Ukrainian History, or No Offense, A Bunch of Stuff You Probably Never Thought About

The second in a three-part series about Ukraine

When a traveler or journalist from the West arrives in Ukraine, most of them do so at a disadvantage. Mainstream culture has likely furnished little analysis, save for reductive imperialist narratives that define Ukraine vis-à-vis war and its neighbors. When that traveler or journalist spends time there, though, they begin to learn of the place’s fascinating history, and, if they’re like me, they fall in love.

People often use the adjective “rich” to describe a place’s history; Ukraine lives up to that billing. Surprisingly so, to people unfamiliar with its background. Almost every step is one of discovery, every friendship forged an act of learning lived history within one or two generations of totalitarianism, extreme poverty, and revolution unlike anything experienced within America since the 19th century, and Europe since the mid-20th.

But what is history, especially as it applies to an entire country? In broad terms, it’s a series of choices made by popular storytellers and citizens, on the one hand the choice to emphasize certain facts, and on the other hand the choice to receive those facts. History, on a national level, is a consensus, based on the faith that readers have in the people writing the history, and their willingness to receive a given narrative about how a country developed, which people were vital to its development and in which way. At the present moment, for example, the history of The United States is being contended. One could argue that the war in Ukraine is a conflict between Ukrainians and their neighbors over Ukrainian history, and Ukraine’s right to determine who tells stories about its people and its land.  

The point of the following section is not that Ukrainians are related to the Scythians or Sarmatians or Huns or any of the other groups who’ve moved through the area over the centuries, any more than Germans are related to Arminius, or Italians are descended from Romans. The point is that Ukrainians have just as much irrational history on which to draw to create a story about themselves as anyone else.

The traditional, Eurocentric version of history with which most Americans and Western Europeans born before the end of the Cold War grew up goes something like this: a causal line between the Europe and America of today exists that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Israel of the Bible. This line goes through Great Britain, and Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and Ancient Rome. It features figures like Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther, and Richard the Lionheart. It is the perspective of a person looking north toward Germany and Scandinavia, and east toward the steppes that produced Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun.

Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian history carries within it this necessary and understandable bias. Rome, the Greek city-states, Great Britain and other civilizations, were all places that competed with their neighbors. We remember them now as mighty empires, but they were always a couple bad harvests away from famine, invasion, and widespread death. It’s easy to look back on the lives of our ancestors from the vantage of today and judge them harshly, when so much is assured by technology, science, and medicine. The idea that one should expect any children to grow unharmed to adulthood would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. The empires that stand as protagonists in America and Western Europe’s history all share this in common: at the time, they were uncertain propositions that survived in spite of the power and potential of those empires around them. At no point was anything secure, and the same time that Roman authors were describing Rome’s eminence in the world to their Emperors and patricians, Chinese and Persian authors were doing the same about their empires for their leaders.

Although “Western civilization” has come to include Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia in recent years, that picture tends not to include places like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and the former constituent countries of Yugoslavia. Some of this has to do with language; much, up until the 17th or 18th century, with the Catholic-Orthodox and alphabetical divide in Christianity; some, with the political and cultural isolation imposed by the USSR after the first and second world wars. An exacerbating element concerns the proliferation of broadcast media that spread cultural stereotypes at a time when emphasizing national differences between east and west (the aforementioned struggle with the USSR) was seen as necessary.

All of this combines to obscure Ukraine. Uncovering the nation and peoples’ history may be a daunting task, but it is not insurmountable. Once one accepts the proposition that Ukraine is a part of history, “Ukraine” starts cropping up all over the place. This could be the case with any other country, too, but that’s exactly the point—traditionally, it isn’t the case with Ukraine. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time and instrumental to the choreography of Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” was born in Kyiv at the end of the 19th century. Hasidism was born in Ukraine, too, through Baal Shem Tov, at the end of the 17th century. The Polish-Lithuanian expedition to rescue Vienna and Europe from the Ottomans occurred in the 16th century. The destruction of Kyiv at the hands of the Golden Horde in the 13th century may have disrupted or delayed the development of Ukraine as a country, but without the Kyiv Rus fighting against the Mongols, it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine the Mongols reaching further than they did, and wreaking worse havoc in Central and perhaps even Western Europe. Kyiv itself was settled by Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries. Further back still, Ukraine was the homeland of those two Gothic tribes that first sacked Rome in the 5th century; earlier, the Scythians made that land their home. In pre-history, northern horsemen mentioned as allies of the Trojans in Homer’s Iliad almost certainly originated in what is now Ukraine, and accounts of female horsemen known from archeological digs around Kyiv suggest a possible template for the Amazons of legend. According to archeologists, Ukraine is likely where the horse was domesticated. Human habitation has been established there dating back tens of thousands of years, back to when man hunted megafauna, and fabricated shelters with mammoth bones.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to Ukraine’s importance to Europe’s development. Nevertheless, this evidence is easily dismissed, and has been for decades, at least. Ukraine lies outside the conventional historical narrative as taught in schools, its facts consigned to a secondary importance assigned by virtue of their relationship to Europe’s development. Ukraine is not the central character in its own story, let alone a central character in the story of Europe. It certainly could be. 

In spite of millennia of events and experiences on which to draw, few people in the West view Ukraine (alongside Greece, Italy, or Turkey) as part of European history and civilization. Rather, Ukraine and its neighboring countries are seen as the source of menacing historical accidents like the Huns and the Mongols, occasionally pacified by strong rulers, hospitable to barbarians adjacent to the crucial transformations unfolding, inevitably, elsewhere. Inferior to the Western civilization that these ruinous savages periodically threaten.

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Institutional storytelling refers to the tendency of institutions to privilege or prioritize their own  perspective and diminish those of others. An early and obvious example of this is The Iliad, or, the Greek account of the Trojan War. In this telling, Troy and its allies were antagonists, while Greeks and their allies were protagonists. This cultural epic or myth reinforced a sense of “Greek-ness” originating in the former territory of Mycenae and those cities or islands like Sparta and Ithaca that allied with it, and dated back to the 9th century, BC. 500 years later, the Iliad was used again to understand the struggle between Greek city-states and their Persian neighbors. It has been used many times since, but always within the framework of rivals competing for power.

The nomadic tribes of Ukraine, to the extent that they were involved in the Trojan War, were unquestionably allied with Troy. And during the clash between Greece and Persia between 490 and 480 BC, they were a nuisance to both sides, appearing indirectly in Herodotus’ account as a cautionary tale offered to Xerxes by an uncle, Artabanus, who said of invading Greece:

“I warned your father—Darius, my own brother—not to attack the Scythians, those wanderers who live in a cityless land. But he would not listen to me. Confident in his power to subdue them he invaded their country and before he came home again many fine soldiers who marched with him were dead. But you, my lord, mean to attack a nation greatly superior to the Scythians…”

Herodotus, a Greek, portrayed Greece as superior to Persians, and to Scythians, because it was in his interests. It made for a good story and solidified the (Greek) reader’s opinion of him or herself. It was primarily directed at a Greek audience, and secondarily at a Persian audience. From Herodotus’ perspective, Scythians were illiterate barbarians, useful only as a way of demonstrating Persian vulnerability and fallibility. They served as a foil to emphasize Persia’s overestimation of their own military strength.

That was the Greek version of Scythians. The historical and archeological Scythians lasted almost 600 years, from sometime in the 8th century BC until the mid-3rd century BC. Although defeated by Philip of Macedon, the Scythians were not destroyed, and they managed to exert power over much of Ukraine until Celtic, Thracian, and Sarmatian migrations displaced the people who had originally settled there.

This template reasserted itself periodically. Following the Fall of Western Rome over the course of the 5th-6th centuries AD, the situation in Western Europe deteriorated greatly. By the time Anne of Kyiv married the King of France in the late 11th century, the relative development in Kyiv and Paris had reached such a point that she sent letters home describing the squalor of her new surroundings, thereby emphasizing the difference in strength and culture between the places. Granted, Paris had recently been sacked by the Vikings, and Europe itself was at an historical ebb, relative to other regions of the world, but at that time Paris was still considered a gem in the West. At this precise moment, though, Kyiv was a place of learning and commerce, a diverse and bustling neighbor of the Byzantines. Paris, a savage backwater.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the Kyivan state at the hands of the Mongolian Golden Horde returned much of Ukraine to barbarity at the very moment the West was dragging itself out of the Dark Ages. Centuries passed while the Rus people struggled against the Mongols and against each other. By the time Jan Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania rescued the Austro-Hungarian Empire from invading Ottoman Turkey in the late 17th century, Ukraine had been relegated to a sort of cultural backwater, mentioned only as a footnote in those secondary texts that decided to refer to it at all. One reason for this is that the audience for the writing and cultural output of Ukraine was Orthodox Christian communities, of which there were few in the West; Ukraine was producing religious literature in a language and with an alphabet that was almost as inaccessible as Japanese at the very moment that print was making books more accessible and widespread.

From Polish footnote in the 15th-17th centuries to Russian footnote after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukraine remained hidden. In spite of their lacking a king after the Mongols galloped through, in spite of not developing a nation to go along with its distinct cultural identity and language, Ukraine persisted among the peasantry and smaller landowners, the great anonymous masses that make up history as it’s lived, rather than a certain type of history written and preferred by the wealthy and influential. This is similar to other places in Europe that were never fully colonized by conquerors—English, Lapps, Sicilians, Basques, and so forth. Look for Ukrainians in literature—you will find them in Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Look for Ukrainians in poetry and art—they are present, most conspicuously so in the works of Taras Shevchenko, a 19th-century romantic painter and poet who helped formalize the idea of “Ukraine” as a place apart from Russia or Poland. Ukrainians are everywhere in the literature of the countries around them, as well as those countries that claimed portions of the territory as their own. It can be complicated to trace their history at this moment because they were given many different names by the people who interacted with one portion or another of the group—Cossacks, Ruthenians, Galicians—in all cases, words assigned to Ukrainians by outsiders, rather than generated internally.

