Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Kennan Diaries: Part 1

I am currently working my way through the recently published The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  The journals of interesting people make for compelling reading, and so I expect to finish within a few days.  Born in 1905, Kennan recorded his first journal entry at age 11.  He penned his last 88 years later at age 99, two years before his death at 101 years of age.   
I would venture to say that most Americans today have never heard of the man.  History, however, will be kind to Kennan, I think.  In the realm of foreign diplomacy, commentators and scholars increasingly reference him for insight into the particular crisis of the month.  In time, I believe the writings of George F. Kennan will perhaps be to the 20th-century what Toqueville’s are to the 19th. 

Characterized by endless frustrations and set-backs, Kennan’s career in the Foreign Service did not, on first glance, appear particularly successful.  Indeed, in a fit of exasperation, he declared that he was nothing more than a “glorified clerk.”  An intense man, Kennan immersed himself so completely into Soviet Russia during his first posting there that he suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown.  His two ambassadorial postings—to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in 1961—ended disastrously.  For all his brilliance, Kennan had a penchant for the injudicious and careless remark, which torpedoed his ambassadorships.
Kennan’s legacy, however, is to be found in his written word.  He is best known, of course, for the “Long Telegram” of 1946, from which the Cold War policy of Containment evolved.  He advised neither compromise nor confrontation with the Soviet Union, and advocated the strengthening of institutions at home, as well as the rebuilding of Europe (the Marshall Plan was largely his idea.)  Very quickly, however, successive American administrations molded his idea into whatever they wanted it to mean.  And so, Kennan spent much of the last 50 years of his life explaining why the pursuits of particular policies were not at all what he meant.  As a discredited Cassandra, sidelined from any real input into policy, his warnings went generally unheeded. 

The reason Kennan is somewhat back in vogue now is that History has proven him to have been prescient more often than not.  He scorned the notion of an ideological “war on Communism” (as he would later scorn the notion of a “war on terror”).  He was appalled at the arms race and opposed the expansion of nuclear armaments into Europe, advancing the idea of a united and demilitarized Germany.  Kennan spoke out against the Vietnam War early on, and enthusiastically backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968.  He worried that the fall of the Soviet bloc was “too sudden.”  He opposed our intervention into Somalia upon supposedly humanitarian grounds.   Kennan thought the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to be the worst foreign policy blunder of his lifetime.  This, of course, was before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  At age 97, he and Eugene McCarthy met in Washington to speak out against this folly.  To dismiss him as a simple isolationist is to totally misunderstand the thrust of his arguments.  Kennan believed that the best approach abroad was to strengthen those domestic institutions that would bind the American people together and give meaning and structure to our larger society. 

The great irony of Kennan’s career is that he is credited with articulating our Cold War strategy against Soviet Russia, while concurrently pursuing a lifelong infatuation with all things Russian.    Kennan even liked to think of himself as Russian, writing “my Russian self…is much more genuine than the American one.”  In a letter to his sister, he noted that he would “rather be sent to Siberia among them (which certainly would happen to me …if I were a Soviet citizen) than to live in Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”  Kennan despised the Soviet government, but as his journals clearly illustrate, this was not from any ideological opposition to Communism (for he was scathing in his criticism of American capitalism and the bourgeoisie), but rather from the harsh paranoid Soviet policies that limited the contact he so desired with average Russians.

His journals are a rare treat, and I will be posted some excerpts, in chronological order. 

Washington, March 17
     "I pace the city like a man who is lost:  across the viaduct, into the muddy paths of Rock Creek Park where the snow has not yet melted, through the lines of white-pillared houses between Sixteenth Street and the Park.  I know this city as I know my own name, and yet there is something which I cannot find.  Somewhere, in one or another of these quiet streets, there must be genuine beauty and life, to solve the riddle.  Somewhere there must be the hidden key of significance, to unlock the meaning of this preposterous, mocking Sunday afternoon!
     Or is there no key?  Does all the life and purpose of this country flow so relentlessly into its workshops and its offices that on the days when these are closed there is nothing left but a vast, senseless desolation of stone and steel and aimless motion?  A world of lost faces, drifting helplessly in the vacuum of their own restlessness?"

