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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyMiIAwUHcU “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.