(The following is the Excerpt from The Twentieth Century Passes, a memoir of my father’s life)
By the time I was born, three of my grandparents were already dead. They had died young, in their early 60s, just before and after the birth of my sister ten years before me. My parents had had me, their third child, late for those days, my father at 42. The only grandparent my brother and I knew was Minnie, who had left Dad in infancy, as had her husband, Yoina, to travel to a new life in America. During my first decade, Minnie had already entered her 70s, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, the stocky block of her body, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her frequent Sunday visits to our Queens Village garden apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then, she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.
We felt no love for Minnie. We had, the three of us, very early on some idea of what she had not been to our father, and it would have been otherwise, anyway, not easily accomplished, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II. Minnie would arrive dutifully retrieved by my father, Mac, from her apartment off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to which he would return her, by car, at the end of the afternoon—two round trips of two-to-three hours each for every Sunday visit. Minnie would visit us along with her companion, Charlie, a large, round, gruff old American character with neatly parted and lacquered black hair and a fat cigar permanently chewed into the corner of his mouth. Imagine him beside Damon Runyon at a Jack Dempsey fight. Like everything else about the history of our family prior to our birth cries, we never got it entirely straight or clear from Mom, but apparently Charlie, who was some fair number of years younger than Minnie, was actually her first or second cousin, and her seduction of him away from a promising career (One must do uncounted mental crunches and endless stretching to imagine Minnie as seducer.) was a scandal in its day. Charlie was always friendly in his crusty way, but—he had, after all, shacked up with Minnie—also a being too foreign to contemplate for the suburban-ized children of Eisenhower’s America.
Minnie was odd and distant and vastly inappropriate. On every visit, we would be brought before her at the dining room table as if in presentation to an idiot Queen, all terse and awkward decorum, in anticipation, as it were, of a detached and senseless laugh. Minnie would beam a smile of grandmotherly pleasure upon us and fix somewhere on each face one of those gross, heavily smeared lipstick kisses of comic, Woody Allen reminiscence. There was no other effort at contact with us. What there was, until Minnie grew too old and the visits ceased, was the ritual of found-gift giving. Planted at the table, each grandchild in turn beside her, Minnie would reach into and draw out from large Alexander’s or Mays department store shopping bags a succession of soiled and broken toys that she had retrieved from the street: punctured rubber balls, wheel-less cars, half-used pencils, lone figurines, all held up with wonder before our eyes as if baubles brought from China. Sharyn, Jeffrey, and I would receive each gift in a manner of stupefied thanks, and then pass it to one parent, who would pass it to the other, who would next, for safekeeping, place the item into a bag, which would later, after Minnie’s departure, complete the cycle of its existence as a garbage bag finally to be disposed of. Gift giving over, we grandchildren would depart—to leave the adults to their adult time together—but not before being quietly directed to go to the bathroom to wash our hands.
For the remainder of my feature and all of the fine work by many authors at various stages of being given up to history, order your copy of Footnote: a Literary Journal of History.
It is fascinating to witness with events in Ukraine an enduring controversy of history in the making. Controversies arise all the time, of course, but some are drawn in more dramatic relief than others, and one of those is Ukraine, 2013-14. Most Western exponents of liberal democracy, of both right and left – by no means all – are adamant that Ukraine represents one more natural social outburst of the desire for freedom and democracy, and a rejection of the democratically-styled authoritarianism that is just one form of corrupt oligarchism. One needn’t dissent from this view to find many of the forces for good in these events, as they zealously and uncritically perceive themselves, to have been inept and, in part, opportunistic and blind causes of their own effect.
The opportunism lay in grasping at the chance to wrest Ukraine free from Russia’s domination, and to do so with so little apparent forethought or preparation or principled consistency. Join that incoherent rationale for Western behavior, both before and after the overthrow of Yanukovych, to what should have been the predictable motivation for Putin to react as he has and you have the grounds for the Russian president’s own opportunistic case and action – and for the predictabledefense of it on the Western farright and left.
In that last instance, Patrick L. Smith, at Salon, in “Propaganda, lies and the New York Times: Everything you really need to know about Ukraine” makes just the pro-Russian, anti-Western case the title promises. Like other Western-critic, Russia-rationalizers Smith goes heavy on rightist influence over the Ukrainian uprising.
The decisive influence of ultra-right extremists, some openly committed to an ideology of violence, some whose political ancestors sided with the Nazis to oppose the Soviets, is a matter of record. Svoboda and Right Sector, the two most organized of these groups, now propose to rise into national politics. Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, intends to run for president. The New York Times just described him as “an expert with firebombs” during the street protest period.
These people are thugs by any other name.
This is just one reason, says Smith, that “[t]he more I scrutinize it, the more the American case on Ukraine is held together with spit and baling wire.” Of course, it is not just the “American” case, but that is another topic. So is Smith anymore consistent that the American government he criticizes?
Next Sunday Crimeans will vote in a referendum as to whether they wish to break with the rest of Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The semi-autonomous region’s parliament has already voted to do so, and good enough that they put the thought to a popular vote.
But no. Self-determination was the guiding principle when demonstrators and pols with records as election losers pushed Yanukovych out and got done via a coup (I insist on the word) what they could not manage in polling booths. But it cannot apply in Crimea’s case. The Crimeans are illegitimate and have no right to such a vote.
