To Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Concerning Ukraine

Vladimir Vladimirovich! You recently wrote an essay claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. A people are defined by common history, values, aspirations and material circumstances: the four Aristotelean causes. Let us consider your claims in this light.

In the year 800, The Roman pope Leo III crowned Charles son of Pepin – Charlemagne – as King of the Romans. In 988, Basil II of Byzantine consecrated Vladimir Sviatoslavich, Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler of the Rus. Both introduced Christianity and an image of Roman heritage to vast reaches of the north.

Romans marched into the future with minds fixed on the past. For Romans, preserving the glory of Aeneas was worth any genocide. Lust for power became ritual, symbolized in the image of the four rulers – Augustus and Caesar of east and west, each with a dagger for the next. “Might makes right” is the watchword of those who would reduce people to the residue of history, and that to the acts of the bold and ruthless. Even the Romans, however, came to incorporate other causes into their understanding of a people.

On the brink of its collapse in the west, Roman rule was transformed by Christianity. Theodosius, last Emperor of both east and west, repented publicly for a massacre his soldiers had committed; he was the first Christian prince to acknowledge the supremacy of conscience over might. Byzantines, and after them the Rus, contended with the judgement of the afterlife as well as the glory of the past. Republican Romans had acknowledged common values, but understood them as the legacy of history. The acceptance of Christianity by the Romans was the acceptance of transcendent values, which weren’t simply the effects of founding experience.

A thousand years after Theodosius, Byzantium fell. Its scholars escaping sewed new life in the soil of Charles’ old kingdom, in Italy. The inner eye began to see a self whose form was dynamic. Pico’s God speaks to Adam: “Thou … in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hands we have placed thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature.” People started, gradually, to look forward as well as back. After much bloodshed, citizens of Zurich and Munich, Vienna and Milan, Paris and Utrecht can share a heritage without sharing a nation, which is a shared, sacred past; for they can share a future together. The children of the Renaissance became conscious of the constitutive power of their own aspirations.

With the rise of capitalism — and the socialist reaction it evoked — people’s collective identities came to include a consciousness of shared material circumstances. People’s individual material circumstances will always be different, but collective identity has come to embrace a sense that a people must share each other’s burdens.


Vladimir Vladimirovich! Charlemagne sits in stone outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where, Mandelstam writes:

 … римский судия судил чужой народ

 … Romans gave laws to alien nations

Theodosius was an alien to the law of David and of Moses. Yet he could repent after the example of David. Vladimir the Great gave up rule in his own name to rule in the name of holy wisdom. You have said Russians and Ukrainians are one people, consecrated by Vladimir, your namesake. If you invade Ukraine, hundreds of thousands may die; millions will suffer. Even so, the past will not give you the unity you imagine.

Accept the fruit of the seed from Byzantium, which sprouted in Italian soil. Accept the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in their own country, just as Germans and Dutch accept each others contract. Do not force the people who remember Vladimir Sviatoslavich to live and die for the past. If you do, you will just pile more stones on the wall that divides you. History will show your violence; no values will condone it; the Ukrainian people will aspire to resist your tyranny; and when one side kills another they bear no common burden.

The past is not everything — for a nation, its life in the minds of the people is everything. Live in peace: the future is also sacred. It bears the name of freedom.

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