The night of February 23, 2022

“The Russian Charge” (1918) George Wesley Bellows. Original from the Boston Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

From William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919


Tonight is the night of February 23, 2022.

This night will be remembered a hundred years from now, if we live that long as a species, alongside other dark nights in the twisted history of human civilization over the past barbaric century, nights in which extended nightmares of carnage began.  Nights such as:

December 13, 1937 (Japanese forces launch massacre in Nanking; approximately 200,000 civilians killed.

September 1, 1939 (Nazi invasion of Poland; start of World War II; approximately 50 to 60 million killed in Europe, Russia and the Holocaust)

December 7, 1941 (Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; approximately 25 million killed in the Pacific War)

March 9, 1945 (U.S. firebombing of Tokyo; 100,000 civilians dead and over one million homeless.)

June 25, 1950 (North Korea’s invasion of South Korea launches Korean War; 3 million dead)

August 2, 1964, Tonkin Gulf incident, start of US Vietnam War (total casualties from wars in Indochina 1964-1972 2 to 5 million deaths)

December 7, 1975 when the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (100,000–180,000 killed or starved to death)

October 24, 1956 (Soviet Invasion of Hungary; approximately 2,500 killed and 22,000 wounded, nearly all civilians)

March 20, 2003 (US invasion of Iraq; between 200,000 and 650,000 killed, in Iraq alone)

February 23, 2022 (Russian invasion of Ukraine…)

Tonight the leader of Russia, and those in his regime, have committed the crime of aggression under international law.

Many more crimes are certain to follow.

How many people will die following this night?

How many civilians?

How many will die from bombs and artillery?

How many will be wounded, dismembered, crushed in body and spirit?

How many millions will be forcibly displaced from their homes?

How many refugees will flood into Europe?  Will they be received with open arms or closed borders?

How will the politics and economies of Europe, Russia, China and the United States be impacted, and distorted?

How will the worst in every country, full of passionate intensity, respond?

I fear that the repercussions of this night — for al of us — are far beyond what any of us understand or imagine.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Is this true or false? Do we believe it, or only pay lip service to these fine words?

Over and over, Dr. King quoted from John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Does it, really?

In an essay published yesterday in the New Yorker (The Crushing Loss of Hope in Ukraine), before Putin made his fateful decision to go forward with a full-scale military invasion, the remarkable and brave journalist Masha Gessen shares her analysis, and her dread.

“The loss of life will be staggering,” Gessen writes.  “Watching it will make it impossible to live and to breathe.”

Because I admire Gessen very much, and have come to trust her deep understanding of Russia and the region, I share her essay below:

Massha Gesssen, “The Crushing Loss of Hope in Ukraine,” New Yorker, February 23, 2022

“’Are you listening to Putin?’ is not the kind of text message I expect to receive from a friend in Moscow. But that’s the question my closest friend asked me on Monday, when the Russian President was about twenty minutes into a public address in which he would announce that he was recognizing two eastern regions of Ukraine as independent countries and effectively lay out his rationale for launching a new military offensive against Ukraine. I was listening—Putin had just said that Ukraine had no history of legitimate statehood. When the speech was over, my friend posted on Facebook, “I can’t breathe.”


Fifty-four years ago, the Soviet dissident Larisa Bogoraz wrote, “It becomes impossible to live and to breathe.” When she wrote the note, in 1968, she was about to take part in a desperate protest: eight people went to Red Square with banners that denounced the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. I have always understood Bogoraz’s note to be an expression of shame—the helpless, silent shame of a citizen who can do nothing to stop her country’s aggression. But on Monday I understood those words as expressing something more, something that my friends in Russia were feeling in addition to shame: the tragedy that is the death of hope.


For some Soviet intellectuals, Czechoslovakia in 1968 represented the possibility of a different future. That spring, events appeared to prove that Czechoslovakia was part of the larger world, despite being in the Soviet bloc. The leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was instituting reforms. It seemed that, after the great terrors of both Hitler and Stalin, there could be freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free exchange of ideas in the media, and possibly even actual elections in Eastern and Central Europe, and that all of these changes could be achieved peacefully. The Czechoslovaks called it “socialism with a human face.”