“[G]ood enough that they put the thought to a popular vote”? So is Smith accepting events in Kiev as expressive, however extra-legal, of legitimate self-determination or not? Is he criticizing them or resorting to their example to justify the Crimean referendum? Both, we see, in a prime, if covert, example of the argumentative reversal. And somehow, in Smith’s own coup against reason, and his exposition of “everything you really need to know about Ukraine,” he does not tell us this:
The reaction to all this in Crimea does not appear to have been done democratically or by the book.
Armed men assumed to be Russian troops or pro-Russian militia stormed the Crimea Parliament building and locked it down. Anatoly Mogiliov, the president of Crimea, who is a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was ordered out.
In a session not open to the public, the Crimea parliament allegedly appointed Sergei Askyonov as prime minister of Crimea. Askyonov is a member of a small, obscure political group called from the Russian Unity Party, which won too few votes in parliamentary elections in 2012 to win even one seat in Kiev.
Nor, to balance his reporting on “ultra-right extremists” in Ukraine, does Smith include this, about the new Crimean prime minister, in “everything”:
“He wasn’t a criminal big shot,” said Andriy Senchenko, now a member of Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna party, which was at the forefront of the Kiev protests that led last month to the downfall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych. Senchenko described Aksyonov as a “brigade leader” in a gang that was often involved in extortion rackets.
While Senchenko is not unbiased — his party opposes Aksyonov’s push for Crimea to become part of Russia — the editor of the region’s main pro-Russian newspaper, Crimean Truth, also accused Aksyonov of being in a criminal gang. Mikhail Bakharev made the allegations five years ago, when Aksyonov first emerged on Crimea’s political scene.
Well, so everybody in the pristine realm of national and international power politics will have dirty targets at which to aim a crooked figure. But at least everyone is consistent in principle in how they shape and against whom they direct their arguments, yes? Clearly, no. Among the many consequences of Western carelessness in Ukraine is the opportunity for the Putins and the Smiths to so muddy the waters over the issue of legitimacy.
Was the just completed Crimean referendum legitimate? Was the Ukrainian parliamentary vote to remove Yanukovych from office – compelled by the threat of the streets – legitimate? What constitutes governmental legitimacy? What warrants action to remove by extra-legal action a presiding government, previously recognized as legal? In whom rests the authority to carry out this extra-legal removal, to then assume the authority, on what basis, to govern? When is almost everyone’s liberating revolution a less romantic “mob-action” instead, in which the legitimacy of the complaint in uprising and of the forces rising up in substitution of those governing may be called into question? These are just a few of the questions in political philosophy that may apply, and generally speaking, in practical terms, the determinant of the answer is the existent ideological perspective of those making the judgment.
The ideological perspective on this issue of those adhering to liberal democracy, right and left, is likely best expressed by John Rawls, in Justice As Fairness, that
political power is legitimate only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution (written or unwritten) the essentials of which all citizens, as reasonable and rational, can endorse in the light of their common human reason. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy.
Add to this some representation of Max Weber’s concept of legal-rational authority, “a set of rules and rule-bound institutions” where “creating and changing the rules are outside of the control of those who administer them,” and we probably have the nut shell of legal administrative procedure leading to democratic justice that most in the West would endorse.
One difficulty, however, is that such would describe what is legitimate, or a standard against which some government might fall short. But how far short may it fall before most of us would agree that legitimacy has been lost, so that some usurpation of authority may be attempted? And whence the legitimacy of the usurping forces?
We pretend when we argue about such crises as Ukraine and Crimea that there is some clear and settled standard by which to make these latter judgments, but there is not. Usurpations of power, by glorious and other revolutions, with the reactions against them, are always ad hoc affairs with makeshift and evolving ethical rationales. In 1969, 71 nations granted diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China on Taiwan, with only 48 recognizing the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland. By 2013, only 22 nations recognized the ROC, while recognition of the PRC had grown to 172. This evolution in the perception of the legitimacy of these two governments did not arise out of any objective improvement in the argument for the PRC over that of the ROC – unless, of course, material facts are considered to influence, along with morality, a political determination, which, of course, they are. The PRC holds, indeed, the mainland, is far larger, more populous, more militarily, and – most important of all – more economically powerful. “Legitimacy” bends beneath the wheel of material reality.
The 2008 declaration of independence of Kosovo is not recognized by Serbia or the Serbian administered North Kosovo. Because of Russian objection, Kosovo will not likely soon be granted a UN seat, yet it has received 110 recognitions as an independent state, and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Kosovo stated that Kosovo’s declaration did not violate international law. Kosovo’s government is and will be recognized as legitimate because, right or wrong, international bodies will have reached consensus on it legitimacy and no power strong enough will be acting to prevent the exercise of that government’s authority.
