Thu 2023-May-25

Tacitus in Ukraine

Tagged: NotableAndQuotable / Obscurantism / Politics / Sadness

One of the (few) advantages to having been steeped in old books during youth is you begin to realize how often we do the same dumb stuff, over and over, for centuries. This seems to be especially true in law, politics, economics, and war.

Ukraine: In the wake of the Russians

PZ @ Pharyngula: State of Ukraine (and Russia itself) Via PZ @ Pharyngula [1] comes a snarky-but-thoughtful essay on what the effect of Russian conquest has been on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Summary: it’s very, very bad.

Ilyushina @ WaPo: Prigozhin says war has backfired, possible Russian revolution Of particular interest, though, was a link to a WaPo article [2] that tells us all is not entirely well back in Russia, either.

But first, consider the sources:

  • Ilyushina is working off an interview done by Konstantin Dolgov, a “political operative and pro-war blogger” in Russia.
  • Dolgov, in turn, was interviewing Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch who is the leader of the notorious Wagner Group of mercenaries known for the most brutal tactics (e.g., “human waves” of convicts recruited from prisons without training) being used not just in Ukraine, but around the world.

So between (1) journalistic interpretation, (2) war-blogger nonlinear amplification, (3) dubious sourcing from a mercenary oligarch, and (4) the general tendency to say “hooray for our side” in war, we should approach this with some considerable skepticism.

Nevertheless, the report from Prigozhin is eye-popping: Russian internal turmoil could lead to a revolution on the scale of the 1917 overthrow of the czar and the initial installation of the communists.

“We are in a situation where we can simply lose Russia,” Prigozhin said, using an expletive to hammer his point. “We must introduce martial law. We unfortunately … must announce new waves of mobilization; we must put everyone who is capable to work on increasing the production of ammunition,” he said. “Russia needs to live like North Korea for a few years, so to say, close the borders … and work hard.”

That is ever the demand of those who become billionaires by war: clamp down on civil society, impose martial law, draft everybody, and devote all economic production to weapons. The “live like North Korea” bit is particularly chilling.

Russian-vs-Russian combat, aligned with Ukraine Indeed, it appears that native-Russian militias have been active in Belgorod over the last 3 days. [3] This is particularly concerning as there is apparently a nuclear weapon storage depot there, whose capture by anti-Putin rebels would cause… complications.

An historical perspective

Bakhmut, after Russian conquest Here’s a picture which, it is claimed, is an aerial view of the city of Bakhmut, which has been the center of Ukrainian defense against Russian attack for some months now. Russia claims to have conquered all of it; Ukraine demurs. Wagner Group mercenaries are withdrawing, leaving Russian regulars to defend and keep the territory.

Now, look at that picture. These appear to be apartment blocks, office buildings, schools, hospitals, cafés, and that sort of thing. In other words: civilian infrastructure, not military targets. The Russians have become justly infamous for attacking schools, concert halls, art galleries, apartment blocks, and churches. Given the availability of precision weapons to Russia, this is not an accident: destruction of power plants, water processing, dams, housing, and such are a matter of Russian policy. (This particular policy is also a war crime.)

I can’t help but think (no, really: I can’t help but think about this!) of some of the tags of Latin that were hammered into my skull at an age when I was too young to defend myself adequately:

… ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (… where they make a desert, they call it peace.)

– Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricola, close of Chapter 30. (This particular English translation is my own, but it should be utterly uncontroversial.)

I mean, it certainly looks applicable, doesn’t it? We started with Bakhmut being a thriving provincial city (though one of no particular military or strategic value). They have left behind an uninhabited, smoking pile of rubble piled upon bodies, for which the word “desert” seems reasonable.

But a bit of historical context drives the point home even better!

Calgacus said, approximately, that the Romans come in, slaughter, rape, and steal everything. Then they smash anything left and kill everybody. Once they’re standing atop a pile of smoking rubble, they call that peace.

Roman fasces There is much to admire in ancient Rome. There is also, alas, much to despise. These are, after all, the people who used the fasces to represent state power: the bundle of rods for corporal punishment (caning/bastinado) and the axe for capital punishment (beheading). This is the source of the word “fascism”, so Rome is best regarded skeptically, especially today.

Almost every source on this passage in Latin mentions that Calgacus is making a sarcastic play on words, comparing to “peace given to the world” inscribed on many Roman medals. I’ve looked long and hard, but have never seen such a medal, nor have I seen the inscription in the original Latin. (I would probably gloss it as “pax mundo donatur”, but I am an amateur in these matters.) This makes me suspicious that it’s a folk theorem of classicists, but it’s so good it’s hard to resist.

So there you have it: Russians running the fascist game plan as old as the Romans. Smash everything, kill everybody, then stand proudly atop the rubble amid the fumes, and declare it to be success and “peace”.

The Weekend Conclusion

Tom Toro @ New Yorker: Repeating history We seem absolutely determined not to learn from history.

During the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, Republicans were absolutely determined to repeat the mistakes of 1929-1930 that caused the Great Depression: fiscal austerity, chopping federal spending, etc. (Of course, that’s what they always advocate, in all situations. That, and tax cuts, but only for the rich.)

Now, sadly, we seem determined not to learn the lessons of the 1940s: fascism is bad.

As the French journalist/novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr noted in 1849:

Plus ça change, plus ç'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they are the same.)

(NB: Tom Toro sells signed prints of this cartoon in his Etsy shop.)

Addendum 2023-May-26

Sources on Twitter, linked back to Dolgov’s Telegram channel, say he has been fired from his propaganda job with the Russian government:

Davis @ Twitter: Dolgove fired

Prigozhin, however, continues.

At least, until he ascends a tall building with openable windows, in a fit of nostalgia for his boyhood defenestration lessons. That seems to be the way of things in modern Russia.

Notes & References

1: PZ Myers, “How’s that war in Ukraine going, anyway?”, Pharyngula blog, 2023-05-25.

2: M Ilyushina, “Prigozhin says war in Ukraine has backfired, warns of Russian revolution”, Washington Post, 2023-May-24. (Behind an execrable paywall, but viewable if you put your browser in incognito mode.)

3: AE Kramer, V Hopkins, M Schwirtz, “Anti-Kremlin Fighters Take War to Russian Territory for a Second Day”, New York Times, 2023-May-23.

Published Thu 2023-May-25

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