By Luz M. Guerrero Carrillo
My gut reaction when I saw the first images of the indiscriminate brutality unleashed during the first two weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was complete disbelief. Compiled by reporter Sam Jones for The Guardian, the photo essay “Two weeks of war in Ukraine” includes some images that depict the devastation that a little over 15 days of conflict have brought upon millions of Ukrainians. They have made me repeatedly ask myself: how did we get here?
Most of the pictures in the essay began to circulate on social media a couple of days after the invasion began, when the Western coalition started announcing economic sanctions against Russia, and the recurring online and public discourse centered around the notion that NATO had to do something. And while there is a lot to be said about the role of international organizations in failing to prevent the invasion, I was reminded of a different set of pictures that demonstrates that perhaps individuals like ourselves have some level of responsibility too.
Circa 2017, the Kremlin released a series of photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a vacation in the southern Siberian Republic of Tyva. Photoshopped into countless shirtless memes of him riding a bear with machine guns (amongst others), the pictures became a popular way to reference his macho persona. At this point, the 2008 invasion of Georgia had already occurred with a now-familiar trope of the defense of independent, self-proclaimed republics, as had also been the case for the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Reports too were emerging about the brutal crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in the Russian Republic of Chechnya and possible interference in the 2016 elections. Unsurprisingly though, Russia was preparing to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, for which I remember collecting album stickers with my brothers while unconcerned of the country’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. How I managed to separate the images of suffering in Aleppo that circulated in ghd media back then and the euphoria of watching our national team compete remains a mystery. Although incomparable, the historical parallel to the 1936 Summer Olympics feels particularly painful.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in the first few pages of her monumental book On Violence, “in the world of nature there is no spontaneity, properly speaking;” especially when it comes to instances of violence, there are no random events. When reflecting upon the words of Hannah Arendt, I cannot help but go back to my initial question and ask not how did we get here, but how did we not see the direction in which everything was going? The signs have been there all along, but it seems our generation hasn’t bothered to look critically at them, or worse, perhaps even celebrated them. After all, how many of us have the same photoshopped stickers of President Vladimir Putin riding a bear on our phone? How many of us debate kids felt the need to play the role of the destructive Delegate of Russia in Model UN conferences? How many times have we made Putin jokes, praised his strongman persona or marveled at the power he held over governments all over the world? Our indifference and acceptance of those behaviors ensured that the massing of troops on the Russo-Ukrainian border in early January was perceived as little more than a dictatorial eccentricity then. Business as usual.
And so, on the parallel of holding our governments accountable for the political action we want to see in Ukraine—whether that includes harsher economic sanctions or more urgent humanitarian aid—we need to start holding ourselves accountable too. If not as a justification, our embrace of the Kremlin’s PR campaign has been instrumental in the normalization of violence against civilians within and outside Russia. That cannot continue. We have the enormous privilege of being, arguably, the most informed generation in history, the least we can do is hold ourselves to the standard of critically analyzing the propaganda we are consuming.