“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police ... yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home—all the more powerful because forbidden—terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
-Winston S. Churchill
“He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes.”
The recent news of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner forces (a mercenary army that had played an outsized role in the fighting in Ukraine) accusing Russia’s military leadership of attacking and killing his own soldiers has raised eyebrows all over the world. Especially when Prigozhin commanded his forces to return to their bases, and then to begin making their way toward Moscow. The rest of us observing this occurrence from afar perceived it as an attempted coup d’état or at the least a crack in the dam, which will inevitably lead to its break.
As we remind ourselves of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine by invading its neighbor Ukraine on February 24, 2022, we wonder whether Vladimir Putin’s nostalgic claim of his fatherland as a providential power with a special mission in the world that identifies with both Europe and Asia, isn’t meant simply as a justification for self-aggrandizement and aggression. We all should remember that on October 12, 2022, a United Nations General Assembly Resolution declared that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was invalid and illegal under international law, and demanded that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw.” In fact, Putin’s war is a war of annexation, which leads us to remind ourselves that similar acts of annexation were the reason why the US and the Allies fought WWII.
Putin has compared himself to the 18th century Russian tsar Peter the Great, and encourages people to see him as a continuation of Russia’s history of military histories, beginning with Peter I the Great’s decisive victory over Charles XII of Sweden at Battle of Poltava (June 27, 1709), which ended Sweden’s status as a major power and marked the rise of Russian supremacy in eastern Europe. This history was continued with the Patriotic War of 1812 (June 24–December 14), when the French Army invaded Russia and Alexander I defeated Napoleon. And finally we recall how in the Battle of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942–February 2, 1943), Russia defeated Hitler and his Nazi army. Putin tries to use these glorious moments from history to fortify his own position through false analogies with them. He has been in power long enough to know that he need not be good in any aspect of his dictatorship except that of being constantly mindful in suppressing any political dissention or alternatives. He has aroused his base in ways that remind us uncomfortably of the way Donald Trump (who likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson in the same way that Putin sees himself as the successor to Peter the Great), has aroused people in our own country by making them think that they are the victims of vaguely evoked dark forces. In a similar way, Putin tries to make Russians think that their country is the victim of the West’s liberal hegemony. Hence exerting any form of violent action is seemingly justified. In other words, as an old rule of thumb suggests, whenever trouble at home rises to the surface, focusing on foreign affairs has always been proven to be an effective diversion.
To some extent, Putin knew that in order to reach the zenith of his vision, he must drain all human capital, including Russia’s entire private information technology sector, among other forms of foreign investments. This inevitably led to Russia’s inability to adapt to the new economy. He instead created his own Praetorian Guard, which up to date counts between 30,000 to 50,000, including his cooks, drivers, bodyguards, IT personnel, and other functionaries, all of whom are lavishly paid with money gained by selling Russian oil to foreign countries. Again and again, as we’ve witnessed throughout history, all dictators share one thing in common: namely, if there are no political alternatives, they can survive by the use of virtually any form and shape of criminality, corruption, and abuse of power, no matter how blatant their incompetence at governing.
But what Putin failed to anticipate in any way whatsoever was that the Ukrainian army, and Ukrainian people, under the leadership of their courageous president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would be so brave and so willing to die for their freedom. Not only was the Ukrainian morale highly boosted while the Russian morale was hollowed out, but the relationship between the two countries has turned out to be the reverse of what was expected. It’s Zelenskyy who is turning out to be decisive, not Putin. Zelenskyy is showing that he can resist horrible Russian atrocities while providing a profound occasion for Western unity. From the perspective of us Americans, it’s hard to forget the debacle of the US defeat and chaotic exit from Afghanistan, after twenty years of war (2001–2021) against the Taliban. We recognize also the effect of the famous response Zelenskyy made in turning down an offer from the US of evacuation from the capital city Kyiv: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” It was a gift to the Biden administration and to European countries. For it allowed them to take advantage of this opportunity to redeem themselves from past mistakes by leading a collective support with various kinds of aid, including air and ground defense systems, offensive weaponry, and so on. President Biden’s visit to meet with president Zelenskyy in Kyiv on February 20, 2023, just days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, was a defiant display of Western solidarity. Ultimately, the concept of victory was made by president Zelenskyy, on behalf of his people, when he justly called for a new war crimes tribunal to try Putin during his visit to the Hague on May 4, 2023. Zelenskyy has clearly and loudly articulated that the Ukrainians’ idea of victory is their inclusion in the West, including being a member of the European Union and NATO. Even though Putin represents a dark moment in our most recent history, which can be thought of as Cold War II, Zelenskyy and his fellow Ukrainians, however long the war may last, shall and will prevail victoriously over Putin and his Russian cronies. For “dictators never invent their own opportunities,” as R. Buckmister Fuller once said. They’re only good at taking opportunities in the form of repackaging history for self-gain. Whereas the people of Ukraine—including our fellow artists, poets, writers, musicians, and other creatives—have shown us how powerful courage and the utmost adherence to truth can be, even in the face of great adversity.
In total solidarity with love, courage, and cosmic optimism to us all,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives and works of our two friends Jim Melchert (1930–2023) whose inventive exploration with chance operation and pattern, especially in sculpture and ceramics were as fluid as his cultural service as Visual Arts Program Director at the NEA and Director of the American Academy at Rome; and Cora Cohen (1943–2023) whose paintings elevated gestural abstraction to a new dimension, upon which uncontrollable surge and entropy dictate the balance between order and chaos, form and formlessness. We’d like to congratulate our beloved board member Alex Glauber as the new president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors. Lastly, we send our huge congratulations to the passing of the baton from Studio in a School’s brilliant trustee, treasurer, and interim president of the board of trustees to our formerly Ed.D., Chair, and now new president Hasna Muhammed. For those who are friends and admirers of Studio in a School’s commitment to make art education accessible to underserved communities throughout the five boroughs of New York City will feel inspired by her extraordinary leadership, engendered with care and rigor.