These are the realties that will develop over time in Ukraine and Crimea. It is important to note for the future, however, that the current uncertainty is not just the product of Russia’s role as bad actor, but also the strategic ineptitude of the West. Without attempting any objectively considered defense of the overthrow of Yanukovych within a coherent philosophic framework, the EU and US assert the legitimacy of the usurpation, truly, in the faith that their side and agents represent the substance of democratic justice, even if the procedure has to be made up as events proceed. Further discoveries of Yanukovych’s corruption, subsequent to his flight, are post hoc justifications, and Russia is Russia, and so illegitimate in its power plays on the face of them. Not surprisingly, as I argued before, Putin genuinely believes otherwise. Events, tactics, and countless opportunities to weaken in resolve will determine the real end.
The EU and US acted as if this would be a second go at the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, with another chance to get it right and get Russia and its Ukrainian stand-ins gone. But the course of the Orange Revolution was ultimately decided by a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision and new elections. There was no overthrow of a democratically-elected leader and Putin was not fully the power then that he is now. None of this seems to have been taken into account in anticipating the magnitude of what was occurring. The Western nations, so blinded by their sense of moral superiority, could not see that their advice and guidance of Ukrainian government opponents – rather disingenuously self-styled as just the innocent advocacy of democracy, even as it excused the threat of the streets – would be perceived by Putin as interference and aggression.
Because the West played geopolitics without a playbook – they are, don’t you know, so nineteenth century – numbered among the West’s failures thus far is the opening, from more than one direction, to challenge the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, which has become the rationale of all consequent Russian actions.
When it seemed to some at the end of the Cold War that we had also reached the end of history, more than ever, every act of rebellion and revolution seemed cause to celebrate an elevated human spirit. After a long winter of merely staving off an enemy’s further success, now freedom was rising with people uprising, and cheer was in the air. We got, relatively peaceful and colored (orange and rose), revolutions and “springs” that sprang of the hope – so richly did the sap of it rise in great municipal squares around the world – that all that is necessary to topple tyranny is for good people to yearn in multitudes together in city centers, suffer only small losses against brutish police while their uplifting cause is broadcast to the world via iPhone and tweeted the encouragement of the well-fed and meaning.
Hold, now, candles up to the night, under music, for the next inspiring Apple or Nike commercial.
Nothing could stop universal liberation now.
Except as it turned out, lots of the colors faded, and the springs were either false or soon broken, which many people, it seemed, failed to notice. More begin to now.
The course of revolutions was never swift and sure, glorious or quickly final. There were counter revolutions, restorations, and failed republics, great dictators along the way before decades might cast a shadow of the original dream. The promise of the French Revolution was not soon borne out: eighty one years passed between the storming of the Bastille and the final establishment of republican government never again to depart. Three quarters of a century after the Russian Revolution waited the collapse of Soviet barbarity and then Yeltsin on a tank just to deliver, so far, ninety-three years later, Vladimir Putin on horseback.
The American Revolution stands more and more exceptional, especially for those who make Exceptionalism the currency of their daily political barter and harangue, though not so exceptional that many of the same won’t pretend that all it requires is a freedom agenda and a perpetual footing for war to spring the world’s restive and aspiring masses, properly watered, into the same colorful bloom.
For many, after Iraq and Afghanistan and those departed springs, it could be Syria that has taken so much the bloom off that rose, though there was Iran in 2009 before it. The right’s interventionists predictably made the failure of that revolution Barack Obama’s failure, though never a credible case was made by never a soul that a president’s greater public encouragement of the “Green” revolution would have led to anything other than the same dismal end with many more dead in the street.
Somewhere now in the consciences of some, not in those of others, arises amidst the inspired freedom calls also the moderating memory – the recollection, in the moral vision of King, that while, he hopefully told us, the arc of history bends toward justice, it is in the first place long. What is it that we provoke with our policies and acts, our encouraging words and cheers, and how, most importantly of all, have we prepared not others, but only ourselves to face what it is that we invoke in the world?
What do we invoke in the world? American troops still in Iraq and not to leave Afghanistan even after thirteen years if some would have their way. The same people would have led the U.S. to enter – oh, let us not argue for the moment over just how – the Syrian civil war. They wanted us, too, to be “all Georgians now” in 2008, when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now there is Ukraine, hotter by the day, with Venezuela just a little on the back burner. North Korea, too, there is always the threat of North Korea, and if, likely, no negotiated settlement is reached with Iran over its nuclear program – just how many air campaigns, missile strikes, policing actions, proxy wars, full-fledged attacks, and all out wars do the impassioned eminences of American imperial militarism believe the United States can conduct at once or in just a decade or two, after a decade or two, without inflaming the world and putting the torch to America’s own democracy?
that Victor Yanukovych was the most corrupt of oligarchs and a malleable instrument of Russian imperial policy
that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is both illegal and unjustifiable.
Still, it is so that not many conclusions necessarily follow from these truths.
From the start there have been divisions over the identity and nature of those behind the anti- Yanukovych protests, with Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books and Steven Cohen in The Nation prominent opponents pitting freedom-loving liberals against the right wing nationalists the Russians want to cast as fascists. Snyder does not have to be wrong for Cohen to be partly right. Not all American revolutionaries were Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton. Some retained their monarchical tastes. And do we not receive our very terminology of political right and left from the French Revolution? And did not the Bolsheviks out maneuver a host of competing and more moderate parties during the Russian Revolution? A revolution is never one thing.