Things stayed this way for the most part through the beginning of the 20th century, when leftist and anarchist movements competed with nationalist movements organized around ethnicity for primacy in the region, while monarchs like Emperor Franz Joseph and Tsars like Nicholas II attempted to hold onto power. The same powerful forces that had aligned to disrupt the European status quo through revolution and war spread slowly eastward.

One tendency during the late 19th century helped accelerate the process of nationalism: Russia’s attempts to describe Ukraine as “invented.” This was connected to Russian attacks on Polish language and identity, and Belarusian identity, as well as their attempts to encourage ethno-nationalist movements in the Balkans and Central Europe. This was part of an ongoing struggle with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Tsar saw non-Russian identities and languages as liabilities. Russia’s government therefore characterized nationalist movements as schemes to destabilize Russia. Russification became a viable path, through resettlement, the outlaw of non-Russian language to be taught in schools, forbidding non-Russian culture, and politics. People like Shevchenko, who wrote in Ukrainian about Ukraine in the early-19th century, were punished and made into pariahs for “agitating.”

It’s worth taking a moment to pause, here, with the assertion that “Ukrainian” is an invented identity or language—a fictional product of professional agitators—because that assertion, which has been employed variously by Polish, Austro-Hungarian, German, and a variety of Russian groups over the years, has ramifications for the present and the future. There is no more persuasive argument against viewing Ukrainians (or anyone) as equal or important than the notion that their culture, their history, their language is a political trick or a con. If that assertion is true, what you’re reading right now isn’t an essay, it’s fiction. One can easily justify annexation or partition of an invented polity.

But that is not the case. Ukraine is a country that developed organically over centuries, and the various peoples who live there coexist, for the most part peacefully save in those places that they are actually and actively being supported by external powers. True, Ukraine in its current form bears little resemblance to Kyivan Rus; but then, modern France is quite different from the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Russia’s own history is a long and slow evolution from the principality of Muscovy in the 17th century to the Russian Empire in the 18th century and, ultimately, to the current post-Soviet state; surely, if Ukraine is an “invented” country, it is not any more so than Russia, a political entity that did not exist on medieval European maps and was utterly unknown to ancient Rome. But this essay is not intended as an attack on Russian identity—it is intended to point out that the creation of every nationality or national history is an imposition, an invention, on a certain level. How, if the principality or duchy of Muscovy does not predate the 12th century, did people come to live there? How is it that those people ended up speaking a language similar to that spoken by the Poles, and to the Kyivan Rus? These seem like obvious questions, the type an eight-year-old might ask, but are often left unexplored or even unposed.

As much is the case in France, England, Germany, Italy, and Russia, Ukraine is a country with a history, and a distinct language, and culture, and people. Stating this is neither an endorsement nor repudiation of E. J. Hobsbawn—if the contemporary nationalism of Ukrainians today is invented, then surely it is no more or less invented than the nationalism of England, Germany, Italy, or Russia. 

Back to Ukraine’s history! At the end of the First World War, a war in which Poles and Ukrainians had fought on both sides (German / Austria-Hungary for those living in Central Powers-aligned areas, Russia for those living in Allied areas), the world had changed dramatically. The two promised revolutions, economic and ethno-nationalist, arrived at the same time, in different places: Central and Eastern Europe were “emancipated” from Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian dominion (though not, unfortunately, domination), and a bevy of states were created based on “self-determination” and/or reconstituted and recognized. Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary benefitted from autonomy and self-determination, enforced or enabled by the victorious Allied powers. The Ottoman Empire was partitioned and colonized, and of the former Ottoman territories only Turkey was able to organize an effective defense against a disorganized and badly led Greek force (which nevertheless nearly succeeded in reanimating the long-dead corpse of the Byzantine empire).

Ukrainian and Belarussian ambitions for nationhood were ignored, though both appealed for recognition and formed leadership constituencies. The Poles were able to occupy parts of Belarus and what is now western Ukraine with help from their allies in France and the United States, both of which sent units and equipment. Belarussian and Ukrainian militaries mobilized to resist Poland, were defeated, and their lands annexed. Meanwhile, the center and east of Belarus and Ukraine were overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks, and forcibly incorporated into the USSR—technically through their own republics but subordinated in fact to Moscow and subject to Russification.

It’s worth underlining that point: almost every other European country’s claims to ethnic legitimacy were acknowledged and honored by the Western Europeans negotiating the Armistice in 1919. Ukrainian and Belarussian claims were overlooked, yes, but also they were actively opposed by Polish soldiers equipped by France (in the case of Belarus) and Polish soldiers fighting alongside French units, and under air cover of planes flown by the United States (in the case of Ukraine). To this day, a memorial to United States bomber pilots who fought for Poland in WWI stands in the Lviv cemetery—built in WWI, defaced by communists after WWII, and rehabilitated after Ukraine’s independence.

Ukrainian and Belarussian claims for independence in the East were also opposed by Bolshevists, but on different terms; their project, in 1919, was still the creation of a classless, worker-led, global socialist society, pitted against states built on ethnic, capitalist, and nationalistic foundations.

In the end, Ukraine and Belarus were treated like the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. They were places that could be colonized and occupied, rather than liberated, to be dealt with as means to a variety of ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. The source of the problem. The outsider, the Hun, the Mongol.

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Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, too, has its roots in history. When Ukraine declared itself independent in 1917—the East and the West, separately—Ukraine laid claim to an area that included Crimea, and extended into Russia encompassing parts of the Caucases and steppe territories east even of Volgograd (the city formerly known as Stalingrad). Ukraine, in 1917, laid claims to all historical Cossack lands, heavily settled by Ukrainians. This specific idea of “Ukraine” as such was, like many ethno-nationalist visions in the early 20th century, part half-baked history, part aspiration, part pseudo-science, but there wasn’t any reason not to include Crimea and those parts of Russia long settled and farmed by Ukrainians, any more than to mark out a part of Germany and Russia as Poland based on a certain snapshot of history and the linguistic preferences of its inhabitants. People fought and died for this vision of Ukraine, and endured prison and political exile; the fact that it ultimately did not come to pass doesn’t repudiate its importance to many, and underlines why Soviet leaders like Stalin treated Ukrainians with unusual ferocity.

The subjection of Ukraine by Soviet formations and its incorporation into the USSR was a fractious affair, characterized by periods of peace, and periods of conflict. After the wars of 1919-20 between Ukraine and its Polish and Bolshevik neighbors, Poland and Russia approached the problem of Ukrainian nationalism differently. Poland worked against it, viewing Ukrainian nationalism as a threat to its security. At first, the USSR took the opposite view, recognizing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (The U.S.S.R.’s own U.S.S.R.) as its own state and offering the country much latitude and autonomy. In the 1920s, beset by external foes, engaged in a fight against countries on all flanks, Vladimir Lenin encouraged Ukrainian poets, artists, authors, and politicians to view their country and language as distinct, and the country experienced a creative renaissance that was largely overlooked in a West that assumed everything happening within the impenetrable red swath of territory controlled by Moscow was an oppressive gray horror. Volodymyr Sosiura, a Ukrainian lyrical poet, had that patriotic Ukrainian renaissance to thank for his ascent to prominence in the 1920s—between 1930 and 1931 he spent two years in a Soviet re-education camp. Pavlo Tychyna was a major Ukrainian poet, interpreter, academic and statesman; like Sosiura some time in prison changed the tone of his poetry from patriotic to pro-communist party. Mykola Kulish and Mykola Hvylyoviy were both writers whose popularity during this time, to name two others. Many other individuals were part of the movement, and many of those individuals were veterans of WWI and the Red Army.

By the late 1920s, though, as Joseph Stalin consolidated power, Russia had regained enough strength and settled with its neighbors sufficiently to focus on internal matters. And internal matters, for Ukraine, meant cracking down on their language (outlawed in favor of Russian), literature (outlawed in favor of class-appropriate authors), politics, and economy. These efforts led to widespread resistance, and by 1930, nearly 1 million Ukrainians were estimated to be either actively or passively resisting Moscow. Stalin’s solution, an engineered famine, which was applied in other areas of the USSR as well for similar purposes, sought to destroy perceived Ukrainian truculence once and for all. Between 1932 and 1933, what has come to be known as “Holodomor” resulted in the deaths by starvation of between 2 and 10 million people (contemporary Western scholars put the number in the high 4 millions), and the usual outrages that accompany famine: crime, cannibalism, and shattered communities.

The Ukrainian experience of Holodomor, successfully buried in the West by a combination of inattention and initial enthusiasm in academia and media sources for the Soviet experiment, is an experience that resonated with special power through the years. This is how lived history often works: overlooked or ignored by the academic, political, or professional writers of an age, a trauma works its way down from generation to generation, or within a family, until an opportunity for vengeance presents itself.

So with Holodomor, which helped frame how history played out over the next decade, even contributing to the early and astonishing defeats of the Red Army during the opening chapters of Germany’s war with Russia. Part of this has to do with to the immense and unforgiven insult offered to Ukrainians who, remembering having to watch family and friends die, and in some cases eat their bodies to survive, happily and even enthusiastically assisted the Nazis in destroying the Soviet military and political apparatus. Part of that was the unfortunate accident of Holodomor’s most conspicuous architect and advocate, Lazar Kaganovich, having been Jewish (more on the specific history of anti-semitism in Ukraine later).

