Russia and the Rights of Man

Vladimir Putin isn’t a czar. He isn’t a comrade. He isn’t a president. He’s like an old-time Pharaoh, an evil king, killing people deliberately to prove his power. Putin isn’t a westerner, a civilized person. He belongs with the tribal warlords, whose power rests on a foundation of propaganda and fear.

Putin should not be likened to Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s ideology was popular. Hitler expostulated Nazism so effectively that the whole German population fervently rallied around its aims. That rally at Nuremberg.

Far from being enthusiastically behind Putin, Russians are cowed. They are quiescent because they’ve seen activists like Navalny be jailed, beaten and poisoned. Russians have seen bad times and Putin has conditioned them to accept future suffering. They don’t want trouble. Ordinary people trust Putin’s explanations; they see his authoritarianism as a necessity. For years, the Russian population has heard only a steady diet of lies.

Putin himself is a coward, so he conscripts younger countrymen to go to Ukraine to commit war crimes for him. His people go because they are ignorant of what Putin is really doing to Russia’s “brother country,” Ukraine. Russians can’t believe their president would bomb a theater filled with Ukrainian women and children, that he would order the bombing of kindergartens and maternity hospitals, that he would murder pregnant women or shell innocent civilians running for their lives.

Putin is sending Russian soldiers to Ukraine without adequate food, fuel, or strategies. His troops are ignorant of the truth. When they encounter the gross reality of the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are surrendering. They are deserting. They disregard orders. They leave behind their equipment. They have even reportedly shot down Russian planes from the sky.

No one has the nerve to oppose or force Putin out, so they go along with his damned course; they lick his boots and lie. Fortune reports that Russian troops positioned around Chernobyl have run roughshod over the radioactive site, raising the chance of their health being gravely impaired during their month-long occupation. The military mediocrity that such episodes reveal is astonishing.

Yet, the “free world” appears dangerously disadvantaged. It adheres to conventions. Decent democrats seem powerless in the face of Russia’s evil. Yet, for all that, the freedom that the rule of law brings is suddenly all the more precious (and empowering to Ukraine). Russia, once eager to be at the forefront of all nations, has fallen behind–economically, intellectually, and militarily. Its condition is provincial and static, because Putin’s regime depends on a closed society, where citizens have little access to news or information technology.

Having rejected the natural rights philosophy that undergirds representative governments in the West, Putin’s Russia is on a downward trajectory. Clearly not Western, it ever more nearly resembles benighted North Korea.

No wonder every decent American feels and thinks what President Biden had the guts and decency to say of Putin aloud: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Image: from this source.


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The Arrival of a Slave Family After the Proclamation

Union sketch artist A. R. Waud went to considerable pains to work up this engraving of a family arriving at a contraband camp soon after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863.  As I related in my previous posts, thousands of slaves had already sought refuge in the so-called contraband camps, beginning in June 1861, when the war was just a few months old.  Yet the arrival of this family in camp marked a significant difference in the ongoing migration of Southern slaves to freedom. Continue reading

Stampede of Slaves from Hampton to Fort Monroe

Southern slaves emancipated by the movement of the Union troops fled into a war zone laced with hazards and potential catastrophes. Suddenly freed from their owners, many ran off without a chance to think, forsaking what shelter and sustenance they had had. They ran from places that were familiar, taking nothing, since for the most part, slaves were legally prohibited from owning property. They had their clothes on their backs. They ran from former masters toward the safety, the more certain freedom, that they understood Continue reading

Freedmen Leaving the Plough

During the Civil War, the movement of Union troops through the slave states brought emancipation to the enslaved.  This drawing by Union sketch artist A. R. Waud captures one such moment, as field slaves on horseback jubilantly greet advancing Union troops and leave  the plough they are hauling, knowing they are free.

Waud accompanied the Union army during virtually the whole of the Civil War, capturing the truths of the war with his drawing as no other