Reval [Tallinn], August 5

     Week-end visit to Carlson at Hapsal.

     "I leave Reval in an execrable humor.  I feel physically tired and repulsive; I hate the world, and the world hates me.  I resent Reveal, and all the people in it; it angers me that I should have to visit Carlson when I do not want to.... It was kind and good of Carlson to ask me.  He meant well by it.  Yet what right have these people to force on me their drab world and their rigorous, middle-class standards?  What right have they, to demand, as they will, that I adapt myself to their conventions, that I play up to their weaknesses and their prejudices?

     We sit a long time at dinner, the Carlson and the Britisher chatting, while I sulk.... And what can these people know of that hope and that mystery, sitting here and chatting their foreign-colony gossip?  Their whole lives have degenerated into foreign colony gossip and they would like to pull mine down to their same level.

     The Britisher asks me if I play bridge.  I say yes, but that I do not intend to play it in Reval.  I say that I expect to do some studying and in general to be pretty busy.

     The Britisher laughs.  'That's what they all say', he replies, 'but before long they are playing around and having as good a time as the rest of them.'

       That makes my blood boil.  Damn him, do I look like the 'rest of them?'. Does he think that I, too, have so little strength of character, so few resources within myself, that I will be forced to seek refuge from boredom, as they have done, in the dull pettiness of foreign-colony social life?

     In the morning I feel stuffy and bilious.  Sunshine floods the cool garden, mocking my bitterness.  At breakfast, I sense the hostility.  I am not surprised.  I deserve it.  Before the others are through eating, Mrs. Carlson suggest that I amuse myself as I see fit.  I take the hint and excuse myself.  As I walk away, I can feel the remarks which I cannot hear.  They are all against me.  I am not their kind."

Reval, September 5

     "I was overcome with an unbearable depression.  It seemed to me that America was full of puzzled young men living tragedies, seeking pitifully in the results of their occupations some excuse for the throwing away of their own lives."

Reval, September 6

     "I feel, sometimes, the temptation to escape from the ordinary futile trend of our times by visiting strange places, doing strange things, seeing strange people.  There is always the allure about the place where no American has ever been, and one feels, when one gets there, that one has shaken off the shackles of his own environment, and has elevated himself above his fellow-citizens who stayed at home.
     It is a dangerous mistake.  The period of discovery is nearing its close.  Scourged by boredom, nitwits pursue the rare and exotic to the ends of the earth.  There is little that remains unseen, undescribed.  Halliburton's travel lecturers, wealthy professors, they all swarm through the few dim regions that have thus far resisted the twentieth century.  Anybody can travel, who has health and persistence.  Talking movies, radio, radio movies, these will soon destroy the few small fragments of the unusual which have still been
preserved from the profane view.
     Where, then, lies the escape from the squirrel-cage?  Where is the opportunity to raise one's self, by sacrifice and hardship, if need be, out of the whirlpool of the commonplace?

     It lies in depth, rather than breadth.  Our civilization is like a body of water which, lacking profundity, spreads out over its own banks and floods the countryside with a thin sheet of stagnant water.  Like a glutton reaching for new and rare morsels, heaving undigested those which he already has, it fastens with fleeing, uncomprehending curiosity on one thing after another, strips each of its coverings, gapes idiotically at it, and finally discards it again in a library or museum.  Always something new, for God's sake, something new.

     Yes, the solution lies only in depth.  There is nothing new under the sun, in the ordinary sense excerpt ourselves.  It is not farther away from all that we are familiar with, that we are going to make discoveries, but rather deeper down in our own selves, about which we know everything, and understand nothing.
 Reval, October 20

     "That's why I am probably always going to be a considerable radical." [After commenting in letter to sister about how much he despised the "boundless optimism" felt by many Americans about their "perpetual prosperity."]