Kaganovich was also Ukrainian—as were Nikita Khrushchev and Mikael Gorbachev, though both identified primarily with their Russian roots. Ukrainians were woven deeply into the fabric of the USSR, and they and their nation were seen as essential to the success of the Soviet project. Ukraine’s farmland, its industrial base, and European population were all viewed as indispensable assets to the USSR. Much more than Belarus, or many of the far-eastern satellites, a powerful and confident Ukrainian ally made the United Soviet Socialist Republic feasible. And yet, the moment Ukraine had an opportunity to separate from Moscow and the USSR, many of Ukraine’s citizens took sides against the USSR, carrying on a vicious insurgency that lasted from 1941 until 1954, after Stalin’s death. Less a matter of defeat than a détente, the end of the Ukrainian insurgency happened alongside the elevation of a Donbas Ukrainian (albeit one who identified as Russian) to the most powerful position in the USSR, as well as his elevation of Ukraine to a position of prominence, a position from which it more or less happily cooperated with the Soviet project until its total collapse in 1991. This is worth saying because it illustrates how to treat one’s neighbors—badly and they will meet violence with violence, well and they will provide useful labor for you, for free.

History has not been kind to Khrushchev, but he was a capable leader, and a staunch Soviet. From the perspective of the USSR, in fact, he was a godsend. Stalin, who managed to avoid being defeated by an inferior opponent in Hitler, made major errors throughout the 1930s and 40s that nearly resulted in the destruction of the USSR in his lifetime and may, in fact, have ultimately doomed it. Without some grand gesture, Khrushchev felt, the blood-debt incurred by Stalin in Ukraine meant that a country and people who could make the difference between success and failure would always be on the outside, a reluctant participant in the Soviet experiment. In giving Crimea to Ukraine, Khrushchev managed to effectively bury the hatchet, and helped ensure Ukraine’s loyalty throughout the remainder of the USSR’s existence.

Historical Anti-Semitism in Ukraine

Before galloping onward to Ukraine’s independence from the USSR—the next meaningful thing that happened to the country in the 20th century—it is necessary first to take step backward and address a longstanding point of contention, and one of the chief avenues of criticism for the country and its people: racism and anti-semitism. A brief note: I am using the published advice of Tim Snyder and not capitalizing the “s” in anti-semitism.

Ukraine has a reputation for being a country that is especially racist and anti-semitic. There’s no way around this criticism, or its historical basis. Modern anti-semitism is the heart and soul of serious moral opposition to Ukraine as a country, as well as the country’s culture. And while its anti-Jewish, anti-minority reputation goes back centuries—anti-semitism is the only history many people concede to Ukraine—it is Ukraine’s relationship to the Holocaust that inspires the most horror and opposition. This factor cannot be overlooked or bypassed.

The first genocidal pogroms against Jewish people are generally said to have taken place in Ukraine, in the 17th century. A “Cossack” nation led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky, in the process of establishing independence from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, focused attacks on Jewish civilians and Roman Catholic clergy, killing tens of thousands of Jewish civilians over ten years. Other, less widespread but similar pogroms happened periodically in the area until WWII, when Ukrainian paramilitaries cooperated with invading Nazis to participate in the Holocaust. Memories of the Holocaust, as well as the periodic brutalizations that occurred before, were carried by Jewish survivors fleeing Westward, to England and to the United States, and those firsthand accounts of murder or savagery invariably singled out Ukrainians (rather than Croats, Romanians, or even French) as perpetrators of the most degenerate attacks, criminal outrages remarkable for their cruelty and callousness.

This is so much the case, that Ukraine is almost indistinguishable from “anti-semitism” in Western European popular culture. Watch any movie about WWII or that touches on Ukrainians, and the role of the Ukrainian character or characters will be to murder or oppress minorities or specifically Jewish characters with as much animosity as possible, and in some suitably shocking manner. Either that or demonstrate their potential for doing so. They act as savage accomplices of the refined but amoral Germans, thinly-racialized caricatures of a perpetual lower class that can only be organized for violence or spite.

The idea of Ukrainians as essentially anti-semitic thugs (we’ll focus on this rather than racist, homophobic, xenophobic, because all of those other negative attributes are subordinate to the anti-semitism) has been very effective at marginalizing or “othering” Ukraine as a national idea. The smear occupies a small corner of everyone’s imagination, whether they’re aware of that corner or not. It influences attitudes toward Ukraine, and affects what people believe is possible in the country, and with the country’s citizens. Ukrainians themselves are often unaware of the external bias, or how it affects how they think and write about their own country. Sometimes this creates a vicious feedback loop in which Westerners read articles or watch cinema created by Ukrainians who have been colonized by this idea of themselves as specially guilty of anti-semitism, similar to the phenomenon of Black Americans echoing racist ideas in their own language and literature, re-capturing themselves through an internalized dialogue that exists everywhere outside them, and lives inside them as well. This phenomenon is most capably described by Ralph Waldo Ellison in Invisible Man and by Richard Wright in Native Son—the greatest violence of a stereotype being perpetuated inside an individual who is subjected to the stereotype’s definitional weight.

The myth is common and easily-perceived in articles written by Ukrainians themselves, like this piece in The New York Times, “Attacks on Roma Force Ukraine to Confront an Old Ethnic Enmity,” in which a journalist actively (and, tragically, without awareness) perpetuates a certain type of Western myth, abetted by years of Russian propaganda, about Ukrainians. Western readers are conditioned to accept such articles at face value and without additional context; from this perspective, articles of this sort are kitsch at best, and propaganda at worst.

The Ukrainian’s relationship to anti-semitism today manifests itself similarly to that of the African-American’s relationship to racism, with some important differences. Most conspicuously, Ukrainians do not “appear” to be much different from any other Caucasian group, due in part to the area of Ukraine having been traversed and colonized for centuries by the same invading forces that shaped the rest of Eurasia. Most African-Americans are visually distinctive. The African-American’s relationship to racism is based on the imposition of an ahistorical and spurious definition of capabilities in which the African-American was, by dint of slavery, subsequently described as intellectually and morally inferior to whites. African-Americans were deliberately trapped in a system that was not designed by or for them (more accurately, was designed to exploit them), this definitional inferiority proceeded from that system, and the imposition of identity by external forces was facilitated by visual cues (it is still imposed, today).

While there is something to be said for Ukrainians’ inferior status under those countries that governed their territory, from the Poles to the Austro-Hungarians to the Russians, that does not fully explain their relationship to the Jewish residents of those same areas, and it certainly does not excuse their participation in the Holocaust. A crime was perpetrated against African-Americans, the crime of slavery, and that crime was doubled by the crime of institutional racism that has since followed the original crime; similar crimes were perpetrated against Ukrainians, but the Ukrainians also committed great crimes against their neighbors.

One must be an ethno-nationalist to believe that there are traits fundamental to certain cultures, and therefore it is difficult to find ethno-nationalists on the left, or in the United States (a country filled with many different nationalities, and therefore absent a native “nationalism” based on ethnicity, save the aforementioned categories imposed by racists and religious exceptionalism and extremism, which is different from nationalism). Ukrainians are not born with some special anti-semitic gene, nor is there something about Ukrainian culture that predisposes Ukrainians to anti-semitism. But there certainly were material and legal conditions that made anti-semitism especially likely in Ukraine, and there have been political leaders for whom it was occasionally advantageous to scapegoat Jewish people.

The first genocidal “pogrom” mentioned earlier, intimately connected to the Khmelnytsky Uprising, was itself a populist rejection of exploitative rent-seeking that occurred in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The most influential nobles, who had amassed great power through the acquisition of farmland, had, by the 17th century, set high rents for tenant farmers (many of whom were Belarusian and Ukrainian), and insulated themselves from direct appeal by relying on Jewish employees to manage the occupation and rent collection on those lands. Jewish managers therefore became the human face for distant Polish aristocrats, and when Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks rebelled, Jewish civilians were the unsurprising (if unwarranted) targets for the brunt of that rage. Leftists might say that a more proper target of Cossack and peasant (in this case, Ukrainian) anger might have been those Polish aristocrats responsible for imposing unreasonable terms on the peasantry, and that the Jewish managers were as exploited and victimized by the system as anyone. That evaluation, one in which the aristocrats are the real genesis of the injustice that led to the uprising, doesn’t seem too off the mark for that specific pogrom. But there were others, and they took on a certain brutal tinge in 19th and 20th century Russia.

By then, the area that is currently Ukraine was governed by Russia, as was much of Poland and all of Lithuania. And the Ukrainian peasantry was still anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual, and anti-Jewish, feeding the military and the Cossack ranks with people eager to enforce laws through violence, eager to wage war on populations within the Empire. Hostile to the Empire itself. From 1791 until 1917, Russia, in a quirk of fate, permitted Jewish citizens permanent settlement only in “The Pale of Settlement,” an area that encompassed much of Ukraine, all of Belarus, all of Lithuania, and Eastern Poland. It was most likely, in the Russian Empire, that one would encounter Jewish people in this area. An excellent reason that one doesn’t read about massive historical pogroms occurring in Moscow or St. Petersburg is that for much of the 19th and early 20th century those populations were tightly controlled and limited to thousands, and the mechanism for venting Russian anti-semitism under the Tsars (which existed, as is obvious from their carving out a space outside Russia’s “home” territories and cities) was to expel Jewish residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This happened periodically, the most recent example occurring during the end of the 19th century when, as Jewish residents amassed wealth and prestige, the tsars evicted most of them and confiscated their property. Those who lost most or had little to begin with were sent to live as outcasts in the Pale of Settlement among Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Baba Yar and Anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Eastern Europe during WWII

Ukrainians, largely rural, lived side-by-side with Poles, Jews, and other nationalities starting in 1791. Alongside the dislocating experience of industrialization and leaving their rural roots, Ukrainians saw their own nascent nationhood squashed by Western powers, and then over a decade beginning in 1930, brutally repressed by the USSR. When the Nazis entered Ukraine from the West in 1941, they brought with them a convenient answer that seemed designed to find an audience in Ukraine.

