The speed with which globalized calamities hit the news cycle is dizzying these days. We were just learning to deal with the calamities of Donald Trump’s presidency when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The pandemic was still wreaking havoc around the world when environmental calamities reached frightening dimensions. We had just watched Adam McKay’s apocalyptic dark comedy Don’t Look Up (2021) to get a full satirical understanding of our impending climate situation, when suddenly the headlines got thicker and scarier, warning us that Vladimir Putin was about to invade Ukraine.
Believe it or not, just around this time I was invited to Moscow for the launch of a new Russian translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Ultimately, I chose to join the gathering via zoom due to COVID-19 travel restrictions my university had introduced and other obligations that required me to stay in New York. If I had traveled to Moscow, I would probably still be stuck there due to President Joe Biden’s decision to close American skies to Russian planes in response to the all-out invasion launched by Putin on February 24.
Two weeks later, the Russian army is still in Ukraine, fighting its way towards Kiev. But to what end? What will this war accomplish in the midst of a looming climate crisis, a still raging pandemic and massive waves of displacement, famine, death and destruction that are already devastating the world, Afghanistan and Yemen to Ethiopia and Myanmar? This reactivation of Russian imperial anxieties of the 19th century two decades after the environmental calamities of the 21st century really makes no sense.
‘A plague on both your homes’
So how can we keep our heads above the smoke and breathe sane air?
Personally, I always seek the same security blanket – enduring works of art, masterpieces of world literature and music – whenever I feel like the world is heading towards Armageddon from uncontrollably.
Indeed, if I have to sink, I prefer to do so by listening to Shostakovich and Bach, by reading Gogol and Hafez, and by watching El Greco and Behzad, with my worn-out copies of YV Mudimbe’s Invention of Africa and the Truth and Truth from Gadamer. Method at my bedside.
Today, turning to art may be the only way to maintain inner sanity in a mindless world. During the first two weeks of the Ukraine-Russia war, the propaganda war between the United States and Russia reached a feverish climax. Usual liberal Russophobia in the United States has been exacerbated by Trump’s growing right-wing admiration for Putin. As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson reached new heights in his efforts to defend Putin and his invasion, and the usual New York Times suspects began to pound the drums of war, we had to seek coverage from both the liberal Russophobia and conservative declarations of love for a strongman who they believe can help them restore white supremacy in the United States.
The key to staying sane today is being able to condemn Russia’s bold and vulgar act of military aggression against Ukraine without being sucked into the Anglo-American world’s pathological love-hate relationship with Putin.
Of course, it is not easy to ignore the “West’s” obsession with Putin and the exaggeration of his wickedness.
When people ranging from seasoned American idiot Thomas Friedman to best-selling Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari come together to argue that Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine is unlike anything we’ve seen before and is a turning point in human history, it’s hard not to bury your head in your pillow and wonder where these people have gone in the past two decades of American military brutality around the world.
After all, Putin isn’t doing anything in Ukraine that the US hasn’t already done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and so many other places around the world – he’s just doing what he isn’t doing in Asia, in Africa or Latin America, but in Europe. Same military brutality, different bucket.
“Plague on both your houses”, as the bard said so well. Why should innocent people in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq or Yemen pay for imperial arrogance under any flag?
‘We all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’
Back to my survival toolbox. During my adolescence, I enjoyed Russian and American literature – and never had a taste for European literature, with a few exceptions. Among the towering luminaries of my youthful fascination with Russian literature was and remains the glorious novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809-52). My fascination with him started when I read the Persian translation of his Dead Souls. I became so fascinated by him that I even translated into Persian one of his masterpieces, Diary of a Madman (which I never dared to publish because I don’t know Russian and I I felt unable to do the translation only from its English translation – in a country where we were lucky to have Iranian translators from Russian sources with a perfect command of both languages).
For a very long time, I had no idea that Gogol was actually Ukrainian by birth, but Russian by literary culture. And I only remembered this factoid when I found myself listening to Biden and Putin both trying to convince their respective audiences to accept as fact their own gibberish about the war in Ukraine.
As I watched the two presidents fight for the world’s attention, I couldn’t help but think that an entirely different map of the region would emerge if we were to pay attention not to warmongering politicians but to history. literature that reveals the futility of the invasion of one country by another.
Consider Gogol’s Taras Bulba (1835), an epic tale of the lives of Cossack warriors. The novel tells the story of an aging Cossack, Taras Bulba, and his two sons, the youngest of whom falls in love with a Polish woman. Eventually, this son is captured and shot by his own father. In 1842 Gogol published a second version of this novel in which the Russian nationalist themes are more evident. Specialists in Russian literature tell us how this second version of Gogol’s epic novel is actually “the transformation of a Ukrainian tale into a Russian novel” marking “the association of the Cossack and the Russian soul”.
Born in Ukraine, written in Russian, read by the world
In an essay they published in 2017, Giorgi Lomsadze and Nikoloz Bezhanishvili offered us insight into Gogol’s centrality in the Ukrainian-Russian frontier of culture and identity.
“Born in Ukraine, made famous in Russia, Gogol embodies both the ties that unite the two countries and the differences that set them apart. As their relationship deteriorated, the issue of Gogol’s national affiliation repeatedly appeared on a list of issues disputed by Ukraine and Russia.
What is the issue here? Gogol crossed the borders between his native Ukraine and his literary homeland, Russia, with ease, grace, and lasting blessing to both his homelands. When at the age of 20 he left Ukraine for Russia, he brought the gift of his native homeland to a literary promised land. He joins the ranks of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, placing Russian literature on an unequaled pedestal.
But neither was Gogol beholden to Russia, as he became an iconic literary powerhouse satirizing the ruling monarchy. Did a Russian thug tell Gogol, “Go back where you came from,” as American thugs regularly tell anyone who points out the terror of white supremacist racism in this country? Quite the contrary. “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat,” none other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky would have said of one of Gogol’s masterpieces.
In an earlier essay in 2009, Tom Parfitt detailed Russian-Ukrainian rivalries claiming Gogol for themselves.
“First it was politics, then it was gas. Now the protracted antagonism between Russia and Ukraine takes on a literary tinge, as bickering neighbors vie for Nikolai’s legacy Gogol on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
But while Russia and Ukraine battled to claim Gogol’s literary glory, people around the world who are neither Russian nor Ukrainian have equal if not more legitimate love and admiration for Gogol, not based on location. his birth or the language of his literary production, but for the quintessence of his wit, his wisdom and his sublime sense of humour.
From the remnants of the Russian Empire emerged the Soviet Union, and from the relics of the Soviet Union survived Russia. Today, traumatic memories of two great empires, one czarist, the other communist, haunt Russia’s self-image. Putin’s military follies in Ukraine are neither the beginning of anything nor the end of anything else.
Under Putin, Russia has been active in its own backyard in Chechnya with brutal precision, then in Syria, supporting a violent thug on his bloodthirsty throne with expanded global ambitions. Neither the jingoism of Russian nationalism, nor the nonsense of American pundits thinking that this invasion is a new turning point towards “the end of history” and of civilization, nor in fact the horrible European racism once again at the poster that privileges Ukrainian refugees over millions of others, is the real problem here.
By ceasing to follow the propaganda machines of Russia and the United States, the world had better turn to Gogol, a Ukrainian master of Russian literature, and to the liminal space he fashions in his literary heritage superior, by thinking where the real borders lie between civilization and barbarism.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.