There are a lot of bad takes coming out on the war. Two documents provide the background necessary to evaluate them.
Masha Gessen talks about how authoritarianism works in Russia in this extended interview by Anand Giridharadas. Gessen has experienced that authoritarianism first hand and now lives in the United States.
What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war. Since his Munich speech in 2007, there has been a constant and open insistence on re-establishing Russia as a great power and a refusal to recognize what’s referred to as the world order.
The other is an interview of Timothy Snyder by Ezra Klein. It’s a hour+ podcast, but it also has a transcript. Snyder is a historian of the region, with emphasis on the Second World War. Americans are accustomed to thinking about that war in terms of the Western Front. The Eastern Front was worse. What is happening in Ukraine now has continuities with that history. The interview starts with how we think about history. That’s important too for understanding what’s happening in Ukraine and the US. It’s long, but read it all.
And then this is connected to that kind of the difference between a mystical reality and lived experiential reality that we’re talking about before. Because what Putin is saying is that these people are Russians, but they don’t know it, they don’t know it. And they need to know it.
And so then that raises the question, what kind of violence, what kind of lengthy and terrible occupation would be needed for that, would be needed to transform tens of millions of people who think they are Ukrainians into Russians? And by the way, that’s the kind of thinking that Raphael Lemkin had in mind when he coined the word genocide. Genocide is not just about the mass attempt to murder every member of a group, as, of course, the extreme case of the Jewish Holocaust.
As an added bonus, reread my summary of Vladimir Putin’s own words. This morning I am recalling his referencing an extremely vile popular song. Listen when a person tells you who they are.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner