What heartbreaking times we live in! I know many people who have turned off their TVs because the 24/7 coverage of the war in Ukraine has become too much. We should not avert our gaze, yet at the same time, we must always have our eyes fixed fully on the future. I hope and pray that the United States will not overstep our bounds—into a US-Russian confrontation that could bring us a nuclear event or a global war. This scenario is increasingly possible, despite the near indifference that is expressed by those who think and act as if it is unlikely to happen. For people who toss off the risk, I would say this is an expression of arrogance—as if we can control everything. War, as it has often been noted, has a logic of its own. That is why it is known as a “fog”—for good reason. Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times columnist, David Shipler, explains how Russian structural and outdated technology underscores the potential for an unintended nuclear attack.
I have made countless trips to Ukraine over the years, and it is terrible to imagine the circumstances in which many people are now living. Sanctions designed to achieve progress, however, often assure that other victims arise in unexpected places. Africa, for instance, is already suffering from rising energy prices and food shortages. I know. I had a key African leader tell me at an event ten days ago that there are very real dangers underway on that continent, directly connected to the secession of these trade arrangements. These include unmanageable energy prices, devastating spikes in basic commodities, and significant food shortages. Expect more global dislocation. With the addition of Chinese COVID lockdowns, the international economy could become very rocky indeed.
I deplore everything the Putin regime has done, but I am also dismayed by the self-righteousness of those who think that silence, in a country like Russia, is acquiescence to its regime’s policies. Most of us in the US, have never been subjected to real oppression or the prospect of years in prison for expressing our views. So how would we know about the complex considerations these ordinary people are faced with?
While we are trying hard to eradicate racism from our own society, I was saddened to read that the Boston Marathon denied anyone with either Russian or Belarusian passports the opportunity to run in their recent marathon. Many people are being victimized in the arts and in intellectual circles as well. Deny respect and attention to the people who support the Russian regime, ok. But to “cancel” others who are from those countries by an accident of birth?
Often hidden in some corners of an authoritarian country are persons of heroic qualities that come to moral clarity in their own time. This month marks the anniversary of the birth of a great Russian physicist, Andrei Sakharov. His post-hydrogen bomb legacy shines throughout the ages. He exemplified a growing awareness of the complexity that surrounds us, leading him to believe in the sacrosanct dignity of human rights.
My blog in 2009 included a piece Dr. Roald Sagdeev and I wrote in Physics Today in August of 1990. It was a review of Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs. I believe our article offers cultural insights, as well as personal ones on this very matter. I try to imagine what the world would have been like without Andrei’s commitment to human rights and political reform. Perhaps we’d have never known that there were such people of conscience in the USSR—especially since Sakharov’s role as “Father of the USSR’s hydrogen bomb” ensured that whatever stance he took he was never punished as harshly as were many of his followers. Nevertheless, Sakharov’s voice became so clear, and so influential in the last days of the USSR, that we would often ask later: “I wonder what Andrei would say?” “I wonder what Andrei would do?” even after his passing.
And what would Andrei say today? No doubt he would oppose the Russian leadership’s attack on Ukraine, but he would also warn of the very real dangers of nuclear miscalculation or an unintended global war.
Sending my warm best wishes,