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U-kraine Now and Then

Half drowned in the deluge of opinion pieces on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, I still clung stubbornly to my view of the bloody conflict as a civil war gone amok.

Back in the day, the U.S. Civil War was much bloodier, but international intervention was mainly undercover and not a daily media feast. England and France pretended neutrality. Russia, interestingly, was the single open supporter of the Union, if mainly to counter the dominance of the imperial British. For seven months Russia kept a dozen warships at the ready in New York and San Francisco.

Six thousand miles from Ukraine, it was storming, at last, in California. Around our table–fish stew again–were a few dear friends and neighbors. As rain rattled noisily down the dry gutters, talk ranged from the weather to cancel culture and the recent rush to rename buildings, institutions, countries. Someone suggested that the time was ripe for opening a new field of Grievance Studies. Everyone laughed. We didn’t approach the war right away, maybe assuming a consensus  favoring  Ukraine.

Not everyone remembered George Kennan, the  historian and diplomat. Twenty-five years ago he warned that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era, quite likely to inflame Russia’s nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies.” Politicians and generals are often deaf to the counsel of historians and diplomats. NATO went right on expanding.  And around our table and across our country, the plucky Zelensky and the indomitable Ukrainians had the most support.

What’s in a word:  U-kraine? In Slavic languages “u” is an adverb meaning “at” or “in”. And “Kraj” or Krajina” means a border region. Oukraina first appeared in 1187. Through the centuries, this Slavic term signified “borderlands,” often far from the territory of modern Ukraine.

Not so long ago, we elders had known today’s embattled land as THE Ukraine. “In the Borderland” does sound a bit vague for a sovereign nation. So in 1993, after the declaration of an independent Ukrainian state, officials removed the article “the,” presumably to lend the name of their country more formal dignity.

More than six months before Rusia’s “Special Operation in Ukraine,” Vladimir Putin published a 5,000-word article on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Nobody at our table could remember its appearance, and I only happened on it by chance. But I did read it, every word, in the English translation thoughtfully supplied by the Kremlin.

Yes, Putin is hoping to restore the territory of the former Russian empire. But his account of imbricated Russian and Ukrainian history and culture basically follows more public histories.There is some cherry-picking and blurring of the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia as well as the Holodomor famine–blaming the worst bits on the Bolsheviks. (Of course Putin may also have written the Wikipedia entries.) We could but don’t read elsewhere about ninth-century Varangian (Viking) prince Oleg, who sailed downriver to settle Kiev(Kyiv) and to found Mother Rus. Somewhere—not in Putin’s history—I also learned that the Black Sea port of Kherson, recently decimated, had been a Greek colony some 2500 years ago. So far Greece has not lodged any territorial claims on Ukraine or Russia.

More recent history:  after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO negotiators agreed not to expand “one inch eastward”, according to recently declassified documents . Other agreements followed—Budapest, Minsk and Minsk II, etc. Since then, an even dozen Eastern European countries have been welcomed into NATO.

On various occasions, Vladimir Putin has found reason to protest against the NATO powers’ security risk to Russia. If Ukraine joined the West, and then Sweden and Finland,  the threat would be vastly increased. Then  in 2014 the Russophile Ukrainian leader was overthrown in the Orange Revolution, and Russia occupied Crimea, whose population was already 70 percent Russian. Two nominally independent regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, also majority Russian speakers, were absorbed into the Russian federation. No major international protests ensued. 

Fast forward to 2021 and Ukraine’s increasing lean westward. President Joe Biden, far from suggesting serious talks about Russian security issues, warned in every news cycle that Vladimir Putin was about to invade Ukraine.

At some point I decided to ask an old friend in Prague for his views on the new war. I could imagine him pacing up and down the room stroking his handsome beard. He sent me a judicious analysis, including a reminder of Munich and the failure to stop Hitler from taking over Czechoslovakia in 1938, and finishing with the Soviet putsch in Prague in 1968. Be it noted that Czech president-elect Petr Pavel was a NATO general and/but has a degree in international relations from King’s College London. Pavel professes to be for Ukraine but against war–a tricky position to maintain just now. 

