Health Policy

Reflections From the Ukraine

By MIKE MAGEE

The English translator of Tolstoy’s epic Russian novel, “War and Peace”, Richard Pevear, writes in his introduction, “The book is set in the period of the Napoleonic wars (1805-1812) and tells the interweaving historical events of two very different families of the Russian nobility – the severe Bolonskys and the easygoing Rostovs – and of a singular man reminiscent of the author himself – Count Pierre Bezukhov. It embodies the national myth of ‘Russia’s glorious period’ as Tolstoy himself called it…”

On page 348, in a moment of intense introspection, the very same Pierre broodingly reflects, “What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life and what is death? What power rules over everything?”

Pierre’s mind provides this very dark response, “You will die – and everything will end. You will die and learn everything – or stop asking.”

Seemingly acting as a Cable news commentator to the current epic struggle between Putin and Ukraine in response to a 40 mile Russian military caravan inching single lane toward Kiev, Tolstoy comments on page 605, “millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and their reason, had to go from west to east and kill their own kind, just as, several centuries earlier, hordes of men had gone from east to west, killing their own kind…Fatalism in history is inevitable for the explanation of senseless phenomena…”

President Zelinsky’s address to the Parliament of the European Union this week seemed to suggest to Tolstoy that it is possible to transcend one’s culture. From a war bunker, the Ukrainian president said, “I don’t read from paper, the paper phase is over, we’re dealing with lives. Without you, Ukraine will be alone. We’ve proven our strength. We’re the same as you. Prove that you’ll not let us go. Then life will win over death. This is the price of freedom. We are fighting just for our land. And for our freedom, despite the fact that all of the cities of our country are now blocked…We are fighting for our rights, for our freedom, for our lives and now we are fighting for our survival, Every square today, no matter what it’s called, is going to be called Freedom Square, in every city of our country. No one is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians.”

His final words are a direct and poetic appeal, “Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans. And then life will win over death and light will win over darkness. Glory be to Ukraine.”

Poets, politicians, and religious leaders have tread this path before. Rome’s 1st century CE intellectual, Seneca, stated with confidence that “Injustice never rules forever.”

In his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, expanded on this theme and the implied obligations with these remarks, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

St. Augustine understood well the interlocking nature of human justice when he wrote, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” And the Talmud cautions that timing is of the essence with this passage, “Three things are good in little measure and evil in large: yeast, salt and hesitation.”

“All sins cast long shadows”,  states the Irish proverb. And yet, at times in history, we can be pleasantly surprised by the cascading effect of single voices of courage like those of President Zelensky. As Shakespeare reminded, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

This is not to say that Putin, and his oligarchs and KGB allies, will be easily toppled. But the range and coordinated nature of the international response is encouraging. As Thoreau noted, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the roots.” 

But at the end of the day, it comes down to this, do you believe in the fundamental goodness of human nature? Walt Whitman did. He wrote, “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.”

Of course, these are words, and the Zelensky family and their fellow citizens of Ukraine need action from all corners of the globe. As the African proverb states, “By his deeds, we know a man.”

Mike Magee, MD is a Medical Historian and Health Economist, and author of  “CodeBlue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.“

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