Almost as soon as the Germans entered Ukraine in 1941, they began killing Jews. This was not the case in Western European countries, and many Central European countries, too (Eli Weisel’s Night describes Jewish residents of a Hungarian town who avoided the Holocaust until mid-1944). This chapter of history is extensively documented both by the Nazis and by those victims of theirs who survived. The single most horrific moment arrived shortly after the capture of Kyiv, when the Nazis rounded up as many Ukrainian Jews as they could lay hands on, and between 29 and 30 September, massacred over 30,000 of them in a series of ravines called “Baba Yar” (now, a picturesque memorial park). Crucially for the history of Ukraine, this butchery was aided and empowered by local Ukrainian paramilitaries or “auxiliary police” who had been organized previously by a hyper-nationalist organization called “OUN.” Over the course of the war, these auxiliary police helped the Nazis kill another 70-120,000 Ukrainians, Jews, and Roma at Baba Yar for a variety of reasons; this original bit of ethnic cleansing is notable for its scope, immediacy, and (from the point of the Nazis) effectiveness.

Of course, the Nazis were aided in their efforts to extinguish “Bolshevism” and “Jewry” by local allies in every country they invaded; Italians, French, Poles, Lithuanians, Dutch, Latvians, Russians, Belarussians, Croats, and Hungarians to name some.

There is no question that Ukrainians assisted the Nazis in ethnic cleansing against their Jewish and minority neighbors, and this essay is not intended to minimize that horror. It is important, though, to understand the distinction between a group committed to genocide (the Nazis), and a group interested primarily in vengeance and settling personal grievances, in a local context (the Ukrainians). The Ukrainians’ participation in Holocaust activities such as Baba Yar helped cement their external reputation as among WWII’s great criminal groups, but their crimes, coming as they do from a position of weakness and exploitation vis-à-vis their position between Western Europe and Russia must be viewed with some circumspection. Eight years before Baba Yar, the country had been subjected to Holodomor, which was led by a Jewish Soviet bureaucrat, and carried out by people recruited and trained in urban areas by the USSR—many of the soldiers, secret police, and Soviet functionaries, were Jewish. This has become a talking point for ethno-nationalists and anti-semites interested in justifying their world view; I trust that readers will not impute that motivation to me, Here, I am pointing out the sad cycle of violence in which two groups of people were trapped—Ukrainians hoping to take control of their own destiny from Russia and the USSR, and also, in the very specific case of those Jewish intellectuals enthusiastically participating in the USSR project, Eastern European and Russian Jewish citizens hoping to emancipate the global working class from capitalistic exploitation, thereby destroying the harmful and divisive identity-driven conflict that had been the root of so many historical pogroms.

The collectivization and famine, then, made it easy for German propogandists of the time to distort the significance of those events and use them for their own purposes, pitting (once again) different exploited and oppressed groups against one another. This propaganda is still alive and well today among certain groups in whose interest it is to mischaracterize Jewish people and distract from their own misbehavior.

Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Poles also have a reputation for anti-semitism, though not quite so assertively as Ukrainians—mitigated, no doubt, by western ignorance of Belorusia as a country, and latent sympathy for Poles and Lithuanians, who are as a rule viewed more favorably than Ukrainians, as seen in the reflexive impulse to grant Poland its own nation in the wake of WWI. In the German WWII series “Generation War,” anti-semitic paramilitaries working alongside SS Einsatzgruppen in Russia have blue-and-yellow armbands, a subtle nod to their nationalist affiliation (Ukrainian). A Polish resistance group fighting against the Germans reserves their worst contempt for Jews, but even so, are afforded a measure of redemption owing to their hostility to the swastika—redemption denied to the Ukrainian paramilitaries.

Elie Wiesel’s Night is filled with cruel Eastern European characters, from the neighbors in the Hungarian town of Sighet where the action begins, to Franek, the Polish foreman who insists on stealing the gold crown from Wiesel’s mouth. In the beginning of the book, a Jewish man named Moshe survives a massacre in Ukrainian Galicia in 1942, then returns to Sighet to warn residents of German intentions. On the other hand, one of the very few positive characterizations that occurs in the concentration camps is a leader identified as “the Dutchman.” Goodness is possible from Western Europe, and mendacity, evil, and cruelty occur in Eastern Europe, and is perpetuated by Eastern Europeans.

Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors looks at the doctors who betrayed their Hippocratic Oaths in service of racial science and genocide. It has within it a chapter dedicated to anti-semitic Polish doctors who enthusiastically cooperated with the SS within concentration camps. While it does not mention Ukrainians—Lifton’s subject matter does not extend to that country—it does reinforce the perception at the time that “all Poles are anti-semitic”—a perception that carries over into the present time. Where one finds Western and Polish anti-semites, the Poles are always worse. The farther east one travels, it seems, the further away from civilization one gets.

Ukrainians make appearances in Into that Darkness, a profile of Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka, an extermination camp), by Gitta Sereny, as SS soldiers and guards both of the trains and the camps, at the station to greet incoming trains and crack the whips. Sereny, a careful recorder of Stangl’s personality and of Treblinka itself, includes many firsthand accounts of the horrible crimes of the Holocaust. In one account, by a member of the Polish resistance named Pan Zabecki, the Ukrainian guards come across as victims, too; Zabecki describes the Lithuanians as the truly bad collaborators: “I know a great deal has been said about the brutality of the Ukrainians,” he said, “but actually the Lithuanians who mostly guarded the trains were the real sadists; they used to shoot at people, blind, through the windows of the cars, when they begged for doctors, water, and to be allowed to relieve themselves. They did it as a sport—they laughed and joked and bet while they did it. Amongst the Ukrainians there were several who we knew wanted to get away…” Nevertheless, Zabecki’s resistance group imposed harsh penalties on members of the surrounding Polish population who cooperated with the Ukrainian guards, and acknowledges up front that even at that early juncture (the book was published in 1973, barely 30 years after the war’s conclusion) Ukrainians had a reputation for “brutality.” Throughout Into that Darkness Ukrainians have two basic identities as guards: that of the brutes wielding the whips, and that of the “reasonable” guards, capable of being bribed, amenable to approach.

If it seems to readers like these are the basic identities of prison guards of any race, ethnicity, and historical period, that is probably true. The point here is that those Ukrainians who appeared for police or paramilitary duty were conditioned to be used in ways that predisposed them toward violence and cruelty, no more and no less than citizens of other, similarly-subjugated countries, but with the important distinction that they were fully empowered to conduct ethnic cleansing on the spot against neighbors that they’d long viewed as enemies or outsiders. The tragedy is that this “prison guard” became their national historical identity.

While this is a small snapshot of a particular cross-section of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans (those in close proximity to or involved in the Holocaust), at a very particular moment (WWII), one can find evidence of this trope without much effort. Just about any story authored by a Western European that describes or discusses the Holocaust or WWII’s eastern front at length will eventually bring a spotlight to bear on Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian or Belarusian anti-semitism and cooperation with the Nazis in that anti-semitic context. This is muted in Soviet accounts of the Holocaust and WWII, for the same reasons that histories of the Civil War do not focus on the vicious fighting that took place in border states like Kansas, Kentucky, and Maryland.

Throughout WWII, alongside stories of enthusiastic cooperation with Nazi units, and heroic fighting in defense of their ideology and agenda, these groups also struggled mightily against the Nazis, though, and suffered heavily. As under the Russian Tsars and the USSR, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians were exploited, repressed, and treated little better than chattel slaves. When one views them with detachment and perspective, the peoples of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth come to resemble prisoners in a massive camp, in which different inmates were set against each another for the amusement and entertainment of great powers. Russians and Germans were sometimes treated that way by each other, as well, when the opportunity presented itself.

The legacy of anti-semitism and “ethnic enmity” in Ukraine is not specially Ukrainian, nor is it a function of Ukrainian culture or society. It is the logical output of a series of conditions, legally established and violently enforced, by a succession of rulers—Polish, Russian, German, and Russian. To call Ukraine an anti-semitic place or to accuse Ukrainians of anti-semitism is an inhuman act, historically inaccurate, an unsupportable act of political and social violence against a marginalized people.

WWII and beyond, to Chernobyl

WWII may have ended in 1945, but a large undeclared war between Poland and Ukraine raged into 1946, and Western Ukrainians waged an insurgency against Russian dominion until 1954. Russia was able to resolve the Polish-Ukrainian conflict with large-scale forced population exchanges according to how civilians had identified themselves during Nazi censuses, as well as by imposing land exchanges. This stopped the conflict between Poland and Ukraine, but fighting against Moscow didn’t truly end until Khrushchev was elevated to first secretary of the Communist Party. An eastern Ukrainian himself, who had worked with Lazar Kaganovych and had been present at Stalingrad, Khrushchev saw that the USSR needed Ukraine to succeed, and that violence and repression would only go so far in assuring compliance. To truly thrive, the USSR needed Ukraine as an ally, not an ally-in-name-only. Khrushchev settled on a brilliant idea, stitching Ukraine together with Russia by giving Ukraine Crimea, and bringing the two SSRs into closer cooperation.

For thirty years, from 1959 until 1989, the arrangement held without falter. Ukraine took part in the USSR’s successes, contributing grain and technology and energy. It shared in its disasters, as over 300,000 Ukrainians fought in Afghanistan under the Red Army. Over generations and through shared experiences, Ukrainians became increasingly intertwined with the USSR’s leadership. The future and fate of the USSR came to involve Ukraine as much as it did Russia, and vice versa—by design.

Only one major event interrupted the status quo, and it did so with long-reaching consequences. The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and the bumbling way in which it was handled politically and publicly left a lasting impact on the people of Ukraine. As it was the people of Ukraine (and Belarus) who suffered most from the meltdown—both in terms of the personnel affected directly, and the land scarred by the fallout from the meltdown—the event shaped their confidence in how the USSR was capable of handling crisis. In terms of response and transparency, the meltdown exposed the USSR’s governing mechanism as out of touch, insular, and ineffective. Its impact extends to the present time, where the country and culture is riddled with anecdotal accounts of early death from cancer. As likely as not this is due as much to widespread unregulated industrial output, rather than radioactive fallout, but the suspicion that “Chernobyl killed my father/grandfather” persists in Kyiv and cities like it, ensuring that the calamity stays part of the present.