Berlin, May 30
     "I rejected the communists, I said, because of their innate cowardice and their intellectual insolence.

     They had abandoned the ship of Western European civilization like a swarm of rats, when they considered it to be sinking, instead of staying on and trying to keep it afloat.  Abandoning the ship, they had grasped at a theory for economic adjustment, possibly right though somewhat antiquated, and had hoped by means of this theory to cross at a bound the gulf across which the rest of mankind had been struggling through centuries of slow and painful progress.  They had credited their own intelligence with powers far greater than those of all previous generations, had laughed at all the things which have stirred and troubled men for centuries, had called all their forefathers and most of their contemporaries hopeless fools.  I was not a religious man, I said, but this impertinence struck me as a form of sacrilege, cultural and intellectual sacrilege, if you will, as a tremendous blasphemy against all the previous struggling and suffering and sacrificing of the human animal.  I felt that it must some day be punished as all ignorant presumption and egotism must be punished.

     I tried to make it clear that this applied to communism only in its international aspect.  As a purely Russian phenomenon it might have a different meaning; for Russia it might be a constructive necessary development in a certain sense.  For us in the West, though, it could only be regarded as a Untergangserscheinung, a sign of retrogression."


Riga, May 7

     "I returned from London on the George Washington, as I recall.  There were several hundred Rotarians on board.  I find this entry in a notebook:  Several hundred Rotarians on board.  I seek their company, somewhat shyly, not because if affords me any pleasure or profit, but because I want to find something in their way of thought to which I can attach myself.  After all, if I am not an American, then I am nothing at all.
     It strikes me that while they are all nice people, there is not a real lady or gentleman among them.  These are the people whose interests I am supposed to defend.  I am not sorry to do it; they are good naïve people, most of them--kind and generous.  They work hard at home and deserve their place in the sun.  But they are children, and it is a bore to have to protect children from their environment when you cannot discipline them and teach them to protect themselves.

     Also from the notebook:

     Golf is a game for people who like walking but are afraid of being left to their own thoughts.

     Bridge is a game for people who don't even like to walk."

Thursday, March 06, 2014

My Dad

My dad was born 100 years ago today.  Anyone who lives long enough to say this of a parent must themselves consider the lengthening shadows of their own mortality.  But he has now been gone for almost 29 years, and a day does not pass that I do not think of him.  He was my hero.

My dad was born in the Texas Hill Country, on his grandfather’s farm, about 3 miles up Gann’s Creek from where it empties into the Lampasas River at the village of Maxdale.  The second son of Henry and Lillie, he was given the name “John L Henry” after his maternal grandfather and his own father, who himself was named after a favorite uncle.  For those unfamiliar with our state, the Hill Country is a rugged region in central Texas, characterized by rocky hills of cedar and live oaks, idyllic valleys watered by clear running streams, and home to deer and sheep and goats.  It is, frankly, the best part of our state—not necessarily for just the aesthetics, but rather for the quality of its citizens.  They are a straight-forward people who look life head-on, yet seem to appreciate the simple joys of living.  Hill Country folk tend to look west, rather than east, back to the Old South.  Slavery never tainted the region, and the defeatism and class divisions that weigh so heavy in the South find no home here.  From what I can gather, it was an egalitarian culture, with few of the very wealthy or the desperately poor.  Differences in circumstances were measured in number of acres owned, but most everybody lived much the same.  Today it is increasingly home to the elite, who want a ranch hangout or deer lease within easy driving range of Austin or San Antonio.  But back in the day, it was more of a hardscrabble place, where farmers and ranchers had to work hard to pull a living from the rocky soil.  Except for my college years, I have never lived there.  But I have spent my entire life going back there.  In his youth, my son called it "the Old Country." I like that.

