Silence and Compassion
“A mere aristocracy of wealth will never struggle while it can hope to bribe a tyrant.”
—Progress & Poverty, Henry George, 1879
There are things I can’t say.
I was talking a few days ago with friends asking about my father’s current situation in Russia and wrote that I realized “my entire life has been tangled up with a thread of knowing that there are some things you can’t talk about, even in private phone calls or messages, because of the risk to yourself or others.”
And how strange that must seem. And how a strong urge to avoid telling people what to think or how to feel (despite having strong opinions about what people should think or how they should feel) is born out of a lot of things, one of them being the experience of going about your daily business knowing there’s a government tap on your phone. Not “the government is spying on everyone” but an actual, targeted, individual tap. On your phone. Listening to your own private conversations.
Now we have end-to-end encryption for the masses, and still my cousin in Moscow publicly posts her love for Ukraine and outrageously courageous critiques, calls to resist. “I can’t seem to come to my senses,” she writes. “I am still trying to find bits of optimism in myself.”
This isn’t about Russia because it’s about Ukraine, but in a way it is about Russia because as Chris La Tray wrote on his newsletter yesterday, we Americans are the Russians. But in truth we’re all Russia, and Ukraine, and Syria, and so many other places, at once. Everywhere, really. I can’t say it better than Chris:
“We are trying to view it as good vs. evil and it just isn’t that. We are part of it, whether we like it or not. It is something we do to ourselves and each other over and over again. Are we recognizing this? Will we be the ones to turn the tide? I’m not inclined to think so.”
I looked at Netflix the other day because my mother told me about the show that the current Ukrainian president had once starred in, Servant of the People, about a teacher who accidentally gets elected president. And then Netflix auto-showed me the trailer for its new show about Vikings, and I just couldn’t. I can’t anymore. With the glorified violence, no matter how long ago and no matter how well produced with actors who, as the Danish Nordic Animism scholar Rune Rasmussen has put it, “look like underwear models.” How many millions of people over how many millennia have been exhausted and damaged and killed by wars they had no choice in? No amount of dressing up broody, muscular blond men in furs changes the reality that war ruins the lives of those who least deserve it. There is no glory in that, and no redemption either.
Longtime readers might remember my mentioning on a post a while back, maybe a year ago, my surprise at receiving a tiny book in the mail from a publisher called Isolarri. I’d never heard of them and still have no idea how I got on their subscription list, but yesterday got an email update that they are hosting a War Diary for one of their Ukrainian writers, Yevgenia Belorusets (author of their Isolarri book Modern Animal*), who lives in Kyiv. On Sunday, she wrote:
“The fourth day of the war is over. Half the city is fighting against the normalization of violence that is knocking on every door. War also tests us to see if we have even a touch of compassion for those sent here to murder.”
In the book I’m currently reading, Konstantin Kustanovich’s Russian and American Cultures, he writes of Fyodr Dostoevsky and other Slavophile-adjacent “Men of the Soil,” who claimed that Russians had a unique capacity for compassion because they have a unique connection to Christ born of their centuries of slavery, oppression, and suffering. Perhaps the reality, writes Kustanovich, is that Russians’ capacities for both compassion and cruelty come not from any religious root but from those very centuries of suffering.
I’m inclined to think we all have that mix in us. Poke back far enough and nearly everyone’s line has a history of suffering and oppression. Only a few, usually the perpetrators and certainly those who’ve benefited the most, are free from it, at least at a large-scale societal level. In their own homes I’m not so certain.
In Russian Orthodoxy, Kustanovich sees not Russia’s faith but its new center of nationalism, tracing the church’s religious practices back centuries to when its locus was in Kyiv and a struggle against Western influences began with a resistance to Latin and led to an enormous schism over symbols and spellings rather than essential teachings. (This was a bigger deal than I’m making it out to be; to this day there are Old Believer communities adhering to those beliefs, many of whose ancestors were driven out by tsars starting in 1652.)