The Fall of the USSR and After

This essay has spent more time discussing negative events in Ukraine’s history than positive. That is because at the moment, the weight of that negative history counts for more than the positive events—positive moments in Ukraine’s history have been mined, culturally, and expropriated by external powers, like “Russia.” It might be a stretch to say that the peoples of Muscovy “stole” the name “Russia” from people living in Ukraine, but it’s certainly true that (1) Ukrainians are far more “Russian” than the vast country that bears their name, and (2) Russia is far less “Russian” than Ukraine. This probably seems like a small or irrelevant detail—personally, it is difficult for me to treat it with great seriousness—but it is of utmost importance to Ukrainians themselves, and to “Russians,” and for this reason deserves consideration. It’s also important because, again, one of the primary attacks leveled against Ukraine is that it is a fake or contrived country, and, this cannot be stated enough, so is the country and people levying that criticism against Ukraine and Ukrainians. Other countries have long used history to shape and justify their behavior. This is especially conspicuous in the dealings of Russians as well as European countries happy to determine the identity of people living in Ukraine.

But there have been great accomplishments by Ukrainians, and great things wrought by people living under the Russians, and Austro-Hungarians, and Poles, and under the USSR. Something like the 240,000,000-strong USSR doesn’t last for 70 years without getting a few things right. From 1960-1990, the USSR was prosperous, especially compared with those civilizations that preceded it. They managed to send life into outer space, and to bring it back. They brought stability to an area that had been riven by war. Entire full lives were lived within the boundaries of the USSR.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the fall was simultaneously the greatest single political collapse in history in absolute terms, and the most peaceful collapse, one unique in history for its goodwill and sincerity. Among the extraordinary things that happened: (1) Russia did not fight wars to hold onto departing SSRs including Ukraine and Belarus, (2) Poland immediately recognized Ukraine’s territorial identity rather than springing into war with their neighbor in spite of the past century of mutual ethnic cleansing and revenge-killings and many of the victims on both sides still being alive, (3) the USSR did not seek to externalize the threat and declare war on the West. There are many other related, smaller miracles that occurred around 1991, but these were the greatest. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear arsenal seemed like another, similarly inspired gesture at the time, though later events proved that decision to be an error.

Promises made when the USSR broke up: that countries could live in peace with one another, and that capitalism and Western style liberalism would be an effective way to balance and govern the world, were swiftly proven untrue by events on the ground involving criminals and double-dealing locals, and hostility and exploitation involving western businessmen and politicians. Efforts to determine whether or not “liberalism” might have been more effective as a guiding strategy under different political circumstances is a pointless counterfactual exercise. The architects of the USSR’s dissolution—George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev—were not allowed to see their vision through, for better or for worse—instead, that transition was coopted by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, who, to be as fair as one possibly can, did not do a good job with it. What happened in Ukraine and the rest of the USSR is that in the 1990s, a brief period of optimism was swiftly replaced by a brutal, no-holds-barred gang war for industrial dominance by oligarchs, just a step better than petty warlords. The USSR, which had been at the very least an ideologically coherent (if corrupt and increasingly unstable) group of nations quickly deteriorated into a series of national boundaries ruled by despots or oligarchs, balanced precariously within and without, tied together by bonds of language and shared experiences and, no longer, common interests.

With time, each of those countries experienced revolutions. The most European of the countries to fall behind the USSR’s iron curtain were also the countries fastest to grow beyond their recent past: East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Baltic States quickly returning to their traditional stability, and integrating into the European project with varying degrees of difficulty.

Ukraine became unique among its neighbors—famously undergoing revolution after revolution, each of which offered some hope for change, and little in the way of lasting reforms. This was partly due to the short and contested existence of anything approximating “Rule of Law” in the country but also likely indicative of its proximity to Russia (which had and has a vested interest in keeping Ukraine disorganized and fractious). Social instability is also a gift to Ukraine by Russia and part of Austria-Hungary’s legacy, and related partly to Ukraine’s proximity to Europe, which offers Ukraine’s westernmost and central residents positive examples of successful countries, and hope for a different model of governance than iron-fisted Russia.

That was the case when, in 2013-14, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime. After students on the Maidan square were beaten, what was, essentially, an intellectual protest against a perceived shift away from Europe and toward Russia blossomed into a mass-protest against the police, corruption, a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability and justice. Within a month, hundreds had become hundreds of thousands. By the end of February, Yanukovych’s men were stuffing suitcases of cash and valuables onto military helicopters, then onto the back of an AN-26 transport plane, from whence he made his escape to Russia, and parts relatively unknown (okay, somewhere near Moscow).

The conflict that followed has consumed thousands of lives, displaced over a million citizens (more if one considers the annexation of Crimea, which one should), and thrust Ukrainian politics into an even less stable if theoretically or potentially more accountable chapter, led by the election of Volodymyr Zelensky.

This brings us up to the present time in Ukraine.

The journey to Ukraine: an introduction

In August of 2016, I was filling my hands with mattress in an apartment overlooking a position 300 meters to the southwest across an open field. Russian-backed separatists were knocking at it with large caliber mortars. The position, an abandoned industrial building connected I think with grain collection, was, I learned later, the Headquarters of the Battalion-sized mechanized infantry unit dug in about 500 meters to my east. Tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery on both sides conversed with each other, while I conversed with a God I’d forgotten existed.

How to describe an exchange? Terror at each loud, bone-rattling bang! that cracked the evening, in groups of five or seven or more. Terror when the Ukrainian Army fired back, scratching the night’s heavy quiet like nails dragged down a chalkboard during a test. Terror at the machinegun fire on both sides. A general sense of growing anxiety when silence dragged on too long—a minute or two meant something really furious was about to start. Pondering the extraordinary, like, “why have humans developed such destructive power, when outer space remains unexplored,” hoping that holding such thoughts might insulate me from madness. This particular fight went on for a couple hours, then intermittently flared up after. I’d never heard anything like it for so long, not even during two tours in Afghanistan.

Battle damage typical of the back-and-forth long range artillery and mortar duels between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians

The next morning, I, an interpreter, and a humanitarian aid volunteer—our host—took us to survey the damage. The morning wasn’t hot; I remember a whiff of autumn in the air, which had disappeared by noon. Another thing I remember was widespread and conspicuous superficial damage—destroyed buildings, fires, unrepaired roofs. We arrived at an apartment that had a chunk blasted out of its master bedroom. The lucky inhabitants (away for the evening) had returned to take stock of the damage. They let us in and strolled around, flabbergasted at their bad and good fortune, as catastrophe victims who live often do. There wasn’t much for me there; I heard their story and recorded it, but couldn’t actually fix anything. If I could have, besides, what difference would it have made?

Standing in the bedroom, looking out the hole, I did notice that it was impossible to determine the shell’s origin. Had an errant round fallen short, was this an episode of friendly fire? Or is that how the round had impacted, travelling at some obscure angle from the east? I wasn’t trained in post-blast or crater analysis, so I didn’t know. So much of the conflict in Ukraine is unknowable to the casual observer, and trying to sift through the misinformation, bias, and layers of historical propaganda and get at something approaching a truth is the work of years.

Why I decided to go to Ukraine of all places

Ukrainian patriots may excuse my ignorance of their country. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s there was never any compelling reason to learn about anything happening east of the Alps. Recent history was either finished and therefore an uninteresting abstraction, or so inchoate as not to be worth learning, as I thought as a sheltered young man. I doubt I knew of Ukraine’s existence until the mid-1990s, when an angry Ukrainian interrupted Kramer and Newman’s game of Risk on an episode of Seinfeld. I was vapid and insular.

Rumors of Ukrainian Mi-6 pilots flying provisions out to our distant Forward Operating Base during my first deployment to Afghanistan, with the 173rd Airborne, helped open me to the history eastern Europe. By then I was generally aware of Ukraine’s role in the world—another post-Soviet state muddling halfheartedly toward capitalism, stuck somewhere in the late 19th century model of plutarchy.

When Euromaidan started, I tried to travel there during my spring break at Columbia Journalism School, in February/March of 2014, and report on the revolution. There was a photo of Ukrainian Red Army veterans of Afghanistan protecting student protesters that fired my imagination; I wanted to talk to these people, to trade stories about Afghanistan, meet people with whom I’d shared a geographic if not temporal overlap. People who’d seen Afghanistan’s mountains from different vehicles, in the context of international communist revolution. I ended up working on my master’s thesis about systemic racism in the VA instead, in New York City.

But Ukraine stayed with me, the images of Euromaidan, of long-haired grizzled Soviet veterans of Afghanistan (whom Svetlana Alexievich called Afghantsi), the cheering yellow-and-blue cheeked youth, the overmatched army fighting a desperate defensive war against Russian aggression. I read vociferously about the place, and imagined my reception as an ally and friend.

Things didn’t work out at all how I thought. The first Afghantsi I met thought I worked for the CIA, and I was not able to shake this suspicion. I had unusual access as a result of people assuming a freelance journalist was actually working for The Agency—at least as far as the first meeting would go—and then, when people realized I really was simply a freelance journalist, they’d lose interest in working with me further.

Following opportunity, I embedded with a U.S. Army training mission in Ukraine’s West, and wrote about what I observed there. That piece went viral, and opened up reporting possibilities that had previously been closed to me; I traveled along with a group of journalists and freelancers to Mariupol, and then to Lviv and to Odesa, to do more sociological and cultural research. The longer I stayed, the more questions I had about the country and its people.

