Ukraine; Advice for Would-Be Emperors

The Great Gate of Kiev by Victor Hartmann, the painting Mussorgsky had in mind


I started this on March 1— Chopin’s birthday, by the way— with a lot of thoughts about the war in Ukraine that have since been expressed ad nauseam in a range of publications, like the parallels with the Iraq war. You’ve heard all that already, so I’ll move on.

As I sit here with a yellow flower for Ukraine pinned to my shirt, worrying, I’m also wondering what’s happening in the other war zones in the world. Has there been any improvement in getting aid to starving kids in Yemen? Are things any better with the horrors in Ethiopia? How are people managing in Syria, since we’ve turned our attention away from there? And Afghanistan— we know how bad that is. Perhaps our witnessing of the destruction in Ukraine, in real time on the screens we carry with us, will help us remember the suffering going on elsewhere. And maybe do something about it.

I’m not Ukrainian, but I’m kind of a cousin and neighbor. My mother’s family came from far eastern Slovakia, just west of the border with Ukraine. It’s quite possible that I have relatives who actually live and/or work in Ukraine right now. The woman I have apparent memories of from the 19th century, Delfina Potocka, was born in Podolia, which then was part of Poland but now is in Ukraine.

I am hyper-aware of the long history of Russia taking over these regions and even declaring that independent countries no longer exist, as it did with Poland a couple of centuries ago. Vladimir Putin appears to be driven by a vision of recreating that old imperial Russia, and I feel that my Slovak relatives, along with the Poles and the Hungarians and the Lithuanians and the Azerbaijanis and the rest, all have targets on their backs. I feel almost that I have a target on my own back— even more so knowing that Putin will try to crush the LGBTQ+ community. There is no reason to expect that he will stop at any other border if he is allowed to take Ukraine.

The situation is changing by the hour, and by the time you read this, lord only knows where we will all be. 

There has been a lot of discussion of Putin’s mental health. I referred to him as a madman the other day and got some pushback. Let me explain, though. I didn’t mean that his behavior was necessarily irrational, though people who knew him when he first came to power say he is very different now and may not be all there anymore. Taking the premises he started with into account, his current path is logical and part of a very long-range plan, even though right now it’s clear that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. 

However, I submit that the whole idea of invading a country one wants to control with such brutal tactics, destroying human lives, infrastructure, farmlands, everything in the process, is intrinsically insane. It’s the old saw about “destroying the village to save it.” I’ve never understood how these despots think. Assad is perhaps the ultimate example— he wants to remain the ruler of Syria, but he’s left so little of the country intact, what is there to rule? Wouldn’t it have been better to leave the people alive, with their homes and factories and farms, and rule over a prosperous and proud nation? What has he gained?

Putin seems to be going in a similar direction, with his own country as well as the coveted one being brought to its knees economically and perhaps morally. He may well be able to hang on to his position, but he could have had so much more.  Compared to his long, insidious, cunning takeover of Russia, this venture has been shockingly ill-conceived.  Only a leader isolated from reality and surrounded by nothing by yes-men could have expected that Ukrainians would immediately capitulate and even welcome his troops with flowers.  I can’t help but think of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner.

I mean, that is insanity.


My advice to these would-be emperors is very simple, sure-fire, and unlike war, not particularly expensive. It’s also something they would never consider.

It is this: Be nice.

Think about it. Say you’re a dictator with a big country of your own, but you are feeling threatened by nations a bit off to the west of your border. You want a buffer between you and them, and the nice big juicy country next door looks awfully tempting. You could try beating them into submission, but suddenly you realize that you don’t have to.

The neighbors share a similar culture with yours, and some of them even speak your language, so it’s easy to get started. You’re kind of ticked that they split off from your empire a few decades ago, but you decide to be magnanimous and look past that. “Brothers and sisters,” you proclaim, “let us begin a new era of friendship and cooperation!”

They’re a little skeptical, but they like the new trade deal you propose. You start a big cultural exchange program, too, and send your best musicians and dancers to tour the place. Your soccer teams play each other. You go on like this for quite a while, flattering, ingratiating, and investing. At every moment you make it clear that you have the greatest possible respect for their majestic nation and history, and that you would never, never do anything to threaten their sovereignty and self-determination, so that they don’t get interested in rebelling. All the while you’re pursuing joint ventures that make their smaller economy more and more dependent on yours.

You wanted their land, their stuff, and their loyalty. You get access to all of that without firing a shot.

In a few years, the neighbors are every bit as entwined with your side of the border as they had been when they were part of your empire. They have no reason to join other alliances against you, since associating with you has brought so many advantages. Your people enjoy the fruits of both country’s labors, and you do very nicely with what you skim off the top. War would have drained your coffers, but instead you’ve made a profit. You settle into your cushy palace and name yourself President for Life, and nobody minds. You have all the power you could possibly want. Someone could still put poison in your tea, but you’re relatively insulated because wealth and influence are spread around, and those who have them have good reasons to leave your regime in place.

