“Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.” — Hannah Arendt
“All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force.” — George Orwell
“Art goes beyond politics. Even if there are writers who are involved in politics, eventually, in one or two centuries, it’s not their politics which is going to count, but the fact of having given life to feelings, of having created characters and made a living work of art.” — Eugene Ionesco
As Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to deploy the language of misinformation against the West while claiming the right to mobilize his so-called “denazification” of Ukraine, many of us came to realize he plagiarized language that was created in Germany to justify all of the atrocious events that occurred between 1938 and 1939, including the escalation of German expansionism, the acceleration of domestic preparations for war, and above all the crackdown on Jewish people, which was seen as part of Adolf Hitler’s overall political and ideological warfare. What differs between the radicalization of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies and Putin’s idea of denazification is his gross underestimation of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s heart and soul, which echoes his own peoples’ ever so heroically and inspiringly.
As over five million people—mostly children and older citizens—have fled to neighboring countries, including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia, people throughout the world are beginning to recognize the polar opposites in Putin and Zelenskyy. In other words, while Putin, an ex-KGB official who witnessed the end of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which he viewed as a disgrace to Russia, became consumed with one ultimate goal: to become president of Russia in order to restore the glorious past of the Russian Empire, Zelenskyy is a former actor and comedian who became Ukraine’s president just five months before the outbreak of COVID-19. We can only imagine that with Putin’s weighty contempt in his heart, lead-heavy in his head, living with constant fear for his own life, among other signs of perversion revealed in his physiognomy, he must create an absolute condition of a corrupted few, who, in exchange for their immense and temporal wealth, would conform to his rule of power. Here, we recall indeed this verse from the Bible, “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.” By contrast, Zelenskyy’s lightness of spirit is driven by the laws of the comic, as Henri Bergson once wrote in his famous book Laughter, “Thus the comic is not a mere pleasure of the intellect, it is a human and social activity, it has a social meaning.” Again, Putin’s aggressive deployment of outrageous falsehoods is no more than a product of his ethno-nationalist doctrine that thrives on the emphasis of tribalism, and whatever exclusionary narratives of common descent can be recreated in order to revive the nation’s glorious past. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, embodies an inclusive form of civic nationalism that yields to traditional liberal values of freedom, individual rights, equality, tolerance, and without ethnocentrism. Whatever Putin may refer to as a “special military operation” as a pretext to bring Ukraine and Russia together, Zelenskyy and his Ukrainian forces will hold steady in fight.
Frankly, I can’t help but to think of Putin and Zelenskyy in terms of Greek tragedy and comedy. While the former is emotionally invested in his problems in fostering resoluteness of pride, unquestioning loyalty, blind obedience of any kind that appeals to his version of patriarchy and militarism, even at the expense of struggling to the death, the latter is endowed with an agile, pragmatic outlook toward life’s incongruities. Just as Putin underestimates Ukraine—regardless of its complex history as a colony, first to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and later the Russian Empire—which, as a nation, has always managed to create opposition to every form of a ruling elite in different times differently, Putin also underestimates Zelenskyy who was elected in part through his popular TV series Servant of the People, in which he played a leading role as a high school history teacher in his thirties, who is unexpectedly elected President of Ukraine after a video, made by one of his students, showed Zelenskyy ranting against government corruption in his country. However much of Putin’s elevated and controlled language of tragedy is being fed to his small enclave of business oligarchs (who, due to Putin’s implementation of Russian privatization that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, had rapidly accumulated unimaginable wealth), Zelenskyy’s common speech appeals to every single Ukrainian. As Putin and his generals stood around expecting that Ukraine would simply surrender in the first forty-eight hours of the invasion, Zelenskyy, wearing a light green T-shirt as a social lubricant, joined as an equal member the reserve army, and has risen to the moment of crisis by declaring, “We are all here. Our military is here, as are our people and [the] whole society,” in a video posted to Facebook. He continued “We're all here defending our independence and our country. And we'll go on doing that. Glory to our defenders! Glory to Ukraine.”
In solidarity, with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to our two beloved mentors and friends Ed (Edward Parrish) Harding (1936–2022) and Constance “Connie” Lewallen (1939–2022) for their remarkable contributions to the cultural community. After nearly forty years of exceptional service as a board member and chair of the indispensable SIAS (Studio in a School), we will always be grateful to Ed’s professional expertise, positive attitude, and generosity of spirit. His unyielding dedication has inspired our greater commitment as a large collective to bringing art education to children and young people from underserved communities in New York and its five boroughs, along with three other cities (Cleveland, Memphis, and Newark) through the creation of Studio Institute in 2016. Connie, in addition to her highly accomplished career as a curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive where she has put on numerous major exhibitions, including The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) (2001); Everything Matters: Paul Kos, a Retrospective (2003); Ant Farm, 1968–1978 (2004); A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s (2007); Allen Ruppersberg: You and Me or the Art of Give and Take (2009), among others, always made time to support the Rail as an Editor-at-Large par excellence. Her love for life, art, and artists, infused with her remarkable knowledge and wonderful style of accessible communication, made all of us at the Rail perpetually conscious of how to walk the thin line of intellectual rigor without spoon feeding our readers. We send our deep condolences first to Ed's beloved wife Margaret “Peggy,” their children Mimi, Marie, and Ned, and his extended family and friends; second to Connie’s daughter Nina, and son Jonathan, as well as their extended family, friends, and admirers. Additionally, with enormous pleasure, we welcome Raeven Aliyah Senior as our brilliant new Programs Associate. Lastly, for the month of May our ongoing exhibit Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy will open across its first three locations: the Scully Tomasko Foundation (May 21–September 1), Art Cake (May 26–June 26), and Below Grand (May 28–July 2). Please come and join us to celebrate our art of joining and in turn we can restore our fragile democracy indeed.