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Current Events

Marzio G. Mian’s travelogue of the Volga River [“Behind the New Iron Curtain,” Letter from Russia, January] bears a profound sense of despair, well known to those of us who grew up in Russia. His piece considers the perplexing questions: How can a nation long known for its resilience against evil carry out so terrible an attack on its neighboring state? How can Russians rest while their government drops missiles on the homes of innocent Ukrainians? To these seeming conundrums Mian offers several plausible explanations. One is a lingering Soviet imperial syndrome; another is a deep-seated resentment of the West. Just as pervasive is a dismal resignation, a feeling of helplessness against a certain doom. Even the apparent pride of Russian farmers, ostensibly indifferent to the war and profiting from ill-conceived sanctions, is marred by the recognition that their triumph is fleeting and will come at a cost.

Yet this is not the Russia I know, one in which networks of volunteers, in the wake of the full-scale invasion, launched campaigns to assist Ukrainians stranded in Russia, donated to ticket funds, and transported refugees to airports, train stations, and then to the border. There remain teachers and professors who, uncowed by censorship and the threat of prosecution, educate their students on Russia’s past, striving to free the next generation from Soviet and imperial nostalgia. There are artists, writers, and museum curators who, unlike Mikhail Piotrovsky, are not proud of the Russian government. Indeed, just as during the Cold War, the lives of those who resist the regime remain obscured, while the visible signs of conformity and submission crowd the public eye.

Ekaterina Pravilova
Professor of history, Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.


I grew up on the Volga River and have spent decades reporting along its banks, both before and after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The mass murder of Ukrainian civilians of all ages has since emptied me of the “Russian syndrome,” an attitude, as Mian notes, that is pervasive among many and contains “a mixture of nostalgia, melancholy, and affliction.”

Mian does not rehash stereotypes about the war (Russians are victims of propaganda; Russia is about to collapse; in a year or two the exiles will return and heal the country). Instead, he presents a nuanced portrait of life along the Volga: booming local industry, drunken youths hiding from the military draft in my hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, a militant Orthodox Old Believer, for whom nuclear apocalypse is preferable to defeat in Ukraine. Central to his story are the paradoxes of Putin’s Russia: a Soviet-style agricultural collective turns out to be a thriving modern farm, and its Stalinist boss a successful manager; Western sanctions have stimulated domestic production, and many citizens have welcomed the war as a result.

Anna Nemtsova
Lisbon, Portugal


The revival of the cult of Stalin that Mian depicts is certainly alarming. This nostalgia seems to stem in part from an underlying fear that the Russian Federation could break up, a final step in the dissolution of the Soviet Union that began in the early Nineties. So Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have any number of ambitions: to set an example, say, or to keep a tight rein on non-Russian independence movements along the Volga and in the North Caucasus.

Separatist movements in the Middle Volga coalesced in 2018 via the Free Idel–Ural Movement, whose goal is sovereignty for ethnic minorities in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Udmurtia, Mari El, and Mordovia. Free Idel–Ural was originally headquartered in Kyiv, and just days before Putin began the invasion, Russia’s prosecutor general declared the organization a threat to “constitutional order and security.” The disproportionate number of ethnic-minority young men returning home from the Ukraine front in body bags today only serves to underscore Putin’s bid to maintain his grip on a crumbling empire.

Kathleen Braden
Affiliate professor of geography, University of Washington



It’s not easy to capture the difficulties of life after combat [“The Museum of Broken G.I. Joes,” Miscellany, January], when residual hypervigilance meets with a new kind of boredom—and when you lose your mind, along with thousands of dollars of combat pay. Matt Farwell, formerly of the 2-87 Infantry, catalogues the challenges with firsthand expertise: the substance abuse, the criminal activity, the suicide attempts. But it’s hard not to wonder whether Farwell’s portrayal of PTSD would have been stronger had he focused on the soldiers he knew well.

Stephanie Cuepo Wobby
Milton, Vt.


Farwell notes several times the G.I. Joe slogan “knowing is half the battle.” Our slogan in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos was “Don’t mean nothing.” We used it to confront our contempt for ourselves after combat, while America used it to demonstrate its contempt for us—especially those of us who went to Laos for Operation Lam Son 719, which lost more than two hundred helicopters and crew members combined. His story proves yet another old Army saying: “Combat ruins a man forever!”

Al Sever
Montoursville, Pa.


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March 2024

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