Going back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the evidence of Ukrainian liberal leaning toward the West is clear enough, particularly in the western Ukraine. The problem of Ukraine 2014, whatever the Russians say, is not who is behind the uprising, but what the West thought it was doing in Ukraine and what thought it gave to what the Russians would do when the West did it. The evidence is that what the Europeans and the U.S. thought they were doing was far too simple minded, and that barely a competent thought was given to what the Russians would do.
One does not have to be Henry Kissinger, characteristically unmindful of moral considerations, not to be James Kirchik, treating geopolitical fault lines as cause for a modern crusade on a high horse to the New Jerusalem. One need not be Kirchik to know which side acts more, in King’s words, to uplift human personality, or Kissinger to know when acts are better guided by the possible. The world is not remediated by zealotry.
The most telling words of anyone, by far, in these events were uttered by Vladimir Putin himself when he finally spoke to the public.
I think they sit there across the pond in the U.S., sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.
This striking observation reveals much. First, for the man who in the past year has emerged as the American right’s latest master strategist, the personal resentment – what should not guide the policy of master strategists – is palpable. Second, the words nonetheless confirm what many on the right have already charged – that Putin holds Obama in contempt. Third, Putin is right. The conclusion of amateurish fooling around in Ukraine, without “understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” is escaped only through partisan rationalization.
But a greater understanding of the mistakes here escapes both Putin and Obama’s home front critics. When all those EU diplo- and technocrats were luring Ukraine toward membership, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, declaring the EU could get fucked, was picking and choosing who should govern Ukraine after a successful rebellion, it was not, clearly, just the Americans who were wearing lab coats. And it was not the Obama administration, but many of its current critics, before this administration, who have publicly desired all these years to bring the “defensive” lines of NATO right to the borders of Russia, about which the Russians were expected to think what – “Oh, we know, you’re the good guys, we shouldn’t worry”?
Steven Cohen has been infuriated by his own critics calling him a Putin apologist – and why should anyone so intimately connected to The Nation ever be considered tainted by anti-American apologetics – yet it is true that one can, without Cohen’s soft sell of Putin’s autocracy, understand matters from a Russian perspective. It is what fundamentally competent strategists do, and what is required to be done if one wants actually to accomplish a strategic goal and not simply posture about it before the alter of world-historical righteousness.
What stretch of imagination is required to recognize that Putin would not perceive Nuland’s and all the others’ lab set ups benignly? Nuland et al. may envision themselves as no more than traveling preachers tending to their flock’s greater yearning for nearness to democracy, but how much empathetic projection is needed to intuit that Putin, or any Russian leader, would likely see them as outside agitators firing up the flock, stirring up trouble in his own neighboring parish, about which, it just so happens, he cares a little and has an interest? How much geography and history must one know to recognize the significance of Ukraine to Russia? Or that Crimea, once, in 1954, in very different times, literally given to Ukraine for Soviet administrative and political purposes, would not now, seemingly pick-pocketed from Russia’s geopolitical hip, be simply given up with a shrug and a smile? “Oh, well, you win this time. Come back at ya with Mexico when I get a chance.”
Unsurprisingly, entreaties to true believers that they try reversing roles have been facilely dismissed. The U.S., they insist would hardly, in contrary circumstances, invade and annex part of Canada. The easy reply to that easy claim is that, no, obviously, the United States is not Russia. To whom other than rankest of crank extremists on either end of the political spectrum does that case need to be made? Less facile is to wonder just how obvious it is that the United States would not act similarly. American interventions in behalf of national interests are a twentieth century historical marker. Had the Canadian or Mexican governments been toppled during the Cold War by Marxist leaning street protests, how hard is it to conjure the frenzied calls, particularly from the right, for American action? In fact, the United States has maintained possession of Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, occupied by treaty signed under the duress of colonial domination, even as the internationally recognized government of Cuba has for more than fifty years protested that continued foreign occupation. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. began covertly to supply arms to Juarez in Mexico, in opposition to the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine declared that European interference, not in a neighboring country, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
None of this is to argue an equivalence between the United States and Russia. These commonalities alone create none such. Rather it is to hold out Russian interest in Ukraine as obvious and its response to events easy to have anticipated. That Putin would seek to regain Crimea, which had long been part of Russia. That he might opportunistically lie in wait for eastern Ukraine. That no election in May will invalidate the license Putin feels now even more strongly, as has theWest all along as well, to work clandestinely to shape the future of whatever Ukraine will remain. Still, unprepared for the response so far, Western voices rail against it as a behavioral outlier.
When freedom agenda crusaders, particularly, rail so obviously about how good we are, and how bad is the autocrat of the day, they despoil statecraft with a simplistic Manichaeism. In this mode of thinking, Putin knows he is bad – chooses to be bad, like Satan in rebellion against God. He mentally spurns and is rejected by the goodness he recognizes and that in a better world would have been his. His opposition to “us” is thus a kind of private wound, a closely nurtured insufficiency that justifies itself in devilishness, while all the while he actually knows just how bad he is.
This is a misunderstanding of personality at its core.
While it is standard operating procedure to identify all of Putin’s lies, which, of course, are many, identifying Putin particularly with lying exhibits just that core misunderstanding. The autocrat is not fundamentally a liar, but a bullshitter.
