Thoughts on Purim and Russia

Thoughts on Purim and Russia

We are all so very lucky.

Yes, our country is bitterly divided. Yes, there is a great struggle for the soul of the United States. Yes, for the first time we did not have a peaceful transfer of power, but instead were presented with the Big Lie about stolen elections and a bloody insurrection.

Yes, even though the pandemic is more or less over, at least for now, we have mask wars and vaccine wars and the growth of the anti-vax, anti-science, pro-stupidity movement. (No, neither John F. Kennedy nor his son are coming back from the dead to work with Trump. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, if you haven’t read about those deep rabbit holes, much less gone down them yourself, you’re even luckier.)

But still, even though the moral arc of the universe seems to be bending not toward justice but in the general direction of chaos and disaster, still we are lucky to be here.

How do people in Ukraine — people who were just like us, who had middle- and upper-middle-class lives, filled with electronics and comfort — make sense of what’s going on around them? How do you make sense of the death that shatters everything around you, that comes for your home and your neighbors and your sense of order?

Yes, the world has been here before, but we’d hoped we were beyond that.

There is much goodness as well, of course. There’s the extraordinary courage, bearing, and timing that Volodymyr Zelensky displays. The fact that he’s Jewish is stunning and wonderful. It shows that there can be healing, even in a place as scarred by history as Ukraine.

And then there’s Russia.

Earlier this week, I talked to a friend who has many friends in both Russia and Ukraine. That friend has asked not to be identified, not out of fear that something would cross the ocean and attack here, but because it’s not impossible that social media clues and connections could end at friends’ doorsteps. That kind of fear is no longer paranoia. It’s justified.

That’s because, this friend told me, people in Russia have no idea what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s not clear how long that posture can be maintained, but for now — or at least for earlier this week, because everything is changing rapidly and constantly — Russians do not know the truth about the war their president started.

Part of it is denial, my friend suggested, and that denial is made possible because of the complete blackout on any kind of real news the government has imposed.

But my friend — a very singular person who nonetheless I shall refer to as “they,” at their request, out of fear for their friends’ safety — “wants everyone to know what’s going on in Russia.

“I want them to see how Putin treats his own people.”

They talked about a video that showed a troop of young soldiers who had been abandoned in the woods, outside a village. They saw a video whose Russian narration said “We have been here for four days. It is snowy. Our feet are wet. We have no food. We have nothing to drink. They said that they would rescue us, but they haven’t.”

Of course, we have no idea if such videos are real — the Ukrainians certainly can fight disinformation with disinformation — and even if they’re real, these horrors are far better than the bombs that are hitting hospitals and killing children.

On the other hand, my friend said, most people in Russia simply have no idea. “I talked to a friend who said ‘Everything’s fine. I’m going to work, just like I do every day. Nothing is different.’ People are in denial.”

Sanctions hadn’t seemed to have hit regular people yet, my friend said.

My friend sent their friend in Russia videos taped off CNN, showing explosions and devastation. Their friend was shocked. But when my friend asked their friend to forward the video to others, the answer was no. Why? It’s not safe.

“They live in a bubble, and everything is lies,” my friend said. Real news is forbidden, and anyone providing it can be sentenced to prison for many years. Russians are fed false footage, or old footage, on their news shows.

That’s because “Putin doesn’t care,” my friend said. “The Russians have to lie to their own people. Putin’s leadership is based on lies. He doesn’t care about his troops, or his military, or his people. He doesn’t care about humanity. He’s just a dictator. I feel bad for the Russian people, who really still just don’t get it.”

Propaganda today is done by highly sophisticated devices that work on the parts of the human brain that are deeply unsophisticated; in fact, at times we’re closer to feral. We should know that.

So now Purim is coming into this seriously messed-up world. We don’t have to play topsy-turvey, because the world really is. Just as the Jewish people faced annihilation in Shushan, so much of Europe faces it today.

So we have to hope that the purposeful masquerade of Purim, where we lose control to regain control, where the terrors seem to win and then are conquered, where Putin — whoops, I mean Haman — ultimately loses, and the Jewish heroes, Zelensky, no no no Mordechai and Esther! — through their faith and love and deep cleverness and actual wisdom — actually win.

We at the Standard hope that this first sort-of-post-pandemic Purim is a good one, and that by next year we all will be unmasked, disease-free, and just plain free.