In August, 1968, Soviet tanks rolled in, crushing the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and hope everywhere in the Soviet bloc. Nothing different was going to happen here. It became impossible to live and to breathe. This was when eight Moscow acquaintances, with minimal discussion and coördination, went to Red Square and unfurled posters that read “For Your Liberty and Ours” and “Hands Off Czechoslovakia,” among others. All were arrested, and seven were given jail time, held in psychiatric detention, or sent into internal exile.


Ukraine has long represented hope for a small minority of Russians. Ukraine shares Russia’s history of tyranny and terror. It lost more than four million people to a man-made famine in 1931-34 and still uncounted others to other kinds of Stalinist terror. Between five and seven million Ukrainians died during the Second World War and the Nazi occupation in 1941-44; this included one and a half million Jews killed in what is often known as the Holocaust by Bullets. Just as in Russia, no family survived untouched by the twin horrors of Stalinism and Nazism.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, both Russian and Ukrainian societies struggled to forge new identities. Both contended with poverty, corruption, and growing inequality. Both had leaders who tried to stay in office by falsifying the vote. But in 2004 Ukrainians revolted against a rigged election, camping out in Kyiv’s Independence Square for weeks. The country’s highest court ordered a revote. Nine years later, when the President sold the country out to Russia—agreeing to scrap an association agreement with the European Union in exchange for fifteen billion in Russian loans—Ukrainians of vastly different political persuasions came to Independence Square again. They stayed there, day and night, through the dead of winter. They stayed when the government opened fire on them. More than a hundred people died before the corrupt President fled to Russia. A willingness to die for freedom is now a part of not only Ukrainians’ mythology but their lived history.


Many Russians—both the majority who accept and support Putin and the minority who oppose him—watched the Ukrainian revolutions as though looking in a mirror that could predict Russia’s own future. The Kremlin became even more terrified of protests and cracked down on its opponents even harder. Some in the opposition believed that if Ukrainians won their freedom, Russians would follow. There was more than a hint of an unexamined imperialist instinct in this attitude, but there was something else in it, too: hope. It felt something like this: our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. We may yet be brave enough and determined enough to win our freedom.


On Monday, Putin took aim at this sense of hope in his rambling, near-hour-long speech. Playing amateur historian, as he has done several times in recent years, Putin said that the Russian state is indivisible, and that the principles on the basis of which former Soviet republics won independence in 1991 were illegitimate. He effectively declared that the post-Cold War world order is over, that history is destiny and Ukraine will never get away from Russia.


Hannah Arendt observed that totalitarian regimes function by declaring imagined laws of history and then acting to enforce them. On Tuesday, Putin asked his puppet parliament for authorization to use force abroad. His aim is clear: in his speech, he branded the Ukrainian government as a group of “radicals” who carry out the will of their American puppet masters. As the self-appointed enforcer of the laws of history, Putin was laying down the groundwork for removing the Ukrainian government and installing one that he imagines will do the Kremlin’s bidding.


Putin expects to succeed because he can overwhelm Ukraine with military force, and because he has known the threat of force to be effective against unarmed opposition. Putin’s main opponent, Alexey Navalny, is in prison; the leaders of his movement are all either behind bars or in exile. The number of independent journalists in Russia has dwindled to a handful, and many of them, too, are working from exile, addressing tiny audiences, because the state blocks access to many of their Web sites and has branded others “foreign agents.” Putin’s sabre-rattling against Ukraine has drawn little protest—less even than the annexation of Crimea did eight years ago. On Sunday, six people were detained for staging a protest in Pushkin Square, in central Moscow. One of them held a poster that said “Hands Off Ukraine.” Another was an eighty-year-old former Soviet dissident.


What Putin does not imagine is the kind and scale of resistance that he would actually encounter in Ukraine. These are the people who stood to the death in Independence Square. In 2014, they took up arms to defend Ukraine against a Russian incursion. Underequipped and underprepared, these volunteers joined the war effort from all walks of life. Others organized in monumental numbers to collect equipment and supplies to support the fighters and those suffering from the occupation of the east, in an effort that lasted for several years. When Putin encounters Ukrainian resistance, he will respond the only way he knows: with devastating force. The loss of life will be staggering. Watching it will make it impossible to live and to breathe.”