Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash.
A Faraway Country
A quarrel in a faraway country of which we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, September 1938
Most countries are faraway,
and what goes on in them
is not the stuff to keep us up at night,
fretting about things we can’t control.
We may feel sorry for minorities
that have been dealt a nasty hand,
for places where to speak your mind
or dare to question abuses by the regime
is to forfeit your freedom or your life,
and thank our lucky stars
for having being born where we are.
But in an electronic age,
when news flashes across the screen
in the twinkling of an eye,
and one sees an all too familiar scenario replayed,
tanks and heavy armament and cyber-tactics
about to be deployed,
an overbearing ruler who traffics in poison and in lies,
a neighbouring state whose people
have borne their share of horrors
in the recent past,
we cannot prudently avert our eyes.
The map of Europe is about to be redrawn
in a faraway country
where the sirens are sounding
even as we sleep.
The Spain of Our Generation
It seems so long ago,
those images from a forgotten war,
Madrid under siege, the International Brigades,
Jarama, Guernica, Homage to Catalonia,
a mere prelude to a greater horror shortly to unfold.
We had been spared such scenes,
at least in our cocooned and affluent West,
though if we deigned to cast our eyes afield,
scenes of butchery were all too often on display
in civil wars, military coups,
repression that could take a dozen different forms,
Suddenly our own world has been turned upside down,
waking each morning to video clips
from martyred Kharkiv and beleaguered Kyiv,
from bombarded Mariupol and occupied Kherson,
harried refugees steadily streaming West,
as we’re forced to come to terms
with the demon we thought we’d put to rest.
Is It Because?
Is it because there is so little heroic
about our ordinary lives,
that we had learned to place an inordinate price
on every personal gain or loss,
as though there were no higher purpose
or worthier cause?
Is it because we stand in awe
at those prepared to die without a second thought
for values for which our generation never really fought,
to see their homes and cities pulverized,
their loved ones forced abroad,
the better to resist a despot’s iron grasp?
Is it because, much to our surprise,
as we have watched the tale unfold,
we sense a burning need for solidarity
with those who’ve taught us
what matters most,
and what matters all for naught?
Pictures from an Invasion
Like a reprise of Goya’s sketches
or Otto Dix’s skeletal wartime drawings,
they flit across our screens,
shattered buildings with their entrails
scattered in the streets,
an eighteen-month old
with shrapnel in his throat
dying on the operating table,
dead soldiers frozen in the snow,
cellars with their huddled human targets,
rockets, shells exploding overhead,
carnage where hospital, schools,
and shopping malls once stood,
civilians learning how to load Kalashnikovs,
floods of refugees fleeing the bombardment,
and from the scrupleless invader
a steady stream of brazen lies.
The Russian Ark
The danger in dark times like these
is that the good will be consigned
pêle-mêle to purgatory,
Andrei Rublev’s iconic paintings,
Eugene Onegin with his Byronic mien,
Natasha, Prince Andrei, and Pierre,
Mussorgsky and Scriabin,
The Cherry Orchard, the poets of Russia’s silver age,
Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
Only the indelible dark stains will remain,
Ivan the Terrible doing in his son,
the Grand Inquisitor in the Karamazov tale,
the sinister Odile and not the beloved Odette,
the infinite pain stored up within the Ark.
The Grand Inquisitor
You go into the world with some promise of freedom,
which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness
cannot comprehend, which they fear and dread.
— Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
So spake the Grand Inquisitor
in Dostoyevsky’s famous parable
where Christ, returning to earth in Seville
as fires of the autos-da-fé light up the sky,
is told in no uncertain terms
that the earthly church knows better what’s at stake
than the naive innocent crucified at Calvary.
that seems so scandalous to Alyosha,
Ivan’s angelic younger brother who hears it first,
and to many of Dostoyevsky’s Russian readers since,
aspiring to more than magic, mystery, and authority
for their misgoverned land.
Yet sad to admit,
the dour scribe penning his final novel in St. Petersburg
was not so far off the mark,
when half the planet – or is it two thirds? –
even in our age
bend their knees to a strongman at the top
with scarcely a second thought.
It had been a costly error from Day 1,
this bombing, strafing, murderous assault,
the thousands of fallen civilians
and combatants on both sides,
the horrific damage to no plausible end.
The camaraderie between kindred peoples
would be reborn,
the war damage, with due compensation, made good,
rival territorial claims resolved
through binding jurisdiction of the World Court,
Western sanctions lifted,
NATO itself dissolved,
Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus
candidate members for the EU.
Why This War?
There had been no shortage in recent years,
Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan,
Tigray, the Sahel, South Sudan,
yet this one hits home with rare intensity.
Is it because a Westphalian-type peace
has been shattered,
a major power crossing a red line,
its blatant act defying our moral code?
Or, as some would claim,
because the victims of the piece,
fair-skinned, blond hair, blue-eyed,
look more like us than others
who may have suffered just as much?
Or is it a question of cell phones,
social media, apps,
that bring missile attacks,
corpses lying in the streets,
bombed-out silhouettes of city blocks,
stirring speeches of a wartime president,
directly home to us?
Fortunate though we are
to have been spared such calamities in the flesh,
symbiotically this has now become our war.
A King is History’s Slave.
— Tolstoy, War and Peace
Have we been mistaken all along,
thinking the horror of the Ukraine war
is the Kremlin spymaster’s design,
pursuing a mad conceit to revive an empire
that had given up the ghost?
Perhaps larger forces have been in play,
eclipsing the great man view of history,
much as the chronicler of 1812 had foretold
in the conclusion to his epic work.
The ebb and flow of history through ten long centuries
has put its own harsh stamp on Muscovy and Kyiv,
ensuring that the one would forcefully engage
and the other struggle to get free,
while Clio set the pace,
remaining the ultimate arbiter of destiny.
Killed as he escaped, Elisei is one of 200 child victims.
— BBC Website, April 19
He would have been fourteen in May,
a humble, helpful boy, not into fighting,
killed as the Russians,
having given the family permission to leave their town
and wished them luck,
opened fire on the car without compunction.
His picture graced his coffin,
a smiling kid with pleasant features,
a life still waiting to unfold,
one more exhibit in the chamber of horrors
spawned by the spymaster’s unprovoked invasion
of a neighbouring land.
The secret of great epics,
at least those oral in derivation,
like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, or the Kalevala,
is that a few chosen phrases
will be repeated time and time again.
The tragic secret of wars,
great or small,
is that the same brutality
and disregard for ethical considerations
will be repeated time and time again.
* inspired in part by a passage in Amartya Sen’s
wide-ranging memoir Home in the World
The Lavrov Doctrine
Our special military operation in Ukraine contributes
to the process of freeing the world from the neocolonial
oppression of the West.
— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, April 30, 2022
What dupes we had been all these months,
we naive camp followers in the west,
taken in by images of death, destruction, Gotterdammerung,
by the rhetoric of the neocolonial regime in Kyiv,
goading on its NATO masters to keep delivering arms,
and imposing an American-centric model of the world order
True to its messianic roots,
Orthodox, Soviet – take your pick,
Russia has been engaged in a salutary enterprise all along,
freeing the misbegotten lot
in Grozny, Aleppo, Belarus, and now Little Russia too
from whatever false illusions had blocked their path.
The oppressors can only be the West,
the liberators those who follow their version
of the age-old imperial script
of brandishing naked power
and sanctifying it with the doublespeak of peace.