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.
Regarding Ukraine, we see that Putin does more than simply lie, in the claim, for instance, that uniformed troops in Crimea without insignia are not Russian, which no one believes: greater, he fakes the context of Ukraine entirely. The authentic individual lie is meant to deceive, to be mistaken in the greater context for the truth. Bullshit, however, is intended to confuse, so that the truth disappears. This is what all autocrats intend, the vanishing of the truth beneath the panorama that is their vision of the world – the extension of their own egos. The truth that is manifest in history is that autocrats believe in what they are doing.
To strategize against the likes of Putin, then, one must work with that understanding, along with historical and geopolitical fundamentals. From that perspective, there is no question of the autocrat’s commitment to negotiations as a matter of preferred principle, some shared belief that talking together, regardless of conflicting interests, is always preferable to conflict. The autocrat will employ – as Assad has done – Mao’s policy of fight, fight, talk, talk until one way or the other he gains as much as possible of what he wants. (And, yes, the date on that linked article about Iran is 2005, under the Bush administration, not 2014.)
Effective negotiations against the autocrat will have two characteristics. They will offer the autocrat a less costly, limited win more easily achieved than through other means, and they will deliver to democrats their own limited win that blocks any near-term further success by the autocrat through continued conflict or subterfuge. Absent that second characteristic, democrats will have been outmaneuvered, as the U.S. thus far has been outmaneuvered on Syria, where a failure even to come close to meeting the February 6 deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons has been allowed to pass with barely comment from the Obama administration, let alone action of any kind. At the same time, the administration had a vision of Syrian peace talks, but, astonishingly, apparently believing that Assad actually wanted to talk, rather than use the talks to delay, had no strategy for the talks whatever beyond the idea of them. And now there is the distraction of Ukraine.
Contrary to the belligerent harangues of American militarists, however, the West and the Obama administration have not been outmaneuvered because they – really, the U.S. – are not prepared to shake a militant fist at every trouble spot and throw punches often. They are adrift because they had no coherent strategy either to accomplish the kind of end they sought in Ukraine. Obama has a proper global vision for the twenty-first century – a U.S. that resorts to military action only rarely, in vital or self-defense, and no longer multiple times a decade in vestigial Cold War defense of imperial interests, no longer in bearing the burden of ill-conceived humanitarian interventions on behalf of everyone else,. There is, too, the belief that in time, centers of power and concern will shift to Asia. All this is good, but it is a partial geo-strategic position, not a plan for getting there. Not a plan, most of all, for how to act in long term consonance with a part of the nation’s vital self-definition: a great democracy standing unselfishly, yet with a mature understanding of historical development, in support of democracy for all nations.
One senses that Obama embraces such a national self-definition with very great, truly conservative reserve. Thus he has no regional and global strategy for playing this role, and was as unprepared as were the Europeans for the entirely foreseeable response of Putin, who quite reasonably, by his lights, took developments in Ukraine as aggressive meddling in his interests. The militarists will assert that they are advocating the aggressive resolve that won the Cold War. But for all the necessary military preparedness, Western success in the Cold War was ultimately a holding action in which one side outlasted the inner contradictions of the other. On a contrasting track, with the exception of Korea, nearly every coup, proxy war, or semi-proxy war the U.S. fought during the Cold War was just as ultimately a disaster, for the U.S., the third nation involved, or both.
It is probable that a long end game in Ukraine would have been no different with planning than it may be now: re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, with some or all of the remainder of Ukraine, amid continuing contention with Russia, aligned now toward the West. Adequately prepared, with continuing contention thus perhaps moderated, and with all the pro forma legal and diplomatic objections to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine might have been successfully framed as a win for democracy – because it would have been, as it still may be – rather than as a crisis.
To avoid careening from one crisis to another, however, a clearer vision of future roles is required. The militarist American right will prefer a long continuation of the United States’ Cold War imperial leadership. That self-destructive vision needs to be dimmed. However, inadequately, Obama’s presidency came at the right time finally to begin to turn those lights out. More, though, is needed. Some clearer articulation of a more sharply defined strategy is required by a center-left neither committed to defining the American role via military action nor allergic to the legitimacy of it. A coherent expression of the international role of democracies in the twenty-first century must be formulated. An evangelizing freedom agenda is simply cold warriorism without the defensive rationale. It is a formula for endemic and destructive global conflict, which is an occurrence in nature sufficient to need no assist from the laboratory coats. Still, democratic nations cannot be expected in their intercourse with other nations not, by their very nature as democracies, to give expression to the character and promise of political freedom. They cannot be expected not to share their knowledge of this freedom and its rewards with those who seek it. But we must always understand what we are doing when we do so in any given context, with what chances of producing good rather than harm to those we hope to help, and to even more around them. We must consider how it advances a larger project, or retards it. We must consider the conflicting interests of others, and we must do it without the kind of righteous arrogance that produced during the Cold War, in Graham Greene’s words, a self-delusive American innocence of good intentions, in Vietnam, that was “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
Essential to any new strategy will be a significantly elevated role for Europe and other democracies. Europe particularly has enjoyed a nearly free ride on the American people and their economy for over six decades. One strong expression of American leadership can be leadership to end that state of affairs and to bring mature democracies more fully into actively funding and engaging the defense of freedom. Another will be a recognition that the United Nations has run its course. It is exhausted as an instrument of assertive and effective action in support of the many supreme paper principles it has enunciated over its life. It is used by the worst tyrants in the world, through cynical manipulation of ideal expressions and exercise of institutional powers, to thwart actual amelioration and change in the world, such as what might have been possible in Syria without the veto power of Russia and China. It is time to start on the long course of superseding the United Nations with a new Global Union, in which the extent of a member nation’s institutional role is determined by a measure of its actual adherence to organizationally expressed principles of democratic practice and human and civil rights.