All told, I stayed about two months, cutting short my trip by a few weeks when I severely injured my left foot (a fracture of my left calcaneus that took years to heal properly). Two months was long enough to realize how much more I had to learn about the country—long enough to feel the rhythm of a foreign but intuitively familiar song. Long enough to see in the mysterious interplay between the town and the city a connection that I’d forgotten, echoes of a way of life that was ending in the United States just as I was being born.

Why I decided to go to back

Although it was clear to me by the fall of 2015 that Russia would not be pushing further in Ukraine, that the truly dangerous phase of the war was over, the alien-ness of the place still haunted me. Understanding a people about whom I knew so little, understanding a place that had witnessed so much history, and communicating that back to friends and countrymen felt like something important I could do on behalf of my own culture. I assumed, probably naively, that my writing abilities were sufficient to do Ukraine some justice. Given the relative lack of written material about Ukraine at the time, and even to a certain extent to this day, I also assumed that anything of sufficient quality would be better than nothing.

Kyiv in the wintertime

I traveled back to Ukraine in the winter of 2015-16 to write, and then again in the summer of 2016 to do a project for a non-profit organization (Center for Civilians in Conflict or CIVIC) reporting on harm being done to civilians living in the kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between Ukrainian and separatist-held territories. I ended up staying in Ukraine with a few breaks until September of 2017.

While there, it was possible to take a closer look at Kyiv’s monumental buildings, the wide boulevards, the public housing works thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s when Ukraine’s population kept booming upwards and outwards, and the battlefields (so many battlefields) of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.

The following two essays explain what I saw in Ukraine, and draw some conclusions about what is likely to occur there in the nearest future. From my home in Connecticut today, it all seems impossibly distant. Nevertheless, the photos of me with various people whose lives became entangled with my own, and mine with theirs, I feel obliged to attempt the task.

Why did Saturday Night Live edit MacGruber’s Racial Sensitivity Training?

My first encounter with the episode of MacGruber in which he gets a Black employee occurred in 2010 when I was visiting my parents’ home on leave from the Army. My friend Mike, who was at the time studying for a Master’s Degree in History at UConn, was visiting. It was the first time we’d seen each other since leaving Fort Benning, and we got into my dad’s wine cellar. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had hoarded bottles of white wine far beyond their drinkable date. What started out as a celebration quickly became a brutal slog through rancid bottles we couldn’t bear to throw away. The conversation touched many topics, including racism and fascist tendencies in the United States. Mike later described the result as “the worst hangover I’d ever had in my life.”

The next morning, we needed to return to our regular lives. Brunch was sullen and quiet—somehow I had the sense that Mike blamed me for the bad wine, which was a mistake, it was obviously my father’s fault for leaving the wine in his cellar for us to pillage—but after a couple cups of coffee we both perked up, and were in the process of saying our goodbyes when he said he wanted to show me something.

What he wanted to show me was MacGruber. In addition to being slightly hung over myself, and not a fan of the current cast—still, in 2010, hung up on the Will Farrell years—I felt exhausted and was not looking forward to facing a five hour drive back up to Fort Drum. I was ready to dislike the sketch.

Nevertheless, upon watching it, and without any other knowledge of Will Forte’s character, I was immediately carried away by its bold satirical representation of racism. We watched it over and over again, astonished by the way in which it captured the dangerous fragility of white identity in the U.S.—MacGruber’s incompetence, his well-intentioned attempts to overcome deep-seated racism, his ultimate return to fear and violence as a means of negotiating with Daryl, the black employee.

Watching it again in 2020, the sketch loses none of its power or urgency. At a time when Senate Democrats engage in well-intentioned but performative appropriation of African culture while meaningful reforms to police departments and culture receive the usual lip service and long-suffering optimists hold their breath for something, anything more, what else can one do but laugh when MacGruber himself dons a dashiki after a trip to Africa, only to emerge utterly unchanged by the experience?

Watching the sketch again recently, however, I noticed that it had been edited. The sketch consists of three small episodes, originally ordered properly in sequence. The edited version exchanges the last episode with the middle.

Why would Saturday Night Live have changed an extraordinarily amusing and essentially true critique of white culture through the character of MacGruber? Let’s look at the original sketch, and the edited version.

Originally, the sketch begins with MacGruber, his black employee Daryl, and his sidekick Vicky attempting to disarm a bomb. Over the course of the bomb disarmament it becomes clear that MacGruber has obtained all of his knowledge of “Black culture” from gangster rap and exploitative movies, and his attempts to connect with Daryl—whose name he repeatedly mispronounces as Duh-Rell while Daryl patiently corrects him—all fail. Finally, in an attempt to lighten the mood, MacGruber begins to tell a time-worn joke that is simultaneously racist, sexist, and anti-semitic. The bomb explodes. That is the first episode of three.

When the next episode begins, we learn that MacGruber has been forced to go to racial sensitivity training, which he regards as useless and stupid corporate bullshit from H.R., as evidenced by his telling racist jokes in private. He, Daryl, and Vicky are stuck in a room with another ticking-time bomb, and MacGruber goes to great lengths to explain to Daryl that he’s learned his lesson about racism and racist language—this attempt falls apart over a specious disagreement over what language to use when referring to a black pen. Daryl, fed up with MacGruber’s hollow self-righteousness, attempts to hand MacGruber the pen in order to disarm the bomb, but MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes—then defends his actions to a horrified Vicky, claiming that Daryl had rushed him, and was high on PCP, as Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot. Vicky points out that Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot because MacGruber had filled them with pepper spray. Now desperate to defuse the bomb, MacGruber asks Vicky to hand him another, different pen, referring to it as Chinese, Asian, and, ultimately, “yellow,” concluding just before the bomb detonated that he was, in fact, a racist.

In the third and final episode, MacGruber has taken some time off to do soul-searching, connected to his depressing epiphany. He goes to Africa, he befriends Spike Lee on Facebook, and presumably, immerses himself in both African and Black culture. When he, Daryl, and Vicky are locked in yet another room with a ticking time bomb, we see that he’s wearing full native African garb, though it quickly becomes apparent that his trip has not been as successful as one might hope—he continues to mispronounce Daryl’s name, and, in announcing that the group will be able to take Martin Luthor King Day as a holiday, he mistakenly refers to Dr. King as “Martin Rufus King,” then compounds the error by confusing Daryl’s name. MacGruber makes one last sincere plea with Daryl for friendship, acknowledging that although he has a long way to go, he was committed to making progress together with his Black employee. Reluctantly, Daryl extends his hand to meet MacGruber’s—but MacGruber interprets Daryl’s move as a sign of aggression, and MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes again, just before the bomb explodes.

Putting the episodes out of order creates the following problem: the original episode 2 begins with the racist, sexist, and anti-semitic joke MacGruber told at the end of episode 1. When placed after episode 3, the beginning makes little sense, as episode 3 does not involve a joke, though episode 1 does. Furthermore, the final shot in episode 3 depends on people being prepared to receive an important message about racial reconciliation, to see a white and a Black hand clasped together in friendship in spite of everything that has happened before—an expectation that is hilariously (and depressingly) subverted when MacGruber ultimately cannot overcome his racism.

Once you watch the sketch in its proper order—1, 2, and then 3—it is impossible to see or understand it in any other order, such is the harmony of the sketch’s composition, and the power of its message, which is that white prejudice and racism is too great to overcome through superficial and privileged (taking time off in Africa being the height of privilege) acts, even when those acts involve direct exposure to African culture and a sincere desire to reform. What makes the sketch perfect is that up until (and, thus far, including) the present moment racism continues to exist in jokes, and in systems, and in individuals. Black men and women correct and oblige the overwhelming, wilful ignorance of white men, hoping against hope that something will eventually change for the better. For their trouble, they are greeted with eyefuls of pepper spray.

Now to the logic behind editing. The logic does not appear to have anything to do with humor, as the sketch is less funny and more confusing exchanging the third with the second episode. Instead, it has to do with a desire to have MacGruber achieve positive character growth over the course of the sketch—not to achieve self-awareness and be unable to overcome it.

There was a YouTube conversation that perfectly captures this theory—I have no idea whether Andrew Barrett was connected to the edit, but he has understood the logic behind it correctly.

So, in order to create a character of MacGruber capable of self-growth and learning lessons, Saturday Night Live edited “racial sensitivity training.” In other words, rather than face up to an unpleasant but measurable truth about racism in America and white privilege, an organization dedicated to satire (and which busily satirizes Trump, who is notoriously incapable of learning or self-improvement) willfully scrubbed it free from racism.

Reordering episodes in a sketch about racial sensitivity in a way that ultimately absolves the central white character of racism (the sensitivity training… worked?) is ironic, and depressing, but in its own way, it underlines a deeper truth about America. We can’t imagine ourselves as anything other than part of a progressive redemption narrative. Maybe if we were to recognize our flaws and accept them at face value, we could begin to work on a way forward, together. If we don’t, we’ll keep resorting to pepper spray.

How a protest becomes a revolution

Revolutions always start slow and local, as protests. They always involve some specific act of injustice, such as the act of self-immolation that kicked off the Arab Spring. There is anger and rage on the part of the population. Let’s say it’s justifiable anger, and comprehensible, valid rage, which is easy to identify because what one feels upon seeing what led to the protests is a sense of empathy and kinship. Like the killing of George Floyd. Nobody watches that video and thinks to themselves “that’s right, that’s okay.”

Euromaidan revolution of dignity, February, 2014. Photo via Wikimedia, by В.Власенко

Then, as was the case in New Haven, peaceful citizens rally in a sign of solidarity, but also to make their collective voice and presence heard. Politicians take protests seriously, whether they do anything about it or not. It takes a lot to get someone to interrupt their routine and endanger themselves by violating laws or ordinances by taking to the street. People don’t rally or protest for no reason. A crowd of 1,000 is hard to put together on a cold winter day when individuals could be inside, or on a warm spring day when they could be enjoying a day off at a park or beach. There are many more reasons not to form up in a group with a bunch of strangers, than to become one with the masses.