My grandparents, Henry and Lillie, were grade school sweethearts, living on either side of the Lampasas River.  They were a perfectly yoked team, you might say, complimenting each other and making a happy home for their offspring. The stories that came down in our family—and those I’ve added from the cousins now long gone—all speak to the good times of a bygone era.  Decades ago, after our family had been gone from this region for many years, I sought out my dad’s kin.  Once these cousins learned I was the grandson of Henry and Lillie, then all doors opened for me, for it seemed that they were everyone’s favorite cousins.

I get the idea that they were interested in the larger world around them, and not just obsessed with getting the crop laid by, as important as that was.  A town aunt enabled my granddad and his sisters to receive an excellent education at the Wedemeyer Academy.  The sisters went on to graduate from college.  My granddad took a keen interest in politics—perhaps too much so.  He was on the school board for the little rural school down the road from their last farm.  My grandmother came from humbler means, and worked in a department store to help support her widowed mother and unmarried sisters.  Quite by chance, I discovered an article she submitted to a journal in 1916.  During the 1920s, they owned a victrola and would occasionally dance around the parlor together at night.  Lillie was a joyous Christian, faithful to her church.  She usually sang while she worked.  She could play the musical instruments available to them—piano, organ, violin, accordion, French harp, etc.  She bobbed her hair in the mid 1920s.

My dad had a lifelong love affair with horses.  My granddad and his sisters sold the farm when my dad was five.  But even at this young age, my granddad would place his son on old Star, the gentle mare that the family had for so long, and then my dad would ride down to Maxdale.  There, one of the men at the general store would bring the mail out to him, and then the little boy and Star would trot back home.  Within a year or two of his death, I remember my dad racing across our big hay meadow on his quarter horse, lariat in hand, after a steer that had peeled away from the corral.  And so, of my dad’s 71 years, at least 66 of them were spent on horseback.

The family moved around a bit after leaving Maxdale, first living on Lillie’s aunt’s place, then near Henry’s uncle.  In about 1928, they purchased a farm of their own in the Harmon community. They raised a number of crops--vegetables, cotton, grain—and had some cattle, dairy and otherwise, as well as hogs and sheep.  The family, at that time, consisted of four boys and an only daughter.  The four boys were a handful, as the saying goes.  I once talked with a woman who went to school with my dad, and whose two sisters married my granddad’s cousins.  I think she had been a little sweet on my dad.  She more or less characterized the oldest brother as the proud one, my dad as the smart one, the third son as the mischievous one, and the fourth son as the good one—and she had them pegged. 

My grandmother doted on her oldest son, which caused him to hold himself aloof from his brothers.  This attitude insured that he would be the brunt of pranks instigated by my dad and his next younger brother.  What one wouldn’t think of, the other would.  Sometimes they would enlist the services of the good-natured fourth brother, though they could just as easily turn their attentions to his discomfort, as well. These stories are legion in the family, but two of them stand out as favorites—and both concern my oldest uncle’s courting days.  One night, my uncle had a female guest over to the house.  The other children were instructed to stay out of the way, and leave the front parlor to the young couple.  My dad and his next younger brother climbed up the ladder into the attic.  They took a cat with them as they went.  There they opened the stovepipe coming up through the attic from the parlor.  As it was warm weather, there was no fire in the store, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to stuff the cat down the stovepipe.  The courting downstairs quickly broke up amidst the screeching cat and the soot.  My dad shimmied down the ladder and out the back door as quick as he could.  His partner, however, was rolling on the floor of the attic, convulsed with laughter.  By the time my uncle had composed himself enough to effect an escape, it was too late.  My granddad was waiting at the foot of the ladder, belt in hand.  Another story had the two brothers sneaking off to the barn as the older brother was preparing to ride off to visit a neighbor girl.  Before their brother could leave, they got a water hose and gave his horse an enema.  The results were as you would expect when my uncle mounted his horse and spurred her on.  And then there was the story I learned only in recent years.  My grandparents and the younger children had gone into town.  Left at home alone, my dad and his younger brother gave each other Mohawk haircuts, stripped down to nothing or next to it, then spent the day galloping around the neighborhood bareback, whooping and hollering as the wild Indians that they were.