That would be a freedom agenda too, and the beginnings of a plan to help the many future Ukraines the world and history still has to offer.
“Do you really think he was born on Christmas Day,” my mother said.
I was already fully adult, but felt instantly young and naïve.
“No one knows when he was born. We don’t even know the year.”
My mother then went on, at my questioning, to share with me for the first time all of the details that were, together, her reason for thinking that my father was actually born in 1909, and not 1910. When he and his older sister Goldie arrived at Ellis Island, whatever meager documents they had – and later accounts to my mother from Goldie of events and years – seemed persuasively to indicate 1909. For this to be wrong, my mother explained to me, citing the accounts and the documents that once there had been, but that were no more, Goldie, a very vain woman, would had to have been making herself older than the two years she claimed to have on my father.
The information my mother shared with me, all of which in the years since I have completely forgotten, persuaded me, too, that my father was born in 1909. Since in those years, sometime in the 1980s, I was the only one of my parents’ children still also living in New York City, and much more involved in their lives at the time than my older sister or brother – I took an executive sibling decision. I made my father one year older. Remarkably, this act of pedantry applied to a whole life by the youngest child was accepted by all with only mild curiosity regarding the evidence. Even Mac, my father, accepted the additional year without complaint.
This situation prevailed for about fifteen or twenty years. Then, when my father was approaching his ninetieth birthday or so – let’s say ninetieth – I made casual mention of that upcoming milestone.
To which my father replied, “I’m not 90. I’m 89.”
Hm, I thought. I hadn’t (highly educated and sensitive individual that I am) realized that this was an issue, that Mac, had, for these whatever number of years, been harboring resentment against my diktat. And I thought instantly, without remark, that when your beloved father, a mostly very easy going guy, tells you directly and clearly that he is 89 and not 90 – well, you don’t argue with him. And what did I really know, anyway?
My father regained his year.
So this is to tell you, then, that today would have been Mac’s one hundredth birthday.
My father died on August 10, 2005, at the age of, ahem, 94, so he very nearly made it. After his death, I discovered documents in his keeping that indicated in one case a birth year of 1912, and in another, a judge’s decision that my grandfather Yoina (“Joe” in the document) had not been breaking child labor laws when he permitted my father to work in 1927 because it had been established that Mac was 17 in that year.
The story, the meager story, all through the childhoods of my sister, brother, and me, and into our adulthoods, was that my father was from a shtel in Russia called Orinin. He and Goldie had been abandoned by their parents in my father’s infancy. The couple divorced (who knows how, or if, really) and both emigrated to America (together? separately?) leaving the children in the care of their grandparents, my grandmother’s parents. Mac and Goldie left Russia when my father was ten, and wandered Europe for seven years before arriving at Ellis Island in 1927. Both parents had remarried in the U.S., accounting for the four American-born half brothers and sisters my father had in addition to Goldie. Beyond this basic story, little was added for many years. Mac simply did not talk about his past.
Instead, my father fully embraced his Americanness, and was thoroughly a New Yorker. In the 1930s he lived in Brighton Beach, attended concerts at Lewisohn Stadium at the City College of New York, slept on Central Park benches on summer nights, and dined in Sheepshead Bay (the first date with my mother). By the time I came along in the Eisenhower years, Mac had served in the army, then earned his citizenship in 1947. He had his Chevy, then his Pontiac Ventura, and he navigated the expressways, parkways, and turnpikes of New York City like any native man of the boroughs. Directions from Flatbush to the Grand Concourse were relished in their offering, precise and detailed in their possible variations like the recipe to a French sauce. Dad was a saucier of New York subways and roadways. We were an American family, and it was easy to forget that Mac came from a world that was unfathomable to the rest of us.
Though my mother, Helen, was born of parents also from Russia, she herself had been born and raised in New York, and while Mac’s accent, to the end of his life, was so thick that others would sometimes confide they could barely understand him, we hardly heard it at all. In a way, it was easier to forget his origins precisely because, beyond his silence about them, they were so extraordinarily foreign to the America in which we lived. He wasn’t just born in another country – he was born in rural pre-Revolutionary Russia. He might as well have been born in the nineteenth century. I studied the era, like the Napoleonic or the industrial revolution in England, in college history classes. How could my own father actually be of it? It was not easily accomplished as a child, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II.
Yet the signs were all around. There were the names and the accents, of Goldie and her Polish husband Chaim. Mac’s mother, Minnie who had abandoned him all those years before, and to whom he struggled to no avail to be a loving son loved in return – she was probably in her late 60s in my earliest memories of her, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, her stocky build, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her regular Sunday visits to our Queens apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.
