Putin’s Pickle

Vladimir Putin
Photo by Alexei NikolskyTASS via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 3, 2022

One thing that’s been on my mind recently, in fielding questions on TV or in casual conversation about the Russia-Ukraine crisis, is how quickly the political-media narrative calcifies into conventional wisdom. I don’t think that people necessarily do this out of malice. There’s a lot going on in the world at all times, and most people don’t have the bandwidth to follow it all, let alone incorporate all the necessary nuance—especially if you aren’t an expert in the area. 

So with that in mind, I want to share five broader thoughts that I’ve had while reading and thinking about the current Ukraine crisis, in addition to talking to domain experts and people with deep first-hand knowledge of the situation. 

We Still Don’t Know Anything

It’s tempting, as a lover of history, to imagine the present crisis from the perspective of some future historian. Or, if this had happened 100 years ago, how would we see it today? And what jumps out at me immediately is how we mistakenly perceive history as occurring in spasms. An army invades. A treaty is signed. Even when we read more scholarly works, describing all the behind-the-scenes details and negotiations and movements, we still don’t fully understand what it was like to experience events as they were unfolding. I recently ran across this sentiment, perfectly captured in W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”