My dad was the entrepreneurial one of the bunch.  His father gave him an acre out of the corner of the place where he could raise whatever he wanted and keep the profits for himself.  From this patch my dad raised enough cotton to purchase an old roadster in his teenage years.  My dad wanted to go to Texas A&M and become a county agricultural engineer.  He graduated high school in 1932, but my granddad talked him into working for a year first.  My dad said that by the time that year was up, he knew that there would be no college in his future.  My granddad was, in fact, deeply in debt.  My dad told me once that he never knew they were poor.  The family lived modestly, but Henry and Lillie enjoyed life and each other, so much so that their children never contemplated the fact that they might be poor. 

In the fall of 1933, my dad, his next youngest brother and my granddad went out to the High Plains to pick cotton.  A cousin made good out there and there was work to be had.  My granddad and uncle returned home, but my dad stayed on a while in the Panhandle.   He returned to central Texas just before Christmas, 1933.  He pulled up to the farmstead and received a shock.  The place was empty—no stock in the barns, no chickens and turkeys pecking around the yard, no furniture in the house, no farm equipment of any sort.  My dad’s own personal horse and saddle were gone as well.  At some point, their kindly German neighbor, Mr. Falkenberg, stepped over and explained what happened.  After the stock market crash of 1929, agriculture prices dropped precipitously, and then leveled off.  My grandfather thought that this would be a good time to expand, while prices for equipment and stock were low as well.  The big mercantile establishment (really a bank) in Lampasas outfitted him in new farm equipment and stock.  Of course, the leveling off after the drop in prices turned out to be just a plateau before they plummeted to new depths.  My granddad was never able to pull out of the hole.  Finally, just before Christmas of 1933, the Lampasas firm arrived on the farm and repossessed everything, including my dad’s personal horse and saddle.

I have often thought about this day, my 19-year old dad standing there in the yard of their lost farm, and how it affected him.  I know this: It marked him, as the old country saying goes.  This, and the events that soon followed, marked him for life.

My dad found his family living in a nearby town.  My granddad was able to keep his old truck, and was earning a bit of money here and there by hauling for hire.  Money had to be found somewhere, for my grandmother, at age 44, was expecting their sixth child.  She had not had a child in ten years, though there had been two miscarriages along the way.  Their doctor warned her about becoming pregnant again.  My grandfather tried to borrow money for a hysterectomy, but to no avail.  And so, in late February, she gave birth to my last uncle.  Their regular doctor was unavailable, and Lillie refused the expense of going to the hospital in Temple.  Complications set it and her condition deteriorated.  At last, they took her to the hospital anyway, but it was too late and she soon died.  Her body was taken to her grandparent’s home, from where the funeral was held, followed by burial in the family plot under the live oaks, not 300 feet away.

Times were desperate.  Family members stepped in to help, as much as they could, but my grandfather resisted the breaking-up of the family.  My dad and his next younger brother took action to help the family and provide for their younger siblings still at home.  In April 1934, my dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government assistance program.  Half of his salary would be automatically sent home for the benefit of his family.  Within the last two years, my aunt--the sole surviving sibling--told me with tears in her eyes how it was my dad’s money that had fed them during these tough times.

The Corps transferred my dad to a camp in East Texas, where he was stationed for two and a half years, with temporary postings in the Pecos Mountains and in Oregon as well.  He learned the skill of land surveying in the CCCs.  This would be the profession he would follow for the rest of his life.  Some might say he was a self-made man, and of course, in some sense he was.  But he never loudly made this claim himself.  He never discounted the assistance and training he received from the government during the mean years of the Depression.  In later life, somewhat awash in prosperity, he never complained about having to pay taxes.  He would say, “If I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have to pay it.”  My dad was a citizen, in the best sense of that word.  And he remained throughout life, a good Democrat (though with one slip.)

