JANUARY 10, 2022
Is he for real?
Putin has put hundreds of thousands of troops on the border of Ukraine and now has the whole world guessing whether he means an actual invasion or whether this is all just a psyop to extract concessions from the United States. The conversations in my DC circle of Eastern Europe researchers and inside my head go round and round. Are his wild claims that Americans are planting biological weapons in Ukraine a sign of madness or just “mad-man theory,” which argues you have to act mad to intimidate? But is acting mad not already a sort of madness? What if the performance takes the player over? Has the act gone so far that he now needs some sort of invasion to maintain it? And is it still a psyop if there’s a real invasion to back it up?
One thing that is certain is that the US and its allies will not send any soldiers to defend Ukraine. They are on their own.
This morning I found out I’d been exposed to a COVID case at a Christmas party. I will have to wait five days before I can test whether I have it. Plans to travel and finally (finally!) see family for New Year are now unclear. I cannot risk exposing septuagenarians.
The first time I had COVID it knocked me out for months. The hospitals were so full at the time they couldn’t take me in. Is it all happening again? This congealing viral loop of that sends us round and round with no sense of future.
I sit in the basement, wondering whether every cough I make is a COVIC symptom, whether Putin is for real, and when I will ever see my family again. Will this uncertainty ever end?
I set out at break of dawn to find a COVID test. Everywhere in DC sold out due to the surge of Omicron cases. People in pharmacies swap rumors about where you can get one. Somebody mentioned a place in Arlington, but by the time I get there the tests were all gone. Online stores empty too. How will I even find out if I have COVID?
Putin piles unreality on unreality. He is constantly claiming that Ukraine is not a real country, that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” that Ukraine doesn’t really exist. This time he claimed it was just a construct “invented” by Lenin.
What does it mean, however, to say that a country does or doesn’t exist? What is the moment when it becomes “real”?
I began to feel the scrape and pinch of a sore throat in the evening. A symptom so quickly? Then again, I did smoke a cigar on Christmas Eve, which I haven’t done in years.
Putin is not the first to question Ukraine’s existence. I find the following in the memoir of Sefton Delmer, the Daily Express journalist, who covered Hitler’s takeover of parts of what is now Ukraine in 1939. He too had always thought that Ukraine was a just a fable made up by ambitious ideologues and scheming politicians but irrelevant to ordinary people. Then he saw Hitler’s Hungarian allies march Ukrainian rebel prisoners
down the main street carrying a heavy log on their shoulders, their hands manacled to it above their heads. They looked typical Slav peasants to me with their round flat faces and blue slit like eyes. As they shambled past, they recognised me and grinned. For the first time I believed there was such a thing as Ukraine.
A country becomes “real” when ordinary people are prepared to die for it: the moment of obliteration is the only time you can tell if something is really there. Death gives reality.
Ukrainian social media is full of pictures of soldiers from the front, all pledging their readiness to fight and die. It’s inspiring to see the photos and then chilling to realize these are suicide posts of sorts. There’s a new poll out which says 24% of Ukrainians will take up weapons in the event of an invasion. Is that low or high? I catch myself thinking. Is 24% a “good” figure, is that enough death to make a nation? I’m revolted by my own thought. What sort of corpse speculation is this? Ukrainians have been fighting every day for seven years.
The media here is full of data and statistics about infection, hospitalization, and death rates from COVID. Each day we follow the numbers and graphs. That too is a way of dealing with the utter uncertainty of the last two years. We pour over death statistics to root ourselves in at least some sense of reality. In America it’s even become a gruesome way to define your political identity: how many deaths are there in “red” versus “blue” states.
Apparently there’s a small store in West Virginia that has a stash of tests. A resourceful friend from Georgia (as in the Caucuses) says she will ask a friend to ask a colleague to get me one.
Sore throat disappeared, but felt shivers in the evening. Then realized heater was broken.
At some point during the first year of COVID I felt so mentally strange I took an official online psychological test that was meant to check whether I was getting clinical depression. The doctor called up soon after. He told me that my diagnosis was bizarre: I had all the signs of high anxiety, but none of depression. I could eat, work, sleep perfectly well. I had no suicidal thoughts. But I did wake every morning feeling the day would bring some terrible disaster. And small things (a nasty tweet, a slight criticism) had me questioning everything I do. When it would start raining heavily outside, I would begin to fear there would be a flood, could envisage the pipes cracking, drains collapsing …
The technical term for this, I’m told, is “catastrophic thinking.” When I began asking friends many told me they were experiencing something similar. This is what happens when you live in permanent uncertainty. Being at peace is when you feel your life is in harmony with an idea you have of how it should be progressing.
My shivers got worse today. Heater still broken. Still waiting on the test.
