I wasn’t planning to write about Ukraine this week. If you’re looking for a newsletter with expert commentary about Ukraine, I recommend Ian Bremmer’s GZERO World.
That said, images from the last week of individual defiance are seared into my brain:
-The Ukrainian woman who insisted that Russian soldiers take her sunflower seeds and put them in their pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow from the ground on which they die.
-The so-called “Battle of Snake Island,” in which a Russian Navy ship ordered the border guards on a tiny island to surrender, and one of the guards replied: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Audio of the encounter was posted online, and went viral. (The border guards were initially reported dead, but subsequent reports suggest that they were taken as prisoners.)
-The Ukrainian president — a comedian and actor until a few years ago — posting videos to say “I am still here,” and responding to the U.S. offer of evacuation with: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
WHAT WOULD TOLSTOY SAY?
With each image like that, my mind returns to Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. Given that it’s more than 150 years old, I think it’s fair to share spoilers.
As Henry James said, the book contains “all of life.” And yet, as it goes on, a specific agenda emerges: War and Peace is an argument against the so-called “Great Man Theory” of history. That is, the idea that most people have no effect on the world, and it’s really a tiny number of geniuses or heroic leaders who turn the gears of history.
Tolstoy, who in the 1850s served in the Crimean War, went to great lengths to argue the opposite — that history should be studied not as a series of brilliant decisions by a small number of geniuses, but more like calculus: the summation of an infinite number of small actions that together produce change. He used historical documents and battleground visits to show that, throughout the Napoleonic wars, a top commander’s strategy was rarely carried out faithfully by actors on the ground, who had to improvise repeatedly. In many cases, commanders issued orders that were simply impossible to follow.
In this light, insisting that history is being written only via the decisions of those few military geniuses makes no sense. Tolstoy argued that historians believed the "Great Man Theory" only because they focused on the plans and letters that generals (particularly their own country’s generals) left behind.
In War and Peace, Napoleon is the embodiment of this phenomenon. By the time reports of battlefield events went up the chain of command and reached him, they were already old; he would then issue new orders based on that old information; by the time the new orders got back to the battlefield, they were completely irrelevant; new reports were then sent back to Napoleon, and the cycle of irrelevant commands and useless reports would repeat.
One of the unusual heroes in the book is a Russian general who — realizing the futility of trying to choreograph action that is the accumulation of many rapid individual decisions — decided to just say that things are going according to plan, and prioritized troop morale and a good night’s sleep for his soldiers.
Tolstoy unrelentingly points out how the actions of supposedly singular geniuses like Napoleon are less significant than they believe; he emphasizes the impact that individuals on the ground can sometimes have in war, especially when they react quickly — almost unthinkingly. Those individuals don’t have a grand strategy, but happen to respond in a moment when their action can galvanize the spirit of a much larger group. It isn’t even what the individual intends, but by chance, their spirit spreads like a contagion.
In one battle in War and Peace, Russian soldiers are beginning to panic and fall into disarray, when a single man charges out of the forest at the advancing French with “wild and drunken zeal,” armed with nothing but a sword. The French are stunned by the reckless act, and the moment of pause halts the snowballing Russian panic.
THE IMAGES FROM UKRAINE
I wonder how each of the heroic images coming from Ukraine will impact the spirit of people across the country, and in neighboring countries, and around the world. Perhaps they will just be viral pictures and videos, and that will be it. Or perhaps they will (or already did) engender the larger, ineffable collective spirit that Tolstoy described.
As Russian-born American journalist Julia Ioffe explained to Stephen Colbert: Ukrainians have only had experience with democracy “for a couple decades, and look how hard they’re fighting for it.”
OTHER RESOURCES (AND THINK BEFORE YOU SHARE PICS)
A lot of images and videos purportedly from the current fighting in Ukraine are burning around social media, and a lot of them are actually older, or from other places. So be careful what you share. It's hard to be perfect, but it's easy to do a little quick checking and lower your error rate. On that point, and in general, here are a few resources I’ve found interesting or useful:
-If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a great time to learn how to reverse image search before you share a picture. Here’s a very simple explainer.
-Again, Ian Bremmer’s GZERO World is an informative newsletter. I started reading GZERO World before this week, but didn’t realize how long Ian has been covering pertinent issues. Over the weekend, I came upon his 1994 journal article: “The Politics of Ethnicity: Russians in the New Ukraine.” Ian seems highly attuned to complexity. I appreciated this line toward the end of the paper: “Piecing together a Ukrainian interethnic picture on the result of one set of all-Ukraine data is somewhat like taking an average temperature reading in a hospital, where the mean hides the extremes.”
-A few years ago, I read Garry Kasparov’s 2015 book on Putin, Winter Is Coming. It feels very prescient right now, and the ebook is on sale for $2.99.
-Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, is an extraordinary deep dive into Putin’s life and motivations. It’s also an interesting warning regarding interpreting stories about Putin, since so many of them were seeded or altered by him. (Every interview with Fiona Hill is its own little history lesson. Here's a fascinating — and harrowing — interview that published yesterday.)
-Novaya Gazeta is reportedly one of Russia’s few remaining independent news sources. Last year, the head editor won a Nobel Peace Prize. You can hit the translate button and read it here. If you saw the viral footage of a captured Russian officer, you can read Novaya Gazeta’s interview with that officer’s sister.