Summer is just about here now in England. On Thursday, I grabbed this pic in our back garden:
Two poppies my Mrs had planted opened up in the sun and the warmth.
Yes, yes, it does get sunny and warm here in England occasionally.
In Flanders Fields
The poem by John McCrae
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.
Sadly, it is tough of course to look at beautiful poppies and often not also think of war.
Amidst Europe’s newest war, many Americans may not know that in the first and second decades of the 1800s as a newly independent country our best European friend was not Great Britain or France…
…It was imperial Russia.
The U.S. and Russia have long had much more in common than not – usually based on a broadly similar “outlier” relationship to western Europe. Upon independence in 1776 Americans were distant from Europe and often felt a sense of “otherness” and occasionally culturally “inferior.” Russians too have since Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) basically also felt at the periphery of Europe and even culturally “lesser” in some ways compared to their western neighbors. (Russian aristocracy rarely spoke Russian as a first language; they tended to speak French or German – indeed they often were literally German-born. And Saint Petersburg was made the capital of the Russian empire precisely because it was on the Baltic and easily accessible from the west by sea, whereas Moscow, deep in the hinterland, was not.)
The Russian empire had also been invaded numerous times from western Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. French emperor Napoleon’s 1812 assault is a central part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869). The 1900s saw the worst invasion by far of all – the Nazi German 1941 assault on the Russian empire’s “successor,” the communist Soviet Union (established officially in 1922, it was ruled from Moscow and composed of Russia and many of the areas of the former Russian empire), which killed at least 20 million Russians and others between then and the Soviet army ejecting the Nazis and entering Berlin at last in May of 1945.
So Russians have for centuries been imbued with a combination of a sense of “inferiority” toward, coupled with a fear (often well-founded, clearly) of invasion from, western Europe; and that latter especially is certainly a major pretext used for the current Russian war against Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed between 1989 and 1992 it broke up into its “component” parts, with Russia taking the Soviet Union’s seat on the United Nations Security Council as the “successor” (although much smaller) state to the defunct Soviet Union, while Ukraine and other former Soviet “republics” became independent countries. But history never stops, of course. By the 2010s Putinist Russians (followers of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – who himself sought to undermine Russia’s own nascent post-Soviet effort at democracy and increasingly poisoned and crushed opposition to the point now that to voice opposition to him is to risk imprisonment and even worse much as Russians faced under the dictatorial communist Soviet Union) were asserting that the West was “expanding” deliberately toward Russia through the NATO alliance (established in 1949 out of Europeans’ fear of the Soviet Union) in order to undermine Russia; and one of their argued reasons for attacking Ukraine in 2022 is they are defensively trying to prevent Ukraine from seeking the NATO membership Ukraine’s leaders had stated they wish to achieve. (Putin and followers also voice a related disturbing “irredentist” mindset about “restoring” to Russia what was once, they assert, “Russian”; and given the way such claims are usually characterized that could logically mean not only perhaps the Crimean peninsula that was, true, once in the Russian empire – but it has been much more recently in the internationally-recognized Ukraine since Ukrainian independence in 1991 – but also the likes of Poland, Finland, and for that matter even Sitka, Alaska, that were at various times held as part of that empire, too.)
On the other hand, seen from Washington in 2022, NATO has not been “expanding” toward Russia since the 1990s. NATO accepted applications to join from small new democracies of eastern Europe that had left the collapsed dictatorial Soviet Union’s orbit starting in 1990 because, still greatly fearing Russia, they looked toward Washington and Brussels (where NATO headquarters is) for “protection” from a possibly eventually re-assertive Russia. As one example, Poland was accepted into NATO in 1999 because, still frightened of Russia after centuries of itself being invaded and overrun and occasionally occupied by the much larger Russia and then Soviet Union (and most recently having been forced into the ”Warsaw Pact” Soviet communist “alliance”) just to its east, it asked to join the western European NATO. Sadly the Putinist 2022 brutal World War Two style full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a huge Russian strategic mistake in this sense: It demonstrated to eastern Europeans like the Poles that they did indeed have good reason still to be terrified of Moscow. It is not only Russia that is fearful of invasion.
There seems no way, though, to get the U.S. and Russia to stop talking past each other on that essential difference in perspectives. However, Washington and its NATO allies will not in 2022 idly look on as the internationally-recognized Ukrainian state under its internationally-recognized and democratically-elected government is invaded, its cities and towns laid waste, millions of Ukrainians driven from their homes, and tens of thousands thus far killed, by Putinist Russia. The U.S. will not trade or begin to resume anything approaching “normal” diplomatic relations with Russia until it ceases its, in the words of the impartial human rights Amnesty International organization, “act of aggression that is a crime under international law… [that] cannot be justified on any of the grounds that Russia has offered.”
More recently in the U.S., our troubles at home have usually been of the decidedly self-inflicted sort. We are now seeing the findings of the United States House of Representatives’ committee that investigated the riot at and inside of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This too is ”history”: No U.S. president EVER tried something like this before.
The self-anointed U.S. “Dear Leader” of 2017-21 plainly orchestrated an unprecedented effort that day to try to overturn the will of a majority of U.S. voters and remain in office, and cowardly still does not even have the guts to publicly admit trying to do so. He makes Richard Nixon look like he deserves to be on Mount Rushmore and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi seem honorable. Frankly, by any reasonable legal standards and historical context he belongs in prison. (But he won’t go to prison, of course.)
The presidency was designed by the writers of the Constitution in 1787 to be held by a man (today, woman, too, of course) who possessed a personal sense of honor – that there would be a boundary that on his own (with no law needing to tell him not to) he would not dare cross. (It was in fact created largely with George Washington’s personality in mind because everyone knew he would be elected the first president.) Richard Nixon got caught covering up the Watergate break-in and even he resigned for the good of the country. Unfortunately “Dear Leader” had no similar conception of honorable behavior because behaving honorably, in his mind, is for “losers.” His mouthy ignorance and arrogance was and remains such that plainly he STILL does not also understand, or just refuses to, that an individual does NOT get to declare himself “elected” or “re-elected” president; that the role is bestowed upon the winner by the electors who decided the winner. (Indeed every elected position in the U.S. down to town dog catcher is treated much the same way; but “Dear Leader,” remember, had never held a publicly accountable post in his life prior to his 2016 Electoral College victory.) So he was exactly the sort of a man the institution was not prepared to deal with: one who will do or say anything for his own self-aggrandizement – laws be damned, Constitution be damned, precedent be damned, country be damned.
You may not agree with me, but I think the evidence of his instigation and responsibility is abundantly clear to anyone willing to take a detached view of the events leading up to that day and then that day itself. He was the singular piece of that “coup” puzzle that was absolutely necessary: It was his idea and built upon his singular determination to stay in power as president regardless and in order to try to do so after having failed repeatedly in courts (including before judges his administration had appointed) in previous weeks to have his 7 million vote and Electoral College November 2020 defeat somehow overturned, he resorted as a last ditch – and one common in history to anyone familiar with history – to summoning up a mob. That mob would not have existed and their subsequent invasion of the Capitol would not have unfolded as it had had he, still the President of the United States at that time, NOT rabble-roused that rag-tag bunch of “confederates” (and I use that word “confederates” deliberately) onwards – and therein lies his GUILT.
Even as I finished writing this, I still had had no title in mind for this post. Then one moments ago hit me. Poppies are “red” and both the U.S.A. and Russia have flags of “red, white, and blue.”