This act of naked aggression has shocked us all. The unfolding scenario is truly dystopian. There is nothing we can usefully add to the waves of condemnation and concern coming from all directions about the invasion of Ukraine by the forces of the Russian Federation.
We try to view it through the eyes of a Ukrainian friend, resident in the UK for many years, whose family lives in the west of the country. At present his family is fine but, unlike them, we shall be able to go through a normal Friday routine punctuated, more than usual perhaps, by anxious visits to news sites. But for us, life goes on. Not for her and her compatriots. One can only imagine what is going through their minds.
And what on earth is going on in Vladimir Putin’s mind? What stories is he telling himself?
The hints we have suggest stories about Mother Russia being violated and humiliated by the western powers after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Stories about Russian peoples being subjugated in now independent states which were once part of the Soviet empire. Stories about his own status as the great warrior-liberator. Stories about western-aligned countries threatening the security of Russia. Stories about a new world order based on a Russian-Chinese axis. So many stories.
And what stories are we telling ourselves about this war? Most of our stories are likely to be those that we are getting from media we believe have reason to trust. Stories which are radically different from Putin’s fictions of liberation. There is remarkable consensus around the narrative that aggressive Russian leaders stand guilty of war crimes. Nothing has given us reason to question that.
So - if there is anything that we can add to the barrage of commentary on what is unfolding in Ukraine it is perhaps a question about the stories we tell ourselves.
We all live by stories. Boris Johnson no doubt believes that he is living out his destiny to be a Churchillian wartime leader. All of us fashion our lives to a remarkable extent according to stories upon which we confer some sort of authority. They might, as in Putin’s case, be nationalistic. They might be familial. They might be biblical, mythical or archetypal. They might simply derive from soap operas. Or from the lives of admired celebrities. Or from contemporary hero figures in computer games. We imitate those who for us have assumed some iconic status. Those whom we admire more than most.
Putin and his cronies are engaging in a perverse and deeply malevolent form of what we all do. We live -and die - by our own stories – either whole or in fragmentary form – many of them sub-conscious and unexamined.
In these dark days, the people of Ukraine have to focus their whole attention on where they can go to avoid the bombs, where the next meal will come from, whether their families are safe, what the future holds for their children. But in this critical moment in modern European history, those of us who have almost taken for granted a Europe without war since 1945, have an important luxury – the opportunity to re-examine our own personal narratives, the lead stories we live by in times of threat, crisis or suffering.
Our own grand narrative invites us to pray for the people of Ukraine and the Russian Federation and others who will feel the ripples of this act of state violence for years to come. And it encourages us to donate funds to support people like the family of our Ukrainian friend.
Photo: (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko) People wave a huge Ukrainian national flag during a rally in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Feb. 23, 2022.