Percy Shelley Despises Putin
He may be dead, but he didn’t like bullies
“My name is Vladimir, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and declaim!”
And yet he doth remain. Such ill-calculated things
Make colossal wrecks of tank brigades in Ukraine.¹
— — —
The everlasting timeliness of things
Flows through one mind, slips rapidly away.
Where imposing strongman’s whims held sway
A giant brood of rubble rusting clings.²
— — —
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Europe’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen weapons the troops dead
Are driven, to ghosts from javelins fleeing,
Yellow, and blue, and white, and hectic red
Famine, frost-struck multitudes: And you,
Dread charioteers caught in a spider’s web
Your winged seeds they lie cold as Crypto-coins
Each like a store of wealth in sanctioned tomb
Thine stashes in the West, thy yachts, conjoined
A clarion warning, no one heard
Ignored, one stutterless old man’s word
We thought we knew, we know, we fume
Wild Leader, who art moving everywhere:
Destroyer and Authoritarian; ware, beware!³
— — —
People of Ukraine, heirs of Glory,
Authors of your unwrit story,
Rise like Sunflowers after snowfall
An indomitable people
Shake Russian chains to earth and show
The world how your mighty flowers grow.⁴
- The first verse is a semi-parody of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a poem usually used in reference to the hubris of ancient despots, rather than living dictators. To “declaim” is to speak in an impassioned manner. Much of the world has spoken with a great deal of passion about Ukraine/Russia. I might have added another line to capture what I suspect is Putin’s sense of such statements: “I hear your words, which I disdain.”
- The second verse is a semi-parody of Shelley’s poem, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.” In packing this tranquil meditation of a poem into this form, I may have committed a sin against the Muse of Poetry. May she be merciful.
- The third section of this poem is loosely modeled after Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The use of archaic, over the top-romantic language (thou, etc.) in all three of these poems is intended to try to capture a piece of Shelley’s spirit as applicable to the current state of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022. Shelley died in July 1822 in Italy, not quite 30 years old. Most of his life, he was a staunch proponent of nonviolent resistance, but towards the end, things became a little more complex (see next note).
- The fourth section of this poem invokes Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy.” Or maybe rebuts it. Shelley wrote this in response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in August 1819, and it became a rallying cry of revolutionaries the world round ever since. One poet’s interpretation focuses on the meaning as a whole, suggesting the issue may be Shelley’s black/white Manicheanism; that seems a very plausible approach. To me though, I hear this poem and think of reckless revolutionaries who cling to a handful of words like “Rise like Lions after slumber” and “Ye are many, they are few” — and I hear a call to war. Perhaps war is the only way to secure Ukraine’s future; perhaps there are forms of resistance that will remove Russian presence with less bloodshed than we’ve seen in other wars. I only know many people will die, and I firmly believe that both individual Russians and Ukrainians have more control over their destinies than most observers realize.
Analysis (where I’m Coming from with these words)
Ben Judah’s Feb. 28, 2022 piece in Slate, “The Terrible Truth So Many Experts Missed About Russia” omits some interesting observations. If Judah is correct that most experts believed Putin was bluffing up until the invasion started on February 24, 2022, then most of the experts assumed Biden was lying on February 18, 2022 when he announced that Putin had “made the decision to attack.” Or, put differently, the widespread belief of the experts is that the experts advising Biden aren’t very good at their jobs.
Those same experts are probably a little annoyed at Biden’s offhand remark about Putin needing to go. Odd. So they don’t believe him when he stays on script, nor do they like him when he goes off script…and one wonders how we get a President Trump?
‘For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power
- President Joe Biden, March 26, 2022 remarks in Warsaw, Poland
Thinking over how many experts discounted the set of experts currently offering expertise to various governments, many of whom also warned about an imminent invasion of Ukraine, it is fascinating how other experts can now, to quote Judah, see clearly “that what exists inside the Kremlin is no longer a ‘regime’ at all.”
Essentially, since all the experts who got it right disagree with all the experts who got it wrong, they’re all wrong now about what to do about the war, and sanctions just aren’t going to work. That seems…odd.
Americans tend to see the world in much the same way as President Joe Biden frames it in his speeches, divided neatly between “democracies” and “autocracies.” — Ben Judah
Do Americans see the world the way President Joe Biden frames it? Odd. Apparently, the experts did not.
Judah’s main point, however, is to assert that the “Putin Regime” is unfettered by oligarchs or power sharing arrangements: it’s all Putin now. As a “personalist dictatorship,” strictly under one strong man’s thumb, nobody can check Putin’s wills or whims.
A fascinating proposal: can one man really control a country as massive as Russia? Maybe. Can one man do so ‘personally’? No, that would be silly. No matter how much authority flows through a dictator, each has the same 24 hours per day that the rest of us have.
Imagine an extreme micro-manager in a corporation with 10,000 employees. Can that micro-manager supervise and order every employee in the company? Of course not. How much more in a country of 144 million (and an enormous one at that)?
Every dictator must delegate. Power must always be wielded through subordinates. Every subordinate is an independent human being, not a robot. They may even have interests and concerns adverse to the dictator issuing the orders. A dictator might send in intelligence services or police to impose that dictator’s will upon those subordinates, but then what if the intelligence services themselves have their own agenda? The dictator will need “extra super secret” intelligence to spy on his own intelligence — all of which consumes quite a few hours per day.
Every dictator is fully dependent on having hundreds, thousands, millions of people fully obeying that dictator’s will — doing everything they need to do correctly at all times — magically knowing the orders they would have been issued and following them like robots.
Fail to do things right, and nuclear power plants can catch fire.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the foremost Romantic poets, and so, his view of humanity emphasized the emotional reality and wonder inherent in human beings. Perhaps I’m a little more pragmatic: I think that the fact that we all have the same number of hours in a day tells us a great deal, perhaps even more than the fact that we all have an emotional reality.
Experts believed that threatening Russian oligarchs with sanctions, for instance, would encourage Putin’s inner circle to push back against war.
Perhaps some experts did. Others seem to believe going after the Russian oligarchs may be helpful, and still others believe going after the Russian oligarchs is better than nothing. If a soccer/football franchise or a few real estate holdings trade hands, that’s not likely to prove decisive. But who knows?
Mr. Judah cites New York Times’ Tom Friedman with approval in this statement —
“The only place to be for understanding this war is inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head.”
Which is odd. Almost as if a few millions Ukrainians and their understanding this war doesn’t really matter. Or the understanding of a couple hundred thousand Russians fighting in the war. Or the understanding of a few dozen oligarchs looking to guard their holdings and/or increase their profits during the war.
Oligarchs seldom get to tell politicians what to do, or not do, in any specific manner. By the time their power becomes apparent, most of the politicians will have been sacked or fled. Until then, oligarchs wield influence and maintain access and special insider knowledge. Since their primary agenda is to profit, their primary influence is over how they profit from the information they acquire while being very close to the center of power. In the event of a civil war, their power will be tested if and when they can take control of units ability to wield force: if soldiers are willing and able to fight for free without food , ammunition, and materiel — in Russia or in Ukraine (or in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other country) — then it’s very difficult to wield leverage through use of financial strings over the military. That has not yet been tested in Russia. It may be soon.