Like many, I watched the news in horror and shock in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, to see the visceral uncertainty and chilling reigniting of the Cold War as Russian forces stormed the Ukrainian borders from all sides. After weeks of buildup, political rhetoric and international tension, that which had previously seemed unthinkable has now firmly rooted itself in our everyday reality.
My viewing of the invasion through the news cameras came in a very surrealistic setting: surrounded by declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents stretching back to the late 1940s on an eerily timely topic: Soviet invasion and occupations of independent republics, specifically the Baltic nation of Lithuania. As such, my mind went to many places seeing this emergence of terror in Ukraine.
However, in the four weeks after the invasion, I have found myself adrift in a very unfamiliar sea among my western comrades both in Carbondale and abroad. This is a sea that is marked by an abandonment of almost all critical discourse on the issue, of a rejection of nuanced thinking, and a bloodlust that I have not seen since the early days of the post 9/11 era of political reality in the United States.
That is, I have experienced a schism with my previously anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-colonial and anti-xenophobia friends, colleagues and mentors in the past few weeks.
It became odd to me that people I had known for nearly a decade in higher education, who wrote books, dissertations, theses, or delivered lectures being highly critical of the Bush-era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — who chronicled the damage that comes at home and abroad from a collective de-evolution into tribalism, xenophobia and prejudice — were suddenly quite loudly ready to demonize the entirety of the Russian Federation for this act. That is, to demonize the Russian people directly.
In the swirling aftermath of the invasion, I went to university-sponsored events and heard educated speakers openly calling to sanction the Russian people into starvation, that maybe if they’re starved enough, they’ll revolt. I have heard scholars with doctorates say that the entirety of the Russian people have blood on their hands for their complacency in this invasion. This sentiment has also echoed loudly across my social media feeds in any and all mediums.
There is a collective response to this invasion that is deeply concerning to a student of Cold War history, and to the tactics and sharp dangers of outright vilification. What we must remember in the West is that these issues are very complicated. They are not 1960s James Bond films where everyone with a Russian accent is an enemy combatant.
While the aggression against Ukrainians is inexcusable, the concern for me today as a social scientist is the speed at which the West has devolved so quickly to the point that we have seemingly resurrected the corpse of McCarthyism and immediately jumped on the train to paint every Russian as a dangerous co-conspirator in the rise of Putin.
In heartbreaking contrast, one of my dearest friends, a Russian living in Russia today, at one point through this invasion said to me: “We don’t want him to be president either.” What we need to realize in the West is that the everyday Russian is not invading Ukraine, nor are they ardent supporters of Vladimir Putin. It is the easiest route for us to automatically assume that every Russian is the villain and every Ukrainian is good. This is counter to the necessity of being a critically-engaged society.
It is comfortable to exist in a world where there is good and evil and where we can see it clearly. The reality of the situation is that this is not a bad summer blockbuster action film starring Jeremy Renner as Volodomyr Zelenskyy where the Russians are unnamed “bad guys” in a two-hour romp. We in the West want that. But, it is not the truth of this situation.
In closing, I urge each of us to treat the situation with the nuanced care it deserves. To be reflective of your positionality on the issue. Ask yourself tough questions: am I changing my profile picture to blue and yellow because I care about the issue, or is it because it is the socially expected thing to do?
Am I advocating to sanction Russia into the dark ages because I feel it will dissuade Putin’s aggression, or am I doing it because it is easy to have a villain?
Am I actively spewing hate toward Russian culture, people or history online or in-person because my views are truly held, or is this an emotional reaction to the stress of this situation?
Consider that for every teacher, firefighter, grocery store employee, server, chef, mail carrier, husband, wife, son or daughter you have in your life, there is a Russian equivalent currently facing the worst economic backslide the nation has experienced in decades. Consider that tomorrow a Russian school-aged child might wake up to a very harrowing and different reality than they had known eight weeks ago, and that child is not firing rockets into Mariupol.
What about Ukrainians? This is the picture of nuance I hope you strive to view. People in Ukraine are suffering. But that does not mean that Russians cannot also be suffering. It does not mean that we cannot consider the collateral damage of our reactions that have not deterred invasion, and have hurt innocent people.
We cannot exist in a dualism of punishing every Russian for the actions of their government. If upon reading this column you think I’m “against Ukraine” or that I “support Putin,” I would again ask you to be critical of that perspective. Ask yourself if calling for a chance to be compassionate toward the harm to another group of innocent people really represents being on the “wrong side of history.”
We have to be informed, we have to let go of the comfort of a two-sided, binary, black-and-white conflict. We have to recognize that this is a messy place to be. And we cannot afford to devolve back into the spear rattling, xenophobic warmongering that drove us into a 20+ year war in the Middle East as the societal harms of that time are still loudly felt across the entire globe.
When we ask then, “what is to be done?” I cannot presume to have the answers. What I can do is to say that the best response to crisis is calm, collected critical thought. Reactionary, emotionally-driven snap judgments are never good. They lead to an amplification of hatred, fear, misunderstanding and a collective degradation of the very values of freedom, democracy and empathy that we hold close to our chests.
Be critical of your own actions; seek out the bigger picture and don’t be too quick to condemn the innocent schoolteacher in Rostov or Novgorod in retribution for the actions of an imperialistic maniac in Moscow.
Tucker Farris is a fifth-generation local of the Roaring Fork and Crystal Valleys and a sociologist specializing in (among other things) the Soviet Occupation of Lithuania, Soviet Statecraft, Espionage, and Cultural Oppression. He splits his time between his perch in the mountains above Carbondale and the trenches of academia in Victoria, British Columbia Canada. He’ll have completed a PhD in sociology/sovietology by August of this year.