie on Netflix I’d watch it. I can even imagine that image moving me to vote to take in more refugees. I can imagine wanting to take in her and her son. But if she were to show up at my door, would I feel the romance? How much can we expect a picture to do?
Look at the backflip Blind Magazine did to try and get us to appreciate the refugee crisis:
With the best intentions they invited displaced people on a stage festooned with the colors of their flag. Photography is theater and the difficulty in making refugees relatable is immense, but these pictures are propaganda. They play into Putin’s perverse notion that Ukrainians are actors pretending to be under siege. It must be driving him crazy to see their leader Zelensky, the former actor, being so adroit and passionate on television. There he’s winning the war. If we lose him - our brave hero - this terrible contest between decency and terror collapses into a horror story.