“All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”
— Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
In the early morning hours of Thursday, February 24, the country of Ukraine was invaded on three sides by Russian troops.
Russian president Vladimir Putin accomplished the neat trick by first declaring the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the regions within the borders of Ukraine with sizeable Russian separatist movements.
Drawing from a gathered force of 190,000 soldiers previously amassed along the farms and forests on Ukraine’s borders, Putin sent ahead advance forces, which he called peacekeepers, into the two regions.
The invasion had begun.
Twelve hours later and 4775 miles away in the newspaper offices of Hudson Valley One, publisher Geddy Sveikauskas reminisced.
“One of my first memories was of bombs falling. The Russians had invaded Lithuania, and my family had ended up in Manchester [northern England], which would be bombed by the Germans. I remember the air-raid sirens and the family trek to the nearby bomb shelter. My twin brother and I were small babies, and our mother assured us the sound was just the cows mooing. The sky was lit up by searchlights. Then the sound of planes. First the German bombers and then the British Spitfires to oppose them. And there was this sound when the bombs were dropped. The German planes left, the Spitfires returned to base, the searchlights turned off, and the cows stopped mooing. The house across the street was destroyed one night, and two people died.”
There are not many people left who remember the sounds of World War II. Unless they see the news coverage on the television, most Americans may only feel the ripples of this latest distant conflict through the prices at the gas pumps.
The national patriotic impulse here in America has been bifurcated. Part of one political party has kowtowed most strangely to the autocratic invader across the Atlantic.
Video footage from the July 16, 2018 summit in Helsinki simulcasting the former American president Donald Trump defending Vladimir Putin against our own intelligence agencies’ accusations, resonates strongly at this hour.
So does the Munich agreement, reached among England, France and Italy in 1938, which permitted the annexation of a portion of Czechslovakia to appease Germany’s appetite for more territory.
There were many people of German blood, proud in their culture in that portion of what is now the Czech Republic, just as there are many people of Russian blood proud in their culture now in those regions of Ukraine which have gone uncontested by the international community, to appease Putin’s appetite for more territory. Appeasement now as it was then, to avert a greater war.
And so a country disappears from the map, one slice at a time.
Natasha Rasek, a video editor in Kingston, was born in Moscow. She was nine years old when an attempted coup took place.
“It was summertime. I was at the dacha [cottage] with my grandparents. In Russia, since no one was allowed to travel abroad, in the summertime everybody in Moscow would leave the city for the country instead. We were about an hour and a half away, about the distance from New York City to Kingston. There was a TV, there was a radio. There was no telephone. Gorbachev was president and he was at his dacha, too, somewhere near the Black Sea. We wake up in the morning, and when we’re having breakfast my grandma would always have the radio on. And I remember my grandmother turning through the channels looking for news but there’s nothing but classical music on every station. She turned on the television, which had about four or five channels in those days, and on every channel is a ballet. My mother had stayed behind in Moscow at the time, working, and she said she saw tanks roll down the street. Near our apartment there was a telephone exchange and the tanks had bent sent there to secure the telephone exchange. What had happened, a bunch of Old-Guard Communists declared a state of emergency. and declared themselves to be the emergency committee, of course.”
After the Vietnam War, our own military has learned to restrict video and photograph of actual suffering as efficiently as an industrial pig farm.
Every now and then, war correspondents like Christiane Amanpour have managed to cut through the polish. But by and large the struggles of the nations of the world remain distant, across the oceans.
Kingston digital consultant Zac Shaw remembers the morning of September 11, 2001 in New York City: “I saw the smoke, I was there when the towers fell. Everything. But the strange part about it, you know, it was like I didn’t really believe it had happened. Until I saw it later on TV. Then I believed it.”
As we stand inside our own valley looking out across the Atlantic, it’s good to recall the opinion that one should never blame the people for the actions of their leaders. It’s just cynicism to say people get the leaders they deserve.