While stationed in East Texas, my dad met my mother.  He saw her at work in a field as he drove down a country road.  Today, my nephew owns that very same pasture.  I cannot think of two people as different in background and temperament as my dad and mother.  And yet, they made a good team.  He could put things together and make things happen, while she would see that they hung on to some of it.  In her own way, my mother was a great woman, but this is not her story I’m telling today. 

Her immediate family was poor, though it had not always been so.  Her great-grandfather had been prosperous, a gin-owner with close to 800 acres of land.  But there were many grandchildren, and so this turned out to be of no great advantage to my mother’s father.  He compounded things by marrying—at age 16—the daughter of one of his grandfather’s sharecroppers.  My mother’s father was a quiet man, peculiar in the peculiar ways of his very peculiar family.  His new bride was of a different sort—domineering, opinionated, stubborn, and not a little crazy.  The well was poisoned early in her relations with her mother-in-law, and with six children in nine years, their lives never rose above the bleakness of a Southern sharecropper’s life.  Unlike my dad’s family, there are no stories of good times or amusing anecdotes—only the struggle to live. 

My mother’s mother doted on the two youngest children, and more or less ignored the others, including my mother.  My mother’s next youngest brother was best of the lot, and the only one who emerged from that family seemingly unscathed.  He was a prince of a man, who died all too soon.  The others—including my mother—carried the scars of their upbringing.  She was not particularly self-reflective, and was often deeply suspicious of those outside her immediate family circle.  She did not understand people that were different from herself.  Looking back, this is such a contrast with my dad’s open and easy manner with everyone.  Only after his death did I fully realize the extent that he had moderated her inclinations.  But like I say, they were a good team.  And if I am still living and blogging in five years, I will tell her story more fully, and (I trust) more sympathetically. 

Her mother never liked my dad.  As my mother was packed and leaving home to make a life with with my dad, her mother followed her daughter out to his roadster, telling my mother that if she left with that man, then not to ever come back.  He was twenty-two, she seventeen.  The newlyweds returned to Central Texas at first, but my dad soon discovered that conditions were even worse there than in East Texas. And so, they did return to my mother’s home—my dad with no visible prospects.  My mother’s mother worried about this no-good son-in-law.  Her solution was to sew him a cotton-picking sack.  He took one look at it and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I’m not going to do that.”  He realized that there was no future in it, as they say.  His mother-in-law took it that he was too good to pick cotton.  She quipped to a kinsman, “I don’t know what John is going to do.  We already have a President and a Governor.”  No, she never warmed up to him, not even when she died in the house he built her, cared for by the daughter she ignored.  I doubt she would have changed her mind had she lived to see him end up supporting the better part of her family, at one time or another, for the rest of his life.

My dad got a job as a surveyor with an engineering company based in Tyler, Texas.  Soon, he was managing their operations in Arkansas.  My dad always had on-going side ventures.  He built or remodeled a couple of houses in Arkansas, moving his dad and sister and youngest brother into one and renting the other.  He purchased a Lion gas station and grocery story.  My mother ran the store and pumped gas while he was surveying.  Back home in East Texas, he starting running a few cows on my mother’s family place (actually owned by her grandmother.)  One by one, he also started buying out all the heirs.  By the time he was 29, he and my mother owned the entire 200 acre farm that her great-grandfather had given her grandfather.  Other farms have come and gone, but this one—known simply as “the Old Place”—is sacrosanct. 