What happens next depends a great deal on law enforcement. Sometimes protests turn into riots—if the injustice is sufficiently great, and the numbers of people sufficiently large, there is some looting and burning, carried out both by angry citizens, and a small number of people with more malicious motives. If the police and military are able to contain and absorb that popular fury—nonviolently—and politicians promise to pass laws that will lead to meaningful change, the protests slowly or quickly subside. Widespread employment helps—if one needs to get back to work, if one has a place to go on Monday, a family depending on you for bread, protesting is always going to take a back seat to the practical requirements of one’s normal life.

If the police and military overreact and begin hurting or killing people, protests and riots spread, and become violent. As the police and military contribute bad or negative energy to crowds—which thrive on positive or negative energy—they grow and become more violent themselves.

The great danger of police and military violence is that meeting the protests with bullets, gas, and batons risks killing more protesters. And when that happens, one has a new impetus for protests, a new anger at injustice, a new cause. Each person who is killed or hurt protesting provides fuel for the protests to grow in size, and as the energy becomes increasingly negative. A desire for retribution begins to replace what was initially a call for reform—vengeance takes center stage. Ultimatums are issued.

In Ukraine, in 2013-14, the protests at Maidan square took on a life of their own when the police started shooting protesters. Those unarmed Ukrainian civilians became heroes, and political requests by the crowd became political demands from the people of Ukraine. The brutalization of journalists and students in Kyiv and the killings that followed did far more to turn Maidan into a national movement than the demands they directed at their political administration. Ukrainians were used to being told no, and not getting their way, and having to listen while corrupt oligarchs dictated the terms of their lives. Seeing their children and mouthpieces beaten and murdered was a bridge too far.

Once a sufficient number of protesters have been killed, the protests and riots pass beyond the ability of the state to control them. That is the moment at which they become a revolution. In Ukraine this never actually happened—what happened there was the president, Viktor Yanukovych, scared at the possibility that he would be forced out of power and handed over to an angry mob—forced to face justice—simply fled the country, abdicating his position and abandoning the people he’d sworn to lead. New people came into power, but no lasting political changes were accomplished.

Similar with the Arab Spring—some political changes were made, at least for a time, but when the Muslim Brotherhood won the first legitimate elections held by the state in years, the military stepped in to restore power to its traditional owners.

Great violence followed in the wake of both Ukraine’s “Euromaidan Revolution” and the Arab Spring—violence that continues to this day in Libya and Syria, and also in Ukraine, which lost control over Crimea to Russia and is continuing to fight in the east of their country against Russian-backed separatists.

Protests turn into riots, spread, and at a certain point, can turn into a revolution, which stands a very low chance of actually effecting positive and lasting political change.

At each step of the way, it’s possible to avoid creating the conditions in which protests grow and spread. This depends largely on what is done with the police and the military, and the attitude and actions of a country’s political leadership. Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mobarak, who died recently of old age, stepped down from his position after 11 days of protests in Egypt. Viktor Yanukovych is still in exile somewhere outside Moscow, living off the cash and gold he looted on his way out of Ukraine.

According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has spent some time hiding in a bunker, and a quick evaluation of his Twitter timeline offers no evidence of a sane and mature leader taking steps to dispel the protests’ energy—rather, he seems hell-bent on creating more problems and blaming others. If he continues with this strategy, which rarely works for a leader in the short run and never, ever leads to stability in the long run—Trump’s current refusal to empathize with the protests or protesters and refusal to attempt to head them off in person, combined with a doubling or tripling down on the use of violence to resolve the problems, will help the protests and riots continue to grow and spread, and America will totter and stumble into an easily avoided revolution from which it will be difficult to extract itself with honor and dignity.

It’s Skunk Time

We have a skunk in our yard, now. It lives in an area beyond our fence, overgrown with weeds, vines, and thorns, and it navigates its way in each morning to hunt for grubs, grunting and snuffling through the long green grass as is its portly habit. We don’t begrudge it its meals, nor do we attempt to interrupt its course; we simply endeavor not to provoke its impressive tail. The skunk is part of our natural habitat, and we are only incidentally a part of its habitat, no matter how many houses or condominiums go up in the town of Branford, Connecticut.

There are skunks abroad, too—it seems to be the time for them. I’m talking here about the misguided and ludicrous attempt by a handful of former Army special forces veterans at loose ends, and a mob of disgruntled military defectors to topple the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Emailed or texted to me from veterans across the political spectrum—progressives like myself, centrists furious with how the Trump administration is smearing America’s good name by sanctioning or tacitly condoning groups like Silvercorp, and conservatives who want the coup carried out by active duty special operations with support from the Navy and Air Force—the bumbling failure has occasioned mirth and merriment from all, and gone some way to breaking down barriers erected by political grandstanding.

No comedy would be complete without a fool as its central character, and Jordan Goudreau delivers. A grifter who got his start peddling private security to schools in the aftermath of Parkland, Goudreau’s vision extended much further than protecting a bunch of boring, needy kids. There’s no glory in that. No, Goudreau had his sights on a world-historical gesture; indeed, during a strange video interview, he referenced Alexander the Great in describing his motivations for initiating the assault. It wasn’t Gaugamela, he isn’t Alexander, and his mission will go down in history as a farce that makes the Bay of Pigs invasion look deft by comparison.

(An aside: King Alfred the Great’s defense of Wessex from the Danes starting within the swamps of North Petherton would have been a better historical reference point, even though it would mean inverting Maduro (the man seen as legitimate political leader of Venezuala by a majority of Venezualans) and Juan Guaido (a man supported primarily by foreign powers, including our own, the U.S.))

Goudreau’s absurd attempt to hustle his way to becoming the military leader of an entire country doesn’t come from nowhere. Yes, he’s a grifter whose specific con is violence. Yes, he’s successful enough in a certain context to parlay his military connections into security gigs for President Trump, as recorded in a typically wonderful Bellingcat piece (another side note: Bellingcat established that Russian led separatists shot down flight MH-17 over Ukraine! Eat the whole fucking thing, don’t just eat the parts you like, Russia). Yes, he has the ambitions of an Alexander or a Julius Caesar… yes. And in America, today, a man with that kind of vision and pride, that appetite for power, let’s call it by its name, is in precisely the correct place to fill his ambitions. This is the America of freedom, of getting wealthy. The War on Terror has furnished a population of well-trained warriors who have been indoctrinated into the redemptive potential of murder in the name of God, or America. And the exploitative and specialized economy has made it so that even in the best of times when those warriors try to find an honest job, a vessel into which to pour their skill and strength, they’re mostly limited to jobs in law enforcement, private security, and shadier overseas work that pays extremely well, and leaves one to care for the cost of PTSD and any other injury that’s incurred when (or if) one gets home.

Even that, the modern American mercenary economy, is a kind of pyramid scheme. What Goudreau had in the back of his head when he established SIlvercorps was probably Erik Prince’s glimmering (and lucrative) intelligence and armed empire, formerly called Blackwater and currently called Academi (names shift in this business, staying one step ahead of whatever catastrophe or moral outrage the mercenaries have stumbled into at the moment) sounds good enough when you’re signing up: $150,000 a year to drive a truck through the desert? $200,000 for 6 months of work securing a compound outside Tripoli from disorganized militias? Comrades who had successful careers or stints with the Rangers, the SEALs, or, like Goudreau, the Green Berets? What’s the downside?

One downside is that those companies don’t owe their employees or contractors medical care after service. Another is that going to Iraq or Yemen or—in this case—Venezuala as a mercenary might mean you get paid, and might mean you get nothing. There are other, smaller annoyances, such as being hung out to dry completely when a mission goes south, as the Green Berets in Venezuala are about to discover.

Finally, serving in the U.S. military affords you some essential social credibility—legal credibility too, yes, but more importantly, you’re taking part in something that the entire country is engaged in. That, whether one likes it or not (many don’t) is the ultimate price of living in a democratic system, with elections: ultimately, whether you voted for the president or not, he’s your president, and the things done in America’s name belong to each and every American in equal portion. This is why although I protested against invading Iraq, I also joined the military after our invasion. This is why I didn’t vote for George W. Bush, but accepted my commission from a deputy of his. When a democratic country decides to act, there is some legal accountability that resides in every citizen. Not even captive subservience to two corporate and self-interested institutions like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party can totally erase that essential truth—a truth that separates the U.S. from men like Jordan Goudreau.

And there have always been lunatics like Goudreau in U.S. history. Aaron Burr, the former Vice President famous for killing Alexander Hamilton, later set out to build an empire with 60 adventurers (similar numbers to those trained and led by Goudreau’s SIlvercorp comrades). Millennial protestant evangelical Christianity combined with the cult of liberty and seasoned with radical capitalism have and will always lead certain people, covetous of power, to stab at prominence. Elizabeth Holmes, Bernie Madoff. Warren Buffet. The books are full of successful world-devourers, and some, like Jeff Bezos, even own their own newspapers. Why wouldn’t they continue to emerge?

Still, there’s something peculiar about Goudreau emerging now, specifically, and being able to go as far as he did. Prince emerged from the Bush administration, and a war in Iraq that had spiraled far beyond what even disinterested and distant architects like Rumsfeld and Bremer had imagined. Dick Cheney, the Vice President, with ties to Halliburton and KBR—companies worth billions, that provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of service to the U.S. military every year to this day—was Erik Prince’s template. Cheney was (and is) the sort of parasitical beast who makes wars to make money—whose greatest ambition is to have a bigger Cadillac Escalade than his neighbor, to have a wall full of plaques, to be feared because of his wealth. Prince started out with a lot, and cannot be described as a “self-made man,” but he did something with that wealth—he saw an opportunity, and was, in his own way, a man “of his time.” He built a contracting company, a brand, and it makes him a lot of money. It gets him a seat at the table with the big boys.