I’m serious. I bet this would work, and unless you truly enjoy blowing things up and massacring families, it would be a lot more fun and a lot less stress. I’m pretty sure that something like it has even been done at times, though I can’t remember where it might have been. It would be completely reasonable, even to someone who cares only about himself, completely compatible with self-interest.

It’s just not how human minds work, at least not the power-hungry ones.

Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk played with the New Mexico Philharmonic on February 26. The planned program included Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2, but it was changed at the last minute to Prokofiev’s first piano concerto, Prokofiev having been born in the Donetsk region of what is now Ukraine.

Maestro Roberto Minczuk introduced the program along with Gavrylyuk. Although Minczuk is from Brazil, he has distant family in Ukraine, so he is feeling deeply connected with the horrors there. The two gave a heartfelt talk about the situation and the program they had chosen. They mentioned that there had been a cancellation at Carnegie Hall and Gavrylyuk had been asked to play there, but he had said, “No, I’m playing with the New Mexico Philharmonic that day.” So now I love him all the more.

The audience went berserk. We whooped and hollered, and someone in the back of the hall yelled “VIVA UKRAINE.” The orchestra members were wearing blue and yellow ribbons. It was A Happening.

The concert began in an unusual way, with a set of piano solos. Gavrylyuk started with Kocsis’ complex and difficult arrangement of Rachmaninov’s haunting “Vocalise.” Then he played the end of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” with an incredibly powerful rendition of the “Great Gate of Kiev” theme that I swear they must have heard in Moscow. Not that it was so terribly loud, but every molecule in his body was totally focused on producing this resounding effect, and the hundreds of people in the hall seemed to be one organism all concentrated on the stage.

Here’s a little bit of the flavor of the Mussorgsky. It’s nothing like the experience that blew me away in my seat in the second row, but you’ll get the idea: “The Great Gate of Kiev” is getting a lot of play these days.

As far as I could tell, the whole audience stayed fired up throughout the rest of the concert. But then, as I was walking out, I heard a woman ask her companion how she’d liked the show. “I thought it was long and boring,” replied the other woman. “I kept falling asleep.” I could not imagine that.

The fantastic Steinway that Gavrylyuk played, the best I’ve ever heard, was picked out just a few months ago by the Russian expat pianist Olga Kern, who has adopted Albuquerque and located her piano competition here. She has a special relationship with Rachmaninov, and I’ve been practicing some of his work myself lately. It’s complicated.

By the way, there is no actual Great Gate of Kiev. It was only a painting of a proposed structure that was never built, and was intended to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1866.  The Russian eagle tops the cupola.  Like I said, it’s complicated.




Filed under history, human rights, politics

14 responses to “Ukraine; Advice for Would-Be Emperors

  1. I wrote this comment to Robert Wright’s “Nonzero” blog post about whether Putin is crazy, on 3/22/22:
    Just now I was watching a documentary about Angela Merkel on PBS. They recounted how Putin, knowing that Merkel had been bitten by a dog and was afraid of them, pointedly brought his big black Lab (or similar-looking canine), to a meeting with her, bringing the dog up to sit at her feet. Merkel kept her cool, and the dog was extremely well-behaved and friendly, but it was a naked example of gratuitous bullying. Merkel’s explanation of the event was that Putin knew Germany was doing far better economically than Russia and that he had nothing else to use to insist that he was her equal, or her superior.

    GW Bush (whose name I am sorry to bring up) also recounted how Putin laughed at the Bushes’ Scotty dog, Barney, and showed up with his own “bigger, stronger, faster” dog. A man who is so insecure that he must use a dog to prove his manliness is a twitchy and difficult man to deal with at the very least. Very much along the lines of our recent former president, except that the latter has never kept a pet.

    So here we have a small-spirited, petty bully– with nukes.

    To me, and I would suppose, to you with your meditation practice, all these things are the workings of one overall mind, the mind of the whole human species. Each of us has the potential to be petty and vindictive and murderous, as well as to be so much more and better than that. That’s how I experience both cognitive and emotional empathy. I hope the deep sickness in us that is manifesting right now has a cure.

    And as you pointed out, it needs to be soon, because the planet isn’t waiting for us to work out our squabbles among ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Elene,

      Speaking of “a small-spirited, petty bully– with nukes”, in my post entitled “We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology“, I have created and featured the following image:

      This illustration has a resolution of 4038 by 2539 pixels and is titled “We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology with Nuclear Holocaust“.

      Regarding Russia, you only need to substitute the lady in the foreground with an image of Putin, and perhaps change some or all of the medieval buildings to their Russian counterparts in order to depict “We have Putin, Russia and Nukes”.