There was another sign of where Mac had come from and what had been before us all: his anger. Though we all knew the enormity of his love for us – his love and our mother’s was the atmosphere we breathed – Mac’s explosions of temper when frustrated, provoked, or disobeyed were like that of Moses smashing the Tablets. They towered over the family life. But we children could not then conceive the abandonment, the dangers, and the hardships that had forged that anger in him.
As it happened, too, as some children will experience, I lived through a period of deep disappointment in my father. When I was a child, he doted on me as the last born, unintended and then embraced with love all the more for it. And he was, indeed, my Moses. As a very young child, in the Catskills, I would not move my bowels all week until my father arrived for the weekend to hold my hand on the toilet. When in pain from some mishap, I cried “My daddy! My daddy!” as if invoking a presiding spirit. The earliest extant photo of me is as an infant cradled in my father’s arms on a New York City beach.
Then, briefly, at the age of fifteen, I saw my father differently. He had had me relatively late in life, so was ten to fifteen years older than the fathers of my friends. He was short and slight, at his largest 5’4” and 140 lbs. He was, aside from the deep practical education he had gained in politics and world affairs, almost completely uneducated. He could barely sign his name in English, and this he would do only unobserved. He could not teach me sports or guide my intellect, and the quiet caution before any form of authority that was the product of the hateful and murderous world he had survived in his youth, but that I did not yet understand, I perceived as an embarrassing timidity.
But this would soon pass, and how it would turn by the end of his life. Thirty-six years ago today Mac was having the heart attack that nearly killed him at sixty-four. The doctor’s said he had been walking around having it for days. In his life he had learned to bear much pain in silence. After he recovered, having seen his life, he told me, “differently now,” my father became a changed man. Over the remainder of his years, I saw him become very mildly angry perhaps a couple of times. He took pleasure in the love of his family, in daily walks, the sun on his face, and the renewal of the world around him. I have never known another person to so heal his own afflictions and transform himself.
Over time, during my adulthood, more details of Mac’s early life came out, dribs here, drabs there, like the leak of memory seeping through cracks. Orinin had not been in Russia, exactly, but Ukraine, though the latter was then ruled by Russia. There had been, in addition to his grandparents, an Aunt, Aikah, who had cared for him as a child. She survived the Holocaust and emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1980, when she and Mac had not seen each other in nearly 60 years. Another aunt and an uncle had not survived. Mac did not recall his grandmother’s name, so I concluded that she had died when he was still quite young. His grandfather’s name – my great grandfather – was Zakiah. Zakiah was a liveryman, and he would often taxi people the ten miles to the medieval city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. At the end of the day, it was my father’s job to water the horses. My father was perhaps not 10, but maybe about 12 when he and Goldie left Orinin on their own, rowed across the Zbruch River into Poland in the dark of night.
I can recall with utter clarity the first time my father described to me, as we drove along Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens some time during the 1970s, the pogroms that swept through Orinin – how Zakiah would lead the family quickly up a hill through the trees and across the Jewish cemetery to the home of friendly Ukrainians, who would hide the family indoors. Once, lucky enough to be spared his life, Zakiah was caught and knocked to the ground by a Cossack on horseback, to have his leather boots stripped from his feet. I remember staring into my father’s eyes and imagining the world that lived on the other side of them, the images flickering there like a moviola projecting back in time.
Revelations might come in sudden, casual disclosures, but they were never, even then, easily achieved. For instance, one morning in Mac’s late 80s, I was visiting for the weekend breakfast he made for me and served me – bagels and lox and eggs and onions – and going over the daily newspaper together as we had since my childhood. There was some story I don’t recall of events in Nairobi.
“I’ve been there,” Mac said.
“Nairobi. Kenya. You’ve been to Nairobi, Kenya. When the hell were you ever in Nairobi, Kenya?”
“When. On the way here.”
“What were you doing in Nairobi?”
“They took us there.”
“They. Who’s they? They took you there from where?”
“How do I know? A Jewish organization.”
“Where would they take me from? – from Russia.”
“Russia? But you’d already left Russia. You were in Poland.”
(A little impatient.) “I came back.”
“You came back from Poland to Russia? You never told us that.”
“Of course.” (Of course.)
“Where’d you go from there?”
“London. Now he’s been to London. By ship?”
“What then, by horse?”
“Where’d you go from there?”
“Then I came here.”
“I thought you came from Bremerhaven.”
“That was the second time.”
It wasn’t simply a matter of turning on the recorder and letting him speak.
After our mother died, I spent more time trying to draw Mac out. One afternoon in Marina del Rey, California – the state to which, over sixteen years, the whole family had separately moved – sitting on a bench and gazing peacefully at the sun-starred Pacific, Mac told me about the small lake where he took Zakiah’s horses to drink. He would lead the horses into the lake to refresh them, then grasp a tail to be pulled for a ride through the water. At night once, by the lake, the full moon hanging hugely over him, Mac became scared, and he ran through the trees to try to escape the moon, but each time he turned he found it always there.