Some years ago a young Polish couple, in the U.S. on fellowships, stayed for a term in our back cottage. The Polish government was just turning rightward, and the couple seemed a bit wary of political talk with their Berkeley landlords. But we were friends, went to the beach together, exchanged silly gifts, and they would walk down our driveway holding hands, her blonde hair swinging like a Disney princess.

Hungary accounts for a relatively short stretch of the Ukrainian border, while Poland shares 330 kilometers of it, but both have historically fraught relations with Russia. We have close Hungarian friends, have exchanged children some summers and followed, ruefully each other’s national politics. In his youth Viktor Orban was eloquently anti-Soviet. Now in power, he thrives on anti-migrant ad anti-semitic sentiments, most notably against George Soros, whose foundation subsidized Orban’s brief youthful interval at Oxford. Orban now deals amicably with Putin.

 The father of our secretary of state—-Antony Blinken, should you have forgotten—was U.S. ambassador to Hungary.  Secretary Blinken speaks fluent French, but not, alas, the present language of diplomacy. In his first official remarks he opened with warnings to China and Russia that the U.S. would stand firm on whatever position it chose. He continues to avoid any diplomatic cordiality.

Diplomacy comes from the ancient Greek diploma, which means “an object folded in two.” Folding a document, before there were envelopes, served to protect its privacy. The term came to apply to all official documents, such as those containing agreements between governments.  Five months of the Ukrainian war passed last year without any dialogue, folded or open, between Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. For millennia, another major diplomatic tool has been alliance by marriage. Alexander the Great married the Sogdian princess Roxana to subdue the angry and defeated Sogdians (an ancient Iranian people, trending now). And so on. Let’s say that Volodymyr Zelensky could become betrothed to Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina Vinokurova. True, they both have living spouses. But serial marriage has been widely practiced through the ages, seldom for such positive reasons as world peace. You read it here first.

While traditional diplomacy falters, countries far from Russia and Ukraine suffer from famine and joblessness. Some, like Syria, have their own punishing civil wars. No grain came out of Ukraine’ breadbasket for many months, and the energy supply was delayed or broken.  More than 200,000 casualties have been counted on both sides.. Hundreds of thousands of factories, schools, hospitals and homes have been bombed to the ground, not to mention roads, railways and ports. 

“What about postwar reconstruction?” wondered the economist at our table, rearranging mussel shells on his plate.

Following the billions of dollars the war has earned for NATO armaments industries, as well as windfall profits for oil producers, Ukraine’s postwar recovery will open another huge economic opportunity. After World War II the U.S. Marshall Plan provided some $150 billion in aid to the ravaged countries of Western Europe. Their reconstruction was a key investment in the financial recovery of the U.S. as well as an advertisement for capitalism against communism.

Early cost estimates for rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure range from $138 to $750 billions. Whether this money comes from Russian reparations, or from Ukraine’s steadfast allies, will not signify. It will be used to develop what the Ukrainian chamber of commerce describes as “the world’s largest construction site.”

And so will end—-somehow, sometime—another “civil” war.

The Grannies, the Gambian, and the Bannon


Noted recently in a Roman paper, as reported by Roberto, who had taken a local bus to Villamaina, his hometown in Campania. Another passenger boarded just after him. The news photo indicates a slight resemblance to the young Tiger Woods, black cap and brown arm stretched confidently, possibly tensely, across the headrest.

Several nonnine, grannies, on the bus, far from any country club fairway, took an immediate interest in the young stranger. One asked his name, another his birthplace, his story, his plans. He was Omar from Gambia, living at the refugee center in Lacedonia, on his way to visit friends in the next town.

Lacedonia’s modest center accommodates sixteen unaccompanied minor refugees. When it opened in 2017, Italians were still rescuing drowning migrants from the Mediterranean, taking in more refugees than any other European country.