In 1946, my dad and mother moved back from Arkansas.  In that year, he founded his own land surveying business, with this August marking our 68th year in operation.  He was a hard worker and his company grew quickly.  The 1950s and 1960s were the period of greatest expansion, with surveying crews working in a number of states.  His largest project involved surveying a pipeline route from the outskirts of Philadelphia to the outskirts of Chicago.  My dad gained a reputation as a fair man who treated everyone with respect.  He enjoyed poking fun at pretense, and always dressed in plain work khakis, or in later years, jeans.  He commanded great loyalty from his co-workers and never asked them to do anything that they did not see him do first.  He was my great example of how one is to treat their fellow man.

My dad loved his work, and he pursued it relentlessly.  But at heart, he was a cowboy.  And so, our lives revolved around the farms, cattle, and the feeding and care of same.  In 1962, he purchased his last farm, which we simply referenced as the “the big place.”  He spent the last 20+ years of his life, working on this ranch, first part-time, and then full-time in his “retirement.”  Unlike most, this was a real working ranch.  Most of the time I spent with my dad was in going back and forth to these farms, feeding or just checking on the cattle.  For someone who grew up around cattle all their life, I know as little about them as anybody.  I was never interested, and it simply never “took” with me.  I did, however, relish the time spent with my dad and the conversations we would have along the way.  I would have been happy with far fewer cows and more of my dad.  This is not to criticize him, for he could not have been anybody else than who he was.  He and my brother were closer, I would think.  But for the last ten years of his life, at least, I was the one who was with my dad more.  And in the last year of his life, after my brother's death, I think we came to understand each other better than we ever had.

On occasion, I have had people tell me that I remind them of my dad in some way.  This is getting more and more infrequent as time passes, as there are fewer people living who knew him.  Any commonality is probably accidental at best, as I can never be the man he was.  But I would always smile and thank them, not admitting that this was, in fact, the greatest compliment I could ever receive, nor could I admit that I would always choke-up a bit inside, as well.

Memory Eternal, Dad. 



Saturday, March 01, 2014

Thoughts on Ukraine

Sometimes history picks up speed, as is currently the case in Ukraine.  Wise prognostications one day may be made foolish by the next morning’s headlines.  Even so, I want to voice a few thoughts, as we try to sort through breaking news.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Crimea (an act that I in no way condone), we will hear a lot about territorial integrity and respect for national borders and that sort of thing.  That is all well and good.  Borders are—or should be—real and tangible things, essential for any peoples self-understanding as citizens of a particular nation state.    Even a brief review of this region’s history, however, reveals Ukraine’s borders to be less sacrosanct than some.  The nation has been downright geographically amorphous.  Ukraine has, quite literally, been all over the map:  sometimes part of Poland, sometimes part of Lithuania, sometimes the heart of Russia, and occasionally—briefly—on its own.  The boundary and size of each configuration have shifted and slid between the Baltic and Black Seas.  In short, Ukraine’s borders are no more etched in stone than those drawn in 1919 on a map of Europe by Woodrow Wilson—on his hands and knees in a Versailles drawing room.

The current configuration of Ukraine is a construct of the Soviet system, and not anything rooted in much of any historical precedent.  Peoples were uprooted from where they had lived since time immemorial and transplanted elsewhere.  In their remaking of the world, the Soviets shifted borders and people at will, with little regard or concern for what had been.  This problem persists throughout the former U.S.S.R., whether Russians in the Baltic Republics, or in Georgia with its break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, each a construct nurse-maided by Soviet internal politics.    

Take Lvov, for example.  The second city of Ukraine--and something of a gem, by all accounts-- has a relatively brief history as anything “Ukrainian.”  For centuries, this Polish and Jewish city known as Lemburg prospered within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the fall-out following the First World War, the city was lumped into Poland, and with good reason.  But 1939 changed everything.  First the Germans came through going east, and then they came through again, retreating, in 1944.  The Soviets took Lvov for their own and added it to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.  Now in control, the Soviets shifted Poland west, adding a hunk of Germany on one side, and taking another hunk away from Poland on the east.  Lvov and the surrounding territory then became part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1945.  The Jews, of course, had been eliminated, and the Polish residents were relocated to what had just become western Poland, whose German residents in turn had been dispatched further west into East Germany.  Only then was Lvov repopulated with Ukrainians and Russians.  The most anti-Russian (and alarmingly, the most Nazi sympathetic) elements of the victorious opposition spring from this region.