      As for the USA, you can do the same by replacing the lady with Trump or any other pro-nuclear agents.

      The world ecological crisis and the threat of nuclear war aside, we are perhaps already accelerating inexorably towards some eventual calamities or runaway cataclysms, being well on track in facilitating a wholesale and terminal decline of Homo sapiens, a species unable to transcend its own fate, incapable of fathoming let alone solving the great riddle of life, and succumbing in due course to not merely a surfeit of wayward violence and aggressive expansion but also exiguous comprehension of its own existential mess, pernicious strain and destructive streak, never mind the spectres of an even deadlier pandemic (whether zoonotic or genetically engineered), industrial disaster, biochemical apocalypse and nuclear holocaust as well as all-out cyberwarfare, cyberterrorism and cyberattacks.

      Yours sincerely,


  2. Dear Elene,

    Russia has been a very bad neighbour indeed for many countries, even back in 2008 for Georgia. Given that the Eurovision Song Contest had just happened about ten days ago, let me resonate with the spirit and tenet of your post as follows with the 2009 entry into the contest by Georgia, aptly named “We Don’t Wanna Put In”:

    For your interest, here are the notes pertaining to the video:

    The disqualified Georgian Eurovision Song Contest entrants Stefane and 3G are now releasing the track across Europe and the UK and have made it clear their support will be with the UK entry this year.

    The band were disqualified from the competition owing to the controversial lyrics in their song Dont Wanna Put In which supposedly reflect anti-Russian sentiments and more importantly is a direct reaction to Putins involvement in the Russian Georgia conflict that was widely reported last year (Dont Wanna Put-in)

    The song became the winning song to represent Georgia at the Eurovision competition, with a large majority of the votes, but after huge complaints and uproar from the Russians (who are hosting the event this year in Moscow) the song was disqualified by the Eurovisions multinational panel of judges for violating the contests prohibition of songs with overtly political content. Georgia now have no entrant for the competition this year, the perfect case study to reflect Wogans views that Eurovision has become too political.

    The eccentric group who have been hailed as the return of disco are furious that they have been robbed of the chance to represent their country and have decided they are going to be releasing the track across Europe anyway on May 11th and this includes here in the UK. Funnily enough, it has been a huge hit on certain Russian websites that stream music.

    Ukraine has won the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest due to popular sentiment! It remains to be seen how the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest can be viably and safely held in Ukraine.

    Both Russia and Belarus are not participants this year.

    Yours sincerely,


    • How about that! I read about the Eurovision contest and the Ukrainian winners, and heard the winning song, but before that had never heard of the contest. (I don’t follow American Idol either.)

      Russia has certainly been a terrible neighbor to my relatives in eastern Slovakia, just a few miles from the Ukrainian border, and my friends in Poland, over recent centuries.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Elene,

    Hello! I adore Kocsis Zoltán’s piano transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Here is a version showcasing the fantastic score and playing:

    Yours sincerely,


    • Yes, Gavrylyuk played the Kocsis version, which I looked up soon after the concert and tried. It’s quite difficult, but there is another that’s even less accessible and doesn’t seem to work as well– I can’t remember the name of the other composer right at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Elene,

    Like you, I like to listen to (and also used to learn to play) the compositions of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. If you would be so kind and/or curious as to entertain seeing some of my scores or even learn to play my original compositions, then please allow me the honour of introducing you to one of my published works entitled “The Last Rag“, which is the second movement of my Second Piano Sonata entitled “The Time Beyond“. You are very welcome to listen to the music and examine my musical scores presented in a post of the same title “🎼🎹—THE—🎹—LAST—🎹—RAG—🎹🎵🎶“, which you can easily locate from the Home page of my blog.

    Yours sincerely,


    • I like the piece! Is there a way to get the score more easily than by viewing each separate page on your site?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Elene,

        Both versions of the scores can be downloaded from the post.

        Here is an easier way. For page 1 of the 1996 original edition, visit the following link:

        For pages 2 to 6, just change the corresponding page number in the link. For example, to download page 2:

        Yours sincerely,


        • Thanks! I was hoping to be able to download the whole thing at once, but this will work.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Dear Elene,

            Similarly, for page 1 of the 2010 special edition, visit the following link:

            For pages 2 to 6, just change the corresponding page number in the link. However, for page 4 alone, please use the following link

            Yours sincerely,


          • Great! I’ve got the whole 1996 version downloaded now and I look forward to trying it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Dear Elene,

            The 2010 special edition is a more difficult, complex version.

            Should you decide to record your playing of my piece as an audio and/or video file(s) for posterity, I would love to feature them in my said post. Meanwhile, or from time to time, you are very welcome to submit any number of comments to my said post to critique the piece (even to the extent of referring to specific bar numbers in the scores) and/or to discuss your processes of tackling the piece.

            Yours sincerely,


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