06 October 2022

Threads of contact, seeds of hope

I began my day yesterday watching the launch of Crew-5 from Cape Canaveral. They arrived this morning at the International Space Station. Aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft, carried to space by a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, were two Americans and ... wait a minute ...  aboard the spacecraft were four human beings! But in this case there is a point in some description. One of the four was a Russian cosmonaut.

The USA and post-Soviet Russia have been through some rough times in their relationships, none rougher than the present cruel war against Ukraine, initiated by one man and unjustified by any of the traditional excuses for making war. Since the Soyuz-Apollo flight in 1975, even in previous periods of tension between the West and Russia, the solidarity of the international corps of astronauts and cosmonauts seemed to rise above these tensions.

Anna Kikina arriving at the ISS today, greeted by Sergei Prokopiev and the rest of station's residents. Screenshot from source.

Back in July, the Russian side of the space station management stated that Russian collaboration would extend to sometime after 2024. (U.S. plans are to terminate the project in 2030.) Before the invasion of Ukraine, both nations were discussing a cost-free swap of astronauts for future ISS missions: one astronaut from the USA's launch program (not necessarily a USA citizen) on each Soyuz flight to the station, and one cosmonaut designated by Roscosmos on each flight to the station launched from the USA. In August, both countries' space agency leaders confirmed that the swap arrangement was still in place, but I couldn't help being a bit skeptical. 

I was wrong. Last month, USA astronaut Frank Rubio traveled to the station on a Soyuz spacecraft; yesterday was Russian cosmonaut Anna Yuryevna Kikina's turn.

How is any of this space collaboration compatible with the nearly unanimous opposition of the Atlantic community and much of the rest of the world to Russia's invasion and current daily savaging of Ukraine? This deserves a serious answer. The countries opposing Russia have brainstormed ceaselessly to put together sanctions and boycotts and other means of opposing Russia without risking a direct military confrontation.

Some of these actions seem reasonable—those that deny Russia the benefits of money and technology that could aid Russia's ability to continue the war. Some seem morally awkward—for example, I absolutely support investigations into war crimes and all manifestations of cruelty and brutality against civilians and prisoners of war, by whichever side, but I can't help noticing that the USA has never ratified the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. 

And some actions seem totally counterproductive.

Example number one: closing the door on Russian visitors, even refugees and asylum-seekers. Maybe I'm biased, since I personally know some affected people, but it seems obvious that the vast majority of those who have been trying to exit Russia since February 24 are doing so to seek safety from a government under corrupt, vengeful, and reckless leadership. An added advantage: their absence reduces the number of people who can be sent to kill Ukrainians or pay taxes for the purpose. Retaliatory policies that are perceived as russophobic provide evidence that the Russian nationalists use to whip up their audiences against the West, whereas the positive experiences of Russians abroad will filter back to their friends and relatives at home and (in some cases) contradict that nationalist line.

Likewise, the European Union's recent ban on cryptocurrency transactions with Russians, after almost all other retail-level money transfer channels have been cut off, will not hurt the Russian war effort, but it will hurt the finances of the antiwar and human rights movements in Russia, as well as those trying to pay for communication resources such as VPNs, Skype, Zoom, etc.

While politicians compete to propose the most severe sanction policies, non-governmental actors have proposed and imposed boycotts of their own, including the breaking of cultural ties. It may seem only fair to do so; after all, Russian leaders have openly declared that Ukrainian identity, even Ukraine's national existence, should be severely restricted or ended altogether; why should Russians not expect similar attitudes in response?

But how does boycotting Russian artists and musicians, human beings all, and insulting their domestic and international audiences, promote justice and healing for Ukraine? The primordial sin is objectifying each other, no matter who commits that sin, or why; and once you go down that path, you look more and more like the forces you oppose.

I think I understand the impulse to pile on ever more actions to isolate Russia's government. Each new Russian initiative ("partial" mobilization, "annexations") leads to another round of sanctions, as if to say, "now we're really serious." If only each new sanction were matched to an initiative to break through the isolation and reach Russian citizens with this simple message: we too yearn for the "beautiful Russia of the future—a happy, prosperous global neighbor, a land of justice at home and a blessing for the whole world."

Illustration from "Seeds of Hope" by a child
in Chechnya. (From the trilingual book
Power of Goodness.)

In the meantime, this is what Russians are hearing from their celebrity commentators: The leaders of the USA and NATO countries do not want Russia to exist; they don't want the Russian language to exist. As long as such people run the West, war is better than peace; and, specifically, these enemies of Russia must be killed. As it turns out, the rhetoric of nationalist extremes in many places (the USA included) turn out to be remarkably similar.

For those of us who love peace, who deny any government the right to tell us who our enemies are, and who take seriously the doctrine that we are all created in God's good image and likeness, our task now is at least this: to work in every way we can to undermine that ideology of hatred and elimination of enemies, that dynamic of fear and suspicion that enables authoritarians to drain resources from their own audiences for their colonial adventures. We certainly don't need to cooperate with campaigns of isolation at the very moment that isolation needs to be broken down.

Most of our initiatives will be human-scale—keeping up our ties with existing friendships (in my case, with former students and colleagues and civic partners in Russia, for example, using discretion to avoid exposing them to additional danger), and looking for opportunities to support the efforts of others. 

Now, back to Anna Kikina's arrival at the International Space Station along with her three colleagues carried there by NASA and SpaceX. In the context of nurturing relationships and overcoming isolation, the Russian and USA-led space programs are a bit of an anomaly. Their scale is different, they are far more enmeshed with government structures, and politicians on both sides of the current conflict have tried to use their countries' involvement in space collaboration as a political football. But the impulse to explore space together has turned out to have unexpected power. It draws on a phenomenon that many space travelers have reported: when you look at our planet from space, your perspective changes. Let's take advantage of that lasting solidarity, and celebrate it.

During those scenes of Anna Kikina speaking in Russian to her own audience from aboard the Crew Dragon just minutes after launch, and then her arrival on the space station, I looked for signs that this solidarity was yet another casualty of Russia's war, but didn't find them. I wonder if any ordinary people on the Russian side of this divide were looking at these events just as closely, and finding a different picture of the USA and of true comradeship, than their angry leaders are painting day in and day out on Russian television.

Nikolay Ovchinnikov on how Russian music is coping with the war.

We're just hours away from the announcement in Oslo of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022.

I know fans and critics of Jordan Peterson, but I'm a bit mystified by his popularity. So, apparently, is he. What do you think? Specifically, how fair is this article by Dorian Lynskey?

Micah Bales: the rich man, Lazarus, and the road to hell. (Where are we in this story?)

Scott Wagoner asks this question on Twitter and Facebook:

As a lifelong Quaker, I deeply value the living tradition it provides my spiritual journey. But I wonder if the peculiar jargon and language we often use gets in the way of feeling open and inclusive to those unfamiliar with Quakerism?

Back to basics. John Lee Hooker, "Worried Life Blues."

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