Then there is Kiev itself.  The capital of Ukraine was also the capital of what was known as Kievan Rus for over 300 years.  This memory of Rus is the very wellspring of Russian culture, spirituality and identity itself.  I cannot conceive that Russians could ever be totally unconnected to Kiev—as well as much of what is now “Ukraine”, for that matter.

I remember when the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991.  Looking at the new maps, I was surprised to see that Crimea was attached to Ukraine.  This peninsula has been a lot of things to a lot of people down through the centuries, but it was never Ukrainian.  Crimea and its Russian population was attached to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine only in 1954, for reasons solely pertaining to internal politics and policy. 

Well, what to make of the ousted Yanukovych and his backer, Vladimir Putin?  No one laments the parting of Viktor Yanukovych, a classless act if there ever was one.  Nor should anyone regard it as particularly newsworthy that the ruler of Russia is (was, and probably always shall be) an autocrat.  We should pause to remember that Yanukovych, as bad as he was, assumed that office by an election.  He lost his position--however undeserving--as a result of a revolutionary coup.  A commentator in recent months noted that the U.S. and Russia have changed positions in the world.  We support revolutionaries and insurgents world-wide.  The Russians, for better or for worse, are the voice of conservatism, supporters of the status quo.  And if Vladimir Putin was as all-powerful as we sometimes portray him to be, then Yanukovch would not be in exile.

The Russians have always been concerned with maintaining definable, defensible borders.  Not every country is blessed with having an ocean boundary on each side. 
Few Americans have studied Russia closer, or understood Russians better, than George Kennan.  In the years following the adoption of his Containment Policy, he grew increasingly frustrated with the widespread misinterpretation of what he wrote.  The containment Kennan had in mind was against Soviet Russian militarism, not an ideological war against something called “global communism.”  They were communists, to be sure, but he knew that they were Russians first.  Despite Soviet rhetoric, their actions were first and foremost about securing Russia, not advancing world communism.  That is not to say that this Russian concern does not border on the paranoid, for it often seems that way.  Their concerns are rooted in geography and history, and remain largely the same as they have always been.

This is a rough neighborhood.  Despite whatever new arrangements it might make with the EU and/or the US, Ukraine will have to come to some accommodation with Russia.  The same holds for Georgia and the other former Soviet republics.

In discussing Russia, most American commentators and politicians do not have to reach back for their old Cold war rhetoric, for they never abandoned it to begin with.  To cast this as simply a morality tale, with the forces of progress, freedom, democracy and Western-style economics arrayed against a backward, autocratic, revanchist and resurgent Soviet system is, well, to misunderstand events as they are unfolding.  The situation is far more complex than all that.

I once respected George Will as a commentator.  That was a long time ago.  A recent column dressing-down Putin comes off as particularly shrill, silly and disjointed.  He ridicules Vladimir Putin and reduces him almost to buffoonery, in his words “a small, strutting Mussolini.”  I saw the same smug condescension when Putin saved President Obama from his Syrian disaster, and then again later on in the scorn heaped on his letter to the New York Times.  I thought Putin right on both counts.  I do not do so in this instance.  But, while we may not approve of all of his actions, Vladimir Putin is nobody’s fool.  Resorting to Cold War ad hominem attacks just highlights our own naiveté in the realm of foreign diplomacy.

So, what can we do?--beyond praying for peace, not much.  So what should we do?— beyond praying for peace, even less.  Like I say, it is a tough neighborhood.