Prince built an evil institution whose very purpose is an anti-enlightenment, anti-humanist affront to the democratic American project. Mercenary groups that allow governments to wage war without invoking war, without voting, without deliberation and assent. He did so at a time when the democratic project was busily being undermined by corporations at every turn, when large multinational corporations were laying the legal groundwork for Citizen’s United.

Goudreau, too, is a “man of his time,” every bit as much as Prince was of his. Goudreau’s gambit to overthrow Venezuala must certainly have been tolerated by Colombia’s government, which is to say, it must have been tolerated by the CIA, and the State Department, and the United States. We can say without being conspiratorial or indulging in fantasy that an operation like this, tweeted at the White House while ongoing, was something that was known, if not actively supported. Goudreau is one of those people who rises to power, if he can seize it, when there is no central authority saying that one cannot do so. Trump, a meglomaniacal narcissist who shits on a gold toilet, is Goudreau’s model, in the same way that Cheney is Prince’s.

There is a poem by W.S. Merwin, in his 1967 collection The Lice, called “The Last One.” In it, a desire to cut down an entire forest unleashes an malignant force that overcomes everyone who comes up against it—that force, which is not nature, is the very greed that propelled people to cut the forest in the first place. Here’s a section from the end:

Well the next day started about the same it went on growing.
They pushed lights into the shadow.
Where the shadow got onto them they went out.
They began to stomp on the edge it got their feet.
And when it got their feet they fell down.
It got into eyes the eyes went blind.
The ones that fell down it grew over and they vanished.
The ones that went blind and walked into it vanished.
The ones that could see and stood still
It swallowed their shadows.
Then it swallowed them too and they vanished.

We are at a precarious moment in American history, with our people, with our laws, with our ways. Humanity is precarious, because people die—good people die, evil people die, and the only way to circumvent this fact and create history is to make something capable of enduring beyond death (“the shadow”). Donald Trump is, whether he knows it or not, telling men like Jordan Goudreau that they should aspire to godhood, and that these dreams of dominion are sufficient to protect them from failure and catastrophe. They can’t, and won’t.

A Means to an End

A plot of land in my home town between I-95 and Route 1 has been under development for about thre years. When developers started in on it, I was irritated that the place was going to be torn up for no apparent good reason. During my lifetime—and maybe even before that—the plot had been a series of massive granite boulders, bramble, and trees, unsuitable for cultivation, forestry, or business. It served a dual purpose as land that could be turned into something of economic or social viability, and also, less importantly, as home to dozens of common birds and squirrels.

Now, most of the trees have been cut, the brambles cleared, the land leveled, and the mighty, massive granite stones are systematically being turned into high piles of gravel and fill for other development projects. The land is being made useful for economic purpose—a grocery store perhaps, or a place to get gadgets fixed.

A development project on Route 1 in Connecticut is just another means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.

From the perspective of the developer, who owns a plot of land on Route 1, it’s easy to see why the trees and boulders and brambles had to go—no value was being created. Probably, he was paying taxes on the land. Probably, he saw Route 1 as a convenient place for economic development: cars and motorcycles pass by, while trucks transit I-95 from the other side. What more could a developer, what more could a businessman ask for?

From the perspective of the town’s treasurer and its chamber of commerce—a perspective shared by some of the town’s citizens—a development project and the business that follows is the bottom line, it’s the object. Life begins when one has something undeveloped on which to build, and, on a certain level, it culminates when that thing has been developed and turned into a profitable business. One measures this progress by checking the town’s budget: how much tax it has collected, versus how much tax it needs. My town is not special in that it functions like this, many towns do. Many towns must, in the United States of America, and in Europe, and in many other places, too. It’s a condition of the modern world.

Driving by the development site recently, I noticed that work had been put on pause; like so many other projects across the world, halted by the spread of COVID-19. Half-made into whatever it will become, the once-whole rocks scraped and broken by human ingenuity, gravel piled high, the area reminded me not so much of its potential, but of an irreversible decision to move from one state to another, progress, change, the urge to do something rather than nothing—and for what?

***

The climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, in which lawful Batman is pushed to the limit by an amoral and anarchistic Joker, involves a prisoner’s dilemma-style trial. Two ferryboats, one full of citizens, a ‘good’ boat, and another of prisoners, a ‘bad’ boat, are rigged with explosives, and authorities on each boat are given the means to detonate the other boat. Joker provides instructions to the boats: each will be able to rescue themselves only by destroying the other boat. If neither boat destroys the other, Joker himself will sink both boats at midnight.

By the time midnight rolls around, and the boats have elected not to destroy each other, Batman has arrived to stop Joker from detonating them both. External action is needed to preserve the lives of the people on the boat, but that was also always going to be true, two boats full of people can’t defeat Joker physically, they can only thwart his plan by refusing to play by the rules.

It is this refusal that is interesting, this deliberate choice not to act, not to destroy in order to preserve. On a moral level, acting to destroy is, in fact, the worst thing one can do. Still, the audience and the people on the boats understand that there is some hope for them; they can act to destroy the other boat and through this horrible act, at least preserve their own lives. “Noone wants to get their hands dirty,” a nameless civilian trapped on the ‘good’ ferry says with a minute to go before midnight. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He stands up, and rationalizes why he ought to sink the other boat, takes the detonator from a captain in the national guard, looks up at the clock, hesitates, and then—nothing. He lays the detonator down in its case, and returns to his seat. He and everyone else on the boat are now resigned to their fates

This is the true climax of the movie—the rest of it is a series of plot resolutions and exposition on the significance of what the audience has observed. Two groups of people decide not to murder in a way that benefits them—not to “take action”—and in so doing they both save and condemn themselves.

***

The startling scenes of heroic inaction in Batman: The Dark Knight are among the film’s most moving. There is a cost, a sacrifice being made—but it is truly selfless; a willingness to have the self destroyed in an unpleasant and painful way, in order to preserve some hypothetical moral integrity for the self. Of all the strange and extraordinary moments in the movie—the explosions, the exciting tricks and gadgets deployed by Batman and his allies, the clever plans and counter-plans, the threats and deaths and carnage—the prisoner’s choice is the part that most stands out, that defies expectations.

In the logic of the movie, we understand the civilians and the prisoners can’t blow each other up, it makes no sense, but in our own personal lives, we know the opposite is true. We know that America invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, and Japan after Pearl Harbor, we know that Israeli special operations hunted down Nazis for prosecution and revenge, we know that it doesn’t take a deranged madman holding us prisoner to want righteous vengeance. We know, too, that what is necessary in a situation like that is action, is to do something quickly, decisively, and heroically—and that we’ll sort out the mess afterwards.

Someone needs to get their hands dirty.

***

The quarantine that has stopped so much economic activity around the world is confusing precisely because it cuts against what we expect to have to do. The heroic sacrifice to which people are accustomed, the grand gesture, that’s not needed. Quarantine threatens the underlying assumptions we’ve held about what constitutes good or productive behavior. Sacrifice is supposed to be long hours at work, a bigger house, a successful career. Heroes are recognizable by their acts; doctors and nurses without enough PPE to go around, or multinational CEOs who have efficiently commanded their own time and that of others to create value.

Sacrifice is not supposed to be nothing, and quarantine is precisely and exactly that, nothing. Not going out, not buying, not shopping. Not “self-improvement,” not education—it can be those things, but isn’t necessarily, the end of quarantine is simply the negation of public activity, or, otherwise, inactivity. Quarantine doesn’t involve developing land, or building (unless it’s building temporary capacity in hospitals), or making deals. Sacrifice, like action, is supposed to be tied to progress in some economically measurable way; the stock market going up, or a country getting stronger. It’s not just sharing hardship—that, by itself, is attached to and signifies nothing. Quarantine is nothing, and entails a sacrifice of negation.

More than anything, the unsettling position in which Americans find themselves now, of having to do “nothing” while the economy slows and one’s job becomes precarious or is deemed redundant, explains why there’s so much enthusiasm for an end to the quarantine, in spite of the death and illness such an action might cause. People—Americans in particular, to judge from my town and surroundings—are accustomed to “doing,” to “getting things done.” The entire economy and culture is geared to this way of thinking, from one’s professional life, to one’s family, to how one productively spends one’s vacation seeing notable sights, or having useful experiences. The economy depends on this activity, and individuals depend on this activity, as well. It is how the world goes around, especially an economically and socially interconnected world, a global world rather than a local or parochial or individual world.

But what is needed now is inaction, forbearance, husbanding one’s resources (and family). The urge to get back to work, to become productive, has been exposed not as heroic or useful, but selfish—solipsistic—and in the current context, counterproductive. What does that say about the system, writ large? This pandemic is part of life, pandemics (far worse) have occurred before in human history, we are not living in an exceptional moment. Shutdown is normal, and it isn’t evil or awful. It simply is.

Going back to work will solve nothing, and could make the pandemic worse. Being productive is only likely to accelerate infection and death, but that’s not a revelation that’s natural to us. We do not understand that the means to our survival lies in embracing a way of life and moral framework that’s completely counterintuitive. Or, we do know, and we fear that accepting that embrace, in the present, will mean learning something that cannot be unlearned—never, in other words, going back to the world as it was before COVID-19.

***

It’s not possible to make things whole again on that plot of land on Route-1 in Branford, Connecticut. It’s true that the area will serve no purpose for the foreseeable future: it can’t, nobody’s there to work the machines to clear the gravel or brush, and even if there were, there’s nowhere to move it—progress and commerce has stopped. What was land that served no use has become an industrial sore on the land, a reminder of a moment in time when someone thought it would be better to develop, to move and create, than to leave be, than to do nothing, for nothing’s sake. In the old world, before COVID-19, we thought inaction was a costly sin. In our current world, we’re learning that the opposite may be true.