The War in Ukraine Is the End of a World
A shroud is settling over the dreams many of us had at the end of the 20th century.
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The war in Ukraine is the final shovel of dirt on the grave of any optimism about the world order that was born with the fall of Soviet Communism. Now we are faced with the long grind of defeating Moscow’s armies and eventually rebuilding a better world.
Before we turn to Ukraine, here are a few of today’s stories from The Atlantic.
Today I Grieve
Today marks a year since Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on his mad quest to capture Ukraine and conjure into existence some sort of mutant Soviet-Christian-Slavic empire in Europe. On this grim anniversary, I will leave the political and strategic retrospectives to others; instead, I want to share a more personal grief about the passing of the hopes so many of us had for a better world at the end of the 20th century.
The first half of my life was dominated by the Cold War. I grew up next to a nuclear bomber base in Massachusetts. I studied Russian and Soviet affairs in college and graduate school. I first visited the Soviet Union when I was 22. I was 28 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. I turned 31 a few weeks before the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time.
When I visited Moscow on that initial trip in 1983, I sat on a curb on a summer night in Red Square, staring at the Soviet stars on top of the Kremlin. I had the sensation of being in the belly of the beast, right next to the beating heart of the enemy. I knew that hundreds of American nuclear warheads were aimed where I was sitting, and I was convinced that everything I knew was more than likely destined to end in flames. Peace seemed impossible; war felt imminent.
And then, within a few years, it was over. If you did not live through this time, it is difficult to explain the amazement and sense of optimism that came with the raspad, as Russians call the Soviet collapse, especially if you had spent any time in the former U.S.S.R. I have some fond memories of my trips to the pre-collapse Soviet Union (I made four from 1983 to 1991). It was a weird and fascinating place. But it was also every inch the “evil empire” that President Ronald Reagan described, a place of fear and daily low-grade paranoia where any form of social attachment, whether religion or simple hobbies, was discouraged if it fell outside the control of the party-state.
Perhaps one story can explain the disorienting sense of wonder I felt in those days after the Soviet collapse.
If you visited the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, Western music was forbidden. Soviet kids would trade almost anything they had to get their hands on rock records. I could play a little guitar in those days, and I and other Americans would catch Soviet acquaintances up on whatever was big in the U.S. at the time. But once the wine and vodka bottles were empty and the playing was over, the music was gone.
Fast-forward to the early 1990s. I was in a Russian gift shop, and as I browsed, the store piped in the song “Hero” by the late David Crosby. I was absentmindedly singing along, and I looked up to see the store clerk, a Russian woman perhaps a few years younger than me, also singing along. She smiled and nodded. I smiled back. “Great song,” I said to her in Russian. “One of my favorites,” she answered.
This might seem like a small thing, even trivial. But it would have been nearly unthinkable five or six years earlier. And at such moments in my later travels in Russia—including in 2004, when I walked into a Moscow courtroom to adopt my daughter—I thought: No one would willingly go backward. No one would choose to return to the hell they just escaped.
In fact, I was more concerned about places such as Ukraine. Russia, although a mess, had at least inherited the infrastructure of the Soviet government, but the new republics were starting from scratch, and, like Russia, they were still hip-deep in corrupt Soviet elites who were looking for new jobs. Nonetheless, the idea that anyone in Moscow would be stupid or deranged enough to want to reassemble the Soviet Union seemed to me a laughable fantasy. Even Putin himself—at least in public—often dismissed the idea.
I was wrong. I underestimated the power of Soviet imperial nostalgia. And so today, I grieve.
I grieve for the innocent people of Ukraine, for the dead and for the survivors, for the mutilated men and women, for the orphans and the kidnapped children. I grieve for the elderly who have had to live through the brutality of the Nazis and the Soviets and, now, the Russians. I grieve for a nation whose history will be forever changed by Putin’s crimes against humanity.
And yes, I grieve, too, for the Russians. I care not one bit for Putin or his criminal accomplices, who might never face justice in this world but who I am certain will one day stand before an inescapable and far more terrifying seat of judgment. But I grieve for the young men who have been used as “cannon meat,” for children whose fathers have been dragooned into the service of a dictator, for the people who once again are afraid to speak and who once again are being incarcerated as political prisoners.
Finally, I grieve for the end of a world I knew for most of my adult life. I have lived through two eras, one an age of undeclared war between two ideological foes that threatened instant destruction, the next a time of increasing freedom and global integration. This second world was full of chaos, but it was also grounded in hope. The Soviet collapse did not mean the end of war or of dictatorships, but after 1991, time seemed to be on the side of peace and democracy, if only we could summon the will and find the leadership to build on our heroic triumphs over Nazism and Communism.
Now I live in a new era, one in which the world order created in 1945 is collapsing. The United Nations, as I once wrote, is a squalid and dysfunctional organization, but it is still one of the greatest achievements of humanity. It was never designed, however, to function with one of its permanent members running amok as a nuclear-armed rogue state, and so today the front line of freedom is in Ukraine. But democracy is under attack everywhere, including here in the United States, and so I will celebrate the courage of Ukraine, the wisdom of NATO, and the steadfastness of the world’s democracies. But I also hear the quiet rustling of a shroud that is settling over the dreams—and perhaps, illusions—of a better world that for a moment seemed only inches from our grasp.
I do not know how this third era of my life will end, or if I will be alive to see it end. All I know is that I feel now as I did that night in Red Square, when I knew that democracy was in the fight of its life, that we might be facing a catastrophe, and that we must never waver.
- The prominent South Carolina former lawyer Alex Murdaugh, who is being tried for the murders of his wife and son, testified in court; he has pleaded not guilty on both charges.
- The musician R. Kelly was sentenced to 20 years in prison after his conviction last year on charges of child pornography and enticement of a minor. Kelly is already serving a different 30-year prison term for a 2021 conviction.
- Authorities said that a man in Orange County, Florida, shot and killed a fellow passenger in the car he was riding in, and then returned to the same neighborhood to shoot four more people, including a journalist who was covering the original shooting.
- Unsettled Territory: Reading banned books and studying verboten topics are ways to defeat the forces of exclusion, Imani Perry writes.
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The Secret Ingredient That Could Save Fake Meat
By Yasmin Tayag
Last month, at a dining table in a sunny New York City hotel suite, I found myself thrown completely off guard by a strip of fake bacon. I was there to taste a new kind of plant-based meat, which, like most Americans, I’ve tried before but never truly craved in the way that I’ve craved real meat. But even before I tried the bacon, or even saw it, I could tell it was different. The aroma of salt, smoke, and sizzling fat rising from the nearby kitchen seemed unmistakably real. The crispy bacon strips looked the part too—tiger-striped with golden fat and presented on a miniature BLT. Then crunch gave way to satisfying chew, followed by a burst of hickory and the incomparable juiciness of animal fat.
I knew it wasn’t real bacon, but for a moment, it fooled me. The bacon was indeed made from plants, just like the burger patties you can buy from companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. But it had been mixed with real pork fat. Well, kind of. What marbled the meat had not come from a butchered pig but a living hog whose fat cells had been sampled and grown in a vat.
More From The Atlantic
Read. “The Body’s River,” a new poem by Jan Beatty.
“When my mother left me in the orphanage, / I invented love with strangers. / And if it wasn’t there, I made it be there.”
Watch. Revisit Titanic. Twenty-five years later, it feels different.
Today I’ll leave aside any recommendations for something to do over the weekend. Instead, I hope we Americans can all take a moment to reflect with gratitude on the fact that we are citizens of a great and good democracy, and that we are fortunate to be far from the horror of a battle that rages on even as we go about our lives here in safety every day.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.