Here you don’t see the townspeople marching in solidarity, but they did.

Two years ago the mayor of Riace, a crumbling medieval village in Calabria, had become the international hero of migrant resettlement, having integrated several hundred refugees into his depopulated community, using good sense, good will, and government stipends for migrants (39 euros per day).

Then last November, the so-called Salvini Decree was passed, and in April five hundred refugees were evicted from one of the largest migrant centers. The new decree abolishes the two-year humanitarian residency permits granted to migrants who don’t qualify for asylum status yet are deemed too vulnerable to be deported. No longer eligible for assistance, they are now effectively homeless. Critics of the decree say it will push thousands to live on the streets, unable to rent housing, work legally or go to school. The remaining centers in the CARA  system(Centers for Refugee Welcome & Accommodation) are set to close in coming months.

Meanwhile, Riace’s mayor Domenico Lucano

has just been indicted by the Italian supreme court for  specious fiscal violations. Laura Boldrini, former speaker of the Italian parliament, says that Salvini plans to dismantle a model of refugee integration that has worked and is known around the world. “Every cent of public money should be accounted for, but how can the head of a party that has stolen 49 million Euros from Italian citizens tell a Calabrian mayor that there can be no irregularities in the public finances.” A recent court ruling called out Salvini’s League party for fraudulent claims of 49 million euros in electoral expenses. 

Two ancient Greek statues washed ashore near Riace in 1972.  In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily had hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.

Aeneas, legendary shipwrecked warrior, found a warm welcome at his Mediterranean landfall in Carthage. Maurizio Bettini, the widely respected Italian humanist, begins with Aeneas and traces vivid continuities between the acceptance of basic human rights in antique and modern times,  despite the ancients’ slavery and subordination of women. Strangers in the ancient world were to be welcomed, the hungry fed and the thirsty given drink.  Lost travellers were to be guided.  Bettini evokes the true horror in the many corpses of refugees floating today in the Mediterranean. 

While the Italian government turns away refugee rescue ships and closes migrant centers, it manages to accommodate the far-right takeover of a 13th century monastery, the Certosa di Trisulti, on a hilltop south of Rome.

Certosa di Trisulti

Spearheaded by Trump’s former chief strategist and international populist extraordinaire, Stephen K. Bannon, the Dignitatis Humanae’s academy aims to prepare students to become “warriors” against secularizing enemies of the Judeo-Christian tradition who persist in denying that man was created in the image of God.

 Bannon and well-connected Catholic friends hope to counter the influence of the pesky liberal pope Francis, with his compassion for migrants and his warnings about the dangers of growing nationalism in Europe. 

Mr. Salvini and his allies contend that an erosion of the traditional family by liberal values has contributed to Italy’s low birthrate.. They argue that if Italians don’t have babies, they risk replacement by migrants–Muslims–from Africa. 

In the wake of the Salvini Decree, several Italian mayors have declared their intention to ignore it. Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, has been joined by other left-leaning mayors in Naples and Florence who say they will bypass parts of the decree which they believe to be unconstitutional. The mayor of  Naples has also offered to take in migrants stranded at sea that Italy has turned away. Maurizio Bettini has been declared an honorary citizen of Palermo.

Meanwhile, the bus holding Roberto, Omar, and the grannies arrived at Sturno, pop. 3,083, where the ladies descended. But before leaving, they turned to wave at Omar. “Bye, Omar, stay strong, you are fine, don’t worry, we love you.”

Roberto, who had originally passed the story on to La Repubblica, said that the incident was a small testimony that “the other Italy” still exists and resists, even though mostly unobserved in the cascade of violence that the press faithfully reports almost every day.

With that ficcanasare (nosiness) typical of old people in the provinces, those grannies managed to bring normality to center stage, to remind us that there have always been those who sought to escape, “even from here”.  One woman cited her husband, away in Germany for twenty years, and a nephew who emigrated to England. “There is always a north and a south, wherever you are.”


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