When, in early 2005, Julia planned a travel photo workshop in Transylvania, so close to Ukraine, I began to research in earnest. On a trip to New York, I spent hours in the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division collection. Though I had never found reference to it anywhere before, in one small book I finally saw the name – Orinin. Somehow the memories of my father had seemed the dream of ages. Now, objectively, it was real. Not only had there been an Orinin – it still existed. And I learned more.
During the ten to twelve years of my father’s parentless childhood in Ukraine he lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the first great Ukrainian Famine of 1921-23 and one of the great waves of pogroms by Cossacks, all in the birthplace of Hasidism and in one of the centers of Zionist organizing and resistance. The area of Kamianets-Podilskyi was at the front line in World War I, the Austrian military bombarding KP on August 5, 1914. When the Cossacks retook the city, they attacked its Jews, many of whom fled. During the first three years of the Revolution, until 1920, KP changed hands among the Germans, competing Ukrainian forces, and the Bolsheviks. When the Bolsheviks occupied KP in November of 1920, the majority of Kadima, the Zionist student organization, escaped to Palestine. During the Civil War, both the Ukrainians and White Russians conducted pogroms against the Jews. In the Civil War period of 1918-21, it is estimated that 100,000 Ukrainian Jews died in pogroms. During the famine of 1921-23, between 1.5 and 2 million Ukrainians, including Jews, died of starvation or epidemic disease. My father could not say how his grandfather had died. There were many possibilities.
Julia and I left for Transylvania in August 2005. The night before our departure, I had dinner alone with my father. I was going, at last, to Orinin. He had not seen it in perhaps 85 years. How he wished he could go with me. But he was ill from a freak accident that had fractured a vertebra, and he struggled against apparent indigestion to share new details with me. He described the layout of the town to me, in order to help me locate the house in which he lived, attached to a barrel factory. At the lake where he took the horses, there a small waterfall, and it was to that spot that he would lead them to drink.
I did not make it to Orinin on that first attempt. I was called home from Budapest by my brother. I made it back in time to speak with my father one last time, and to be at his side with the rest of the family when he died. His penultimate thought, the next to last time he was conscious, was to think of his children, and to tell my brother of cash he had hidden away. His last act was to stare up from his tubes at my brother, in the middle of the night, and to shake his head. He chose his end as he chose the character of his last decades, as he had not been able to choose his youth. He lived his long old age and faced his death, with humor, grace, and stoic courage.
Two months after Mac died, Julia and I completed our journey to Orinin. What had been the Jewish houses along the main street are now occupied by Ukrainians. There are no more Jews in Orinin. I did the best I could to figure where my father’s house, apparently gone, had been. I attached to a tree a brief account of Mac’s life, and with Julia, and Vitaly and Vasily, our interpreter-guide and our driver, standing by, read it aloud. Then I buried at the spot a time capsule with the account of Mac’s life and photos of his family. I visited the old Jewish cemetery, where presumably my great-grandfather and great-grandmother are buried. There is no way to locate their graves because the stones had long since been overturned and stolen, many used by the Ukrainian wartime mayor to build his new house. On the steps of it are still the inscriptions in Hebrew. We were given the account of the days in August 1941, one month after the birth of my sister in New York City, when nearly all of the Jews of Orinin and Kamianets-Podilskyi were executed by the Nazis.
Vitaly found the current mayor for us, who welcomed us into his office. With Vitaly’s help, I interviewed him. At one point, our subject of discussion led him to interrupt and show us photographs of Orinin’s recent celebration of Ukraine’s fifteenth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. I thumbed through the photographs and then stopped, showing them to Julia. Several young women, in traditional garb, were standing by a small waterfall.
Now I interrupted.
“Please, tell me. Where is this?”
At the lake, the mayor told me – just at the edge of town.
“I need to go there,” I said, looking around. “Can you take us there?’
The mayor led us in two cars through the center of town, past the monument to the Great War. We made a right and passed the dirt fork where I believed my father’s house had stood. After only another minute or so of driving, we stopped on a low ridge above the small lake. Off to one side was a new mill. On the other was a tree-covered slope leading up the Jewish cemetery. The remaining open landscape was as it must have been for centuries.
We walked to the far end of the lake. There, at the hillside, was the waterfall. Amid all the growth and rock, there was only one clear path, foot worn, down to the fall. The others stayed behind as Julia and I walked down to it. This was it. There could be no other spot. This was where, 85 and more years behind, my father would have led the horses. This is where they would have dipped their heads to drink. This was where, at 7 or 8 or 9, the boy who would become my father, if he survived, had stood.
Suddenly, Julia turned and walked away. And I was alone with the thoughts the seeds of which had been planted when I lay on the sofa as a boy myself, the ache in my growing bones so deep.
“Rub my feet, daddy,” I would plaint as Mac, this man from some other place, but my father, took them in his hands and healed me.
I imagined as intensely as I could. The soft summer day. The bird calls and rippling waters in the vast rural quiet. No strife in these moments, only the pleasures of the earth, and a boy’s simple wishes. The horses nodding their heads in the cool flow from the fall. And then my father patting one on the haunch, tripping forward behind the horse as it entered the water, reaching for the tail and grabbing it, the boy already caught in the slipstream that has no beginning and that has no end, but for now holding tight to the tail, his eyes half closed in delight and forgetfulness, being glided through the water.