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“In a mad world only the mad are sane.” – Akira Kurosawa

Russia was my first love. I have lost count of the times she has broken my heart and even left me at the altar. Yet, for one stupid reason or another, I keep coming back. We always seem to get back together. The country and the people have a hold on me. Mother Russia has always been the other woman in my life.

I am a child of the Cold War. I wondered who were these mysterious people on the other side of the world that we were supposed to hate because of their economic system, traditions, history, and language. I wanted to know more about them. In middle school, I participated in a piano competition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In a break between performances, I ducked into a student bookstore on Tate Street and used my lunch money to buy a pack of Russian phrase cards. My social studies teacher encouraged this obsession. I carried them in my shirt pocket and tried to memorize a few phrases each day. She even invited one of her professors from college, who taught Russian history, to speak to the class. After his talk, he taught me how to write my name in the Cyrillic alphabet. I carried that piece of paper with me until it wore out. I practiced writing my name in Russian hundreds of times.

From then on, I wanted to learn to speak, read, and write Russian. I tried to learn everything I could about the country, its history, and its people. It was all going great until our teacher was sick one day, and we had a substitute who noticed the cards in my pocket and asked if I was a communist. Adults are bullies.

Despite that minor setback, I didn’t know that a few years later, I would be studying the Russian language in a formal, academic setting at the very same university where I first purchased those phrase cards. What started on Tate Street in Greensboro in the sixth grade eventually took me to Moscow, where I lived for two years. I haven’t looked back. Russian language books line my office shelves today.

I watch the news from Ukraine, Russia, and around the former Soviet Union (especially the Caucasus region of Georgia and Armenia). My heart aches for the people and places I know and love. Vladimir Putin isn’t a nice man. He is a Russian dictator. If you know anything about Russian dictators, they are a predictable lot. Russia has always wanted buffer zones to protect the greater Slavic homeland. In this way, Putin is no different from Czar Nicholas I or Lenin. To expect an autocratic Russian leader not to be an imperialist expansionist is like expecting a rooster not to crow. It won’t happen. No high-minded speeches or soaring rhetoric will change his mind. On the contrary, it will probably harden his resolve. There is little mystery to his behavior, language, rhetoric, or motivations. Vladimir Putin is not a strategic genius. He is a predictable Russian, a former KGB officer, and a product of late Brezhnev-era stagnation that marked his coming of age in the Soviet Union.

It didn’t surprise me that the Russians didn’t take Kyiv in three days. There are few working elevators in the city of Moscow. If you can’t fix the elevators in one of the world’s most important cities, that says something about your military-industrial complex. The average life expectancy of a Russian male is somewhere between 68 and 71. That’s nearly ten years less than most developed western nations. Thanks to chain smoking and cheap vodka, Russian men are dying at a rate outpacing the birthrate. With the mass exodus of men caused by Putin’s mobilizations, Russia is a shell of a country. You don’t win wars with wheezing drunks and no spare parts.

How will this war end? It will not end in victory. There will not be a victory for either Russia or Ukraine. Victory is an anachronism in warfare such as this. Both sides have already lost. The devastating loss of life and property in Ukraine is horrendous and evil. The human lives wasted in pursuit of a greater pan-Slavic ideology are also damnable and insane. We are past the point where “victory” is something that either nation can claim with any degree of moral integrity. No one wins in the face of so much death and suffering. No one wins wars like this. Didn’t we learn this lesson in the former Yugoslavia? Didn’t we learn this in Northern Ireland?

No one has an endgame, especially the Russians and the Ukrainians. The Soviets haven’t had an endgame since 1972. The west has known this since game 13 of the World Chess Championships in Reykjavik in 1972. Game 13, move 50, rook takes bishop B5. Bobby Fischer sacrificed his bishop. That’s when Russia lost the Cold War, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine. Boris Spassky had no answer because he had no endgame like those who led and still lead his former country. This will end in the same bloody stalemate we see today. Neither side has an endgame. If the fighting is going to stop, someone needs an endgame. More money and more bodies aren’t an endgame.

Today, I want to take the unpopular step of praying for Russia. Scripture teaches us to pray for our enemies. Russia, however, is not my enemy. I can no more walk away from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I can Faulkner or Hemingway. I learned so much about myself on the streets of Moscow. I have many friends living behind this new Iron Curtain. I do not hate them. I do not want them to suffer. I want the fighting to stop. If they can safely leave the country, do so. If they can avoid conscription, do so. If they can listen to other sources of information, by any means, listen to those voices. I know you. I know you are not your leaders. I pray that you will one day be able to live as freely as you wish. I pray the killing will stop. I pray this nightmare will end.


–Richard Bryant