“This suspicion, often even hatred, toward the West as the ultimate villain permeated Russian culture for centuries. . . . The legacy of these anti-Western attitudes remains overwhelming in today’s Russia, creating paranoia about Western intentions and determining Russian opinions and reactions in international politics.”
The battles we see are never only of their time. Every conflict has the fears and resentments and self-entitlement of a thousand years at its back.
*Isolarri is now offering Modern Animal for sale to non-subscribers, with all profits going to relief efforts in Ukraine. They describe the book as: “based on interviews that reveal the psychology and myth-making of Ukrainians living in the Donbas, it is a magical realist document of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Precisely what comes after auto-fiction.” I don’t know what auto-fiction is but I enjoyed the book.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
For no reason in particular (kidding) I reread last year’s excellent investigative report by Elisabeth Eaves for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on why the U.S. is investing billions of dollars in pre-outdated missiles and why they’re housed all over the sparsely populated American West.
A riveting essay on Aeon by Lilian Pearce about the lead-contaminated Australian mining town of Broken Hill and what it means to have a sense of home in a place that has been so abused by industry and capital: “A strong sense of place does not necessarily correlate with pro-environmental values. Sometimes we are pushed – even coerced – into complex, intimate forms of kinship with places. Sometimes these relationships are beneficial, or benign. But sometimes they can become dangerous or deadly under the influence of global systems of capital, power and the evasion of responsibility.”
An insurance company in Australia developed Climate Warriors, a Minecraft-based game that helps kids understand the coming consequences of climate change and lets them experiment with mitigation strategies in real time. (I hate that this is needed, but I do love what a useful tool Minecraft can be, like when people built a library for censored books in it.)
My spouse and I were catching up on Star Trek: Discovery and got to the episode where they have to pass through the Galactic Barrier. Confession: I’d never really thought about galaxies having an “edge.” This explanation from Space Australia helped me understand the dark matter and drop-off in star density, but also made me think the Star Trek depiction was highly fanciful. (Which is fine. I love Star Trek anyway. I don’t know where I got the idea that Discovery would be more scientifically accurate, considering that they travel using a made-up spatial mycelium network and also get stuck 900+ years in the future.)
Could we describe the relationships and proportions of the real world without imaginary numbers? Michael Brooks writing in Nautilus says that “what we’re discovering here is not some deep mystery about the universe, but a clear and useful set of relationships that are a consequence of defining numbers in various different ways.”
The Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast has a short interview with Evan Hadingham about his book Discovering Us: 50 Great Discoveries in Human Origins: “Our human ancestral line, it’s not one branch of a single tree. It’s more like a burgeoning bush or a braided stream. Just like any other species, there have been many experiments that failed along the way. Why should we expect ourselves to be any different?”
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case that might overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). I recommend again the second season of the podcast This Land that goes deep into the law, why it exists, and what is behind the push to overturn it.
Cambridge University has made its Ukraine papers free and open to the public until the end of March. Have at it.
Important post, Antonia. Thank you. For the most part, I agree that our capacity "for both compassion and cruelty come not from any religious root but from those very centuries of suffering." I'm reading about the Middle Ages right now, however, and a great deal of cruelty and compassion did come from organized religion—us versus them. Perhaps this is because people believed they had to fight for a cause more than they trusted the transforming kindness of faith. There is no them, only us.
"Not “the government is spying on everyone” but an actual, targeted, individual tap. On your phone. Listening to your own private conversations. Now we have end-to-end encryption for the masses, and still my cousin in Moscow publicly posts her love for Ukraine and outrageously courageous critiques, calls to resist. “I can’t seem to come to my senses,” she writes. “I am still trying to find bits of optimism in myself.”"
I feel obligated to speak anyway. Back during the Iraq war I got targeted by a tap on the plain old telephone because apparently, I kept shooting my mouth off in opposition. There have been a lot of difficult surveillance issues since then.
When I was a child there was my family, for a time, where I was the abused child and I had to not say anything about it, lest I get murdered for my trouble.
So I understand that guarded feeling.
i feel it right now