On dictators and pandemics

On dictators and pandemics

It’s odd. As I know I’ve written before, things — ideas, nouns, places, stuff — seems to show up in the paper in clumps.

Last week, inexplicably, it was birds and rivers.

This week, much more logically, it’s Ukraine.

The stories coming out of that besieged but resilient country are extraordinary; I’d say that they are amazing but that words has been so overused as to have become devalued. The Ukrainians had lives more or less like ours; urban or suburban, full of tech, with rational expectations of what most days were likely to bring. And then the country was disrupted by the insane actions of an autocrat.

It’s led me, like so many of us, to think about the power that one person can have.

I recently listened to a podcast featuring the historian Brandon K. Gauthier, whose new book, “Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Kim,” was released recently. He said that the reason to study the childhoods of these monsters is not to sympathize with them, not to try to excuse them — as if such a thing were possible, and as if we had the standing to do that. It is not and we do not — but to try to understand what conditions allow evil to grow unchecked inside someone who started out, as all healthy babies do, as ordinary.

I’ve been applying this idea to Putin, who started his presidency, many people think, by blowing up apartment buildings in Russia so that his talents fighting those illusory terrorists would be appealing, and who has caused the murder — at a distance, of course, no dirty hands for him — of thousands of people by this point, because after all this is not his first war, just his biggest.

I’ve been thinking about what Aleksander Smukler has been saying about the childhoods of the Russians who grew up in the rubble left behind by the famines and sieges and evil the Nazis directed at them, whose childhoods were warped by that. Most of them seem to have grown up to be just-fine people but obviously at least one of them did not.

Many of the people we write about in this week’s issue had traumatic childhoods. Child Holocaust survivors, their children, and even their grandchildren carry the long-term scars of that trauma.

We now know so much more than we used to about the effects of childhood trauma, and the importance of good, loving parenting and schooling. We see that, as well, in the stories coming from Ukraine.

We also see it among us, in a very mild but still real way, as we come out of the pandemic. Yes, it is premature to say that. I know. I’m sorry! But the virus is changing, and so is our response to it, as the science changes, the vaccines work (not perfectly, as we hoped and naively assumed that they would, but still very effectively), and masks come off.

We know that children and teenagers and young adults have been affected by it; we know that the most elderly among us have been as well. We know that drivers are driving more recklessly, that kids in school are behaving more outlandishly, and that tempers are fraying dangerously. We know that what we faced is not a fraction of what other people have faced and overcome at other times and in other places — and it is obscene to compare it to what Ukrainians are dealing with much less what Holocaust survivors overcame, and I most certainly am not doing that — but that does not mean that we have dealt with no adversity. We have.

As we come out of the pandemic only to realize that there is no firm demarcation for its end, as there was at the beginning, we have to resharpen our intuitive understanding of other people and the world around us. As of course we can and we will.