In 2019, when we were putting together a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review called What Does Europe Want Now?, we were especially concerned that a global resurgence of authoritarianism threatened the European project itself. My introduction to that issue suggested “good literature,” which rejects “the kinds of easy platitudes populists and salesmen offer in exchange for votes and money,” as a modest tonic against the all-too-human need for easy answers and quick fixes. That was before January 6, when a mob, gripped by the self-serving fantasy that their preferred candidate had won an election he had lost, stormed the Capitol in order to make it so. It was before the hearings to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, when the nominee spent many long hours responding to questions that she could not reasonably answer because they had been posed from the same alternate universe where Putin is a humanitarian and Trump is still President.
Now I’m not so sure about literature. Dylan Thomas once wrote, “Poets can stop bullets, but bullets can’t stop poets.” It’s a nice little beatitude: blithe, easily quotable, and without a whiff of reality.
If you have a personal or professional connection to Eastern Europe, the reality of these last few weeks has been neither blithe nor easy. It has been harrowing. There’s the worry over friends and loved ones, the anger and disgust over wanton violence, the frustration and helplessness that come from being so far removed from needs we wish we could meet. This describes almost my entire, admittedly peculiar social orbit. We’re all exhausted, glued to our news feeds, reading reports in several languages throughout the day with the radio on in the background. We’re flying through this turbulence with eyes fixed on the wing of the airplane, as if misfortune could be prevented by our watching. It cannot. The time to act—for the kinds of sanctions and divestitures we have been seeing from the European Union and international corporations, for starters—was years ago, when Putin first rose to power in the late 1990s and orchestrated a rapid escalation of Russian militarism and the intimidation and silencing of journalists, opposition politicians, and just about anyone with anything to say. Or following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Or else during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and, de facto, parts of Donbas. Disgusted by Russia’s siege tactics, which targets civilians in dense urban zones like Kyiv and Kharkiv both to end life and to make life itself unlivable, we might have isolated Russia for using the same methods to level the city of Grozny in 2000 or Aleppo between 2012 and 2016. But Germans like cheap natural gas, and Americans like cheap auto parts, so that now, over a month into this latest aggression, all we can do is watch it unfold on screens we can easily afford because the people who make them in another part of the world are forced to do so. Every time you hear a company announce it is “suspending” operations in Russia—as we entered Week 3 of the invasion (Amazon, Coca-Cola, Starbucks), Week 4 (LG, Maersk), Week 5 (Dunkin’ Donuts, Microsoft)—you’re learning how long it takes for a given accounting department to calculate the bottom-line value of human lives. Several international corporations with a large footprint in American households and communities, including Koch Industries and Lenovo, have simply decided that the math doesn’t work for them and have kept their Russian investments as-is.
For most of us—myself included, as I continue to patronize all of the services I have just named and many more I have not—it is that much more difficult to divest from habits and routines we rely on every day. Changing behavior takes time, sustained effort, and a clear purpose. On the scale of populations and generations, it requires consistent, conscientious leadership. Above all, it demands that we have a shared sense of the realities around us and the values that pertain to them.
And this is where my jittery hypervigilance in the month since Russia began its unprovoked, floridly illegal assault on Ukraine has left me terrified. Not for the future of Ukraine, which has demonstrated to the world that the words of its national anthem, “Ukraine has not yet perished,” are not just talk. Nor am I afraid that Russia has created conditions that could spill over into a wider regional or even global conflict. (It has, but in my line of work that’s nothing new.) What frightens me is how predictably these split perceptions of reality erupt into and justify violence, and how quickly our Western democracies could meet a similar fate. If we accept that what one does in response to a circumstance naturally depends on how one perceives that circumstance, then we should be equally willing to acknowledge that conspiracy fantasies and “alternative facts” can just as naturally lead us to reject reality with violence. The Russian soldiers launching munitions into Ukrainian apartment blocks seem to believe they are firing on genocidal madmen, though their actual targets are children and pensioners. One can imagine the mortar rounds leaving one world but crashing into another.
In this light, the Russian assault on Ukraine began a generation ago, when Putin first came into power and methodically harnessed mass media to spin a new reality that was more to his liking. The eighteen-year-old Russian conscripts now fighting Putin’s war have never lived outside of Putin’s alternative reality, shaped by and around the will of the autocrat. (Case in point: they’re no longer “conscripts,” since they are now required to sign voluntary enlistment papers after the fact.) Putin’s control of what Russians hear, read, see, and think set the stage for the violence he is now perpetrating against Ukrainians, just as authoritarian media controls underpin China’s policy toward ethnic Uighurs, Poland’s treatment of sexual and gender minorities, and Hungary’s policies toward immigrants and refugees. Where we see a monolithic, fantastical reality taking root in a polity, violence is not far behind.
The logic behind this is fairly straightforward. The authoritarian imagination simply cannot abide deviations from the party line nor even acknowledge the possibility that such deviations could exist. As a Polish philosopher once put it, referring to the talks that dismantled his country’s communist government, “A tyrant who stops taking himself seriously as a tyrant finds himself sitting at a Roundtable.” Ironically, this intolerance typically puts the authoritarian worldview, propped up by self-aggrandizing falsehoods, imaginary enemies, and national legends, at odds with facts on the ground, so that the liberal and authoritarian visions increasingly appear as mutually exclusive realities.
In one of these realities, the one I inhabit with almost everyone else, there is a country just beyond the eastern edge of the European Union called Ukraine. It is geographically the second-largest country in Europe, a multiethnic, multilingual, multiconfessional state. About three quarters of the population is ethnically Ukrainian. Russians are by far the largest of the many minority groups, which also include Romanians, Belarussians, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Tatars, and others, often in mixed families and communities. It is one of only four countries in the world with a Jewish head of state.
But in the other reality—the world as presented by Vladimir Putin, state-controlled Russian media (which, after the abrupt shuttering of TV Rain and the Echo of Moscow radio station three weeks ago, is the only Russian mass media), and a motley assortment of apologists among European right-wing politicians and Fox News pundits—things look quite different. In that world, there is no such country as Ukraine, nor is there a Ukrainian people or Ukrainian language or Ukrainian national culture. Instead, there is a large territory in Russia’s southwest that has been overrun by Nazis—yes, those Nazis—who, fueled by a fanatical hatred of Russia (despite essentially being, according to this fantasy, watered-down Russians themselves), Western cash, and a whole lot of drugs, have launched a genocidal campaign against Russians (even though, again, the fantasy assumes that they’re all Russians, since there’s really no such thing as a Ukrainian). In that world, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose great-grandparents and three great-uncles were murdered in the Holocaust, is a Nazi. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has targeted residential neighborhoods and displaced millions of children, is a humanitarian mission to rescue the population from itself. The people of the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol, who now face starvation, have been dropping bombs on themselves to make the Russians look bad. Yes, that’s actually what’s being reported on Russian television, albeit not in the context of a “war,” since calling this a war on Russian television can get you fifteen years.
What we are seeing in Ukraine is the authoritarian imagination’s revolt against reality as such. Putin says that Ukraine is really part of Russia? He will make it part of Russia. Putin says that Ukrainians are really just Russians? Then he’ll make them be Russian. At some point, the tyrant grows frustrated that the square peg he has fashioned himself won’t fit the round hole of reality. This is when he takes out a hammer, ready to force reality to accept his version of it. It would not surprise me at all if we were to learn that, moldering on some army base in southern Belarus, there is a trove of evidence proving various frayed threads of Kremlin narrative: piles of American cash and Colombian cocaine, photographs of Ukrainian politicians performing sexual acts with George Soros and Hunter Biden, duly notarized certificates of President Zelenskyy’s membership in the Nazi Party, all of it waiting to be “discovered” by Russian liberators in the basement of Kyiv’s Mariinskyi Palace. The steadfast resistance of Ukrainian soldiers and everyday citizens alike has so far delayed whatever Putin had planned for his big reveal, his moment to show the rest of us that the world he imagined, with himself very much at its center, was the real one all along.
If this has left me a little less certain about literature’s value in the face of tyranny than I might have been in 2019, it is not because I have lost any of my faith in literature’s capacity to enrich our understanding of past and future. On the contrary, for me this is a big part of what literature is for. But there are also times when we would do better to set our books down, switch our screens off, and have a hard conversation here, in the present, not about what we want, but about what we are—and what we truly wish to be.