Putin, the aggressor, keeps on saying it is Russia that is threatened. What do you do with arguments so topsy-turvy? Where the domestic abuser claims that he is the victim? It all sounds more like the prequel to an invasion rather than a negotiating position. I have frenzied calls with DC foreign policy experts: all certain that there will be war.
Phoned friends in Kyiv. I had expected them to be in melt down. Instead they were all simultaneously realistic and sanguine. “If they come, we will fight. We know you won’t help us. But we will not lose any sleep over it” — that was the gist of it. Are they in denial or do they understand something we don’t?
What will the New Year bring? What I wish for most is the ability to plan again, to imagine progress.
It’s the sense of progress, of time heading somewhere, that COVID has undermined so spectacularly. Most obviously there’s the difficulty of scheduling anything. But on a more insidious level COVID undermined one of the deeper myths we live by: that science and humanity can conquer nature. Pandemics of this scale were something I grew up seeing as problems that defined the past. We were over that. But it turns out nature can easily crush our little myths that try to order history into neat lines where benign rationality wins out against disease and barbarism.
Putin too aims to undermine Western myths of progress. His propaganda always turns around the idea that democracy doesn’t lead to prosperity but to war, death, destruction. There is no “arc of history” that bends towards the good. There’s just the Russian mass bombing of civilians in Aleppo; the bombed-out craters of the Donbas. Things that were meant to be sealed as the “past” are broken open: the rights of civilians in war time; borders; peace in Europe …. Putin pushes and pushes to show the stories that we live by are all bunk. And the result is a sense that history has no progress, is timeless and looping. All is uncertain.
Perhaps Putin is comfortable with uncertainty. Anyone who survived and flourished in the Russian 1990s, a time when all hopes for progress, all ideas and ideals, collapsed, will have learned to improvise in a vacuum. The result for Kremlin elites has been a triumphant cynicism, a sense that everything is rotten, especially dreams about democracy.
But Ukrainians also experienced a similar 1990s, and yet they emerged with a democracy, not a dictatorship, and they are ready to fight for it.
The Ukrainian Defense Minister has announced that in the event of an invasion the army will open up weapons depots so the civilian population can arm themselves. I keep on thinking back to a focus group I ran in East Ukraine earlier this year. There was a young man who joined the army after Russia invaded in 2014. He was clearly not enamored of the pro-Western revolution in Kyiv that year and did not relate much to a Ukrainian narrative of national identity based on language and religion. But he volunteered because something of “ours,” an “ours” he couldn’t really define, had been attacked.
What is this “ours”? Foreigners (Russians, Americans, Germans) are often stumped by Ukraine: they see it as a country of different languages, cobbled together, an impossible premise. I’ve spent hundreds of hours running and attending focus groups in Ukraine, and what emerged was the image of a country united in its traumas. They don’t call it “the Bloodlands” for nothing. This is the territory that survived Stalin’s famines and the Nazis and Chernobyl and the 1990s. Which was taken and raped and pillaged by everyone with a weapon in World War I, in the Russian Revolution, in World War II. Where there’s always an invader, a raider, a pestilence, an ecological disaster coming from somewhere. And the result is not so much a set of common abstract ideas, but a common way of doing things. Guarded (sometimes conspiratorial), tolerant (because even small villages speak many languages), adaptable (because you never know what is coming next), self-reliant (who else is there to rely on?). All this is expressed in the universal Ukrainian eye-roll and shrug. It can breed passivity, it can send a reform-minded political activist mad — but it is also supple, resourceful, determined. And, unlike the Kremlin’s triumphant cynicism, which thinks democracy is bunk, it knows that freedom can be a way to safety.
The test arrived today. I pushed the stick hard into my nose and wiggled it around to make sure I got a good sample of goo. The result clearly showed that I was negative. Jubilant, I called my family and told them I would see them soon. They asked if I had scraped my throat as well as my nasal passages. Omicron, they explained, often gives false negatives when you just use your nose. Please test again, they said, this time with the throat. I will need to secure another test from West Virginia. Will have to be after the last holiday weekend.
I phoned Ukraine again to wish friends happy New Year and ask how they coped with endless ambiguity about the future, about the invasion, about others questioning whether they even exist. One called her attitude “doomed optimism,” which she described as a simultaneous recognition of inevitable tragedy and yet a resolve, almost in spite of herself, to strive forwards. Perhaps this “doomed optimism” is the only way to deal with Vladimir COVID. I will hold onto it for the New Year.
Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he co-directs the Arena Initiative, a research project dedicated to overcoming the challenges of digital era disinformation and polarisation. His book on Russian propaganda, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, won the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson, Guardian First Book, Pushkin House and Gordon Burn Prizes. It is translated into over a dozen languages and was dramatized on BBC Radio 4. His latest book, This Is Not Propaganda, was released in August 2019, and won the Gordon Burn Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and regularly presents radio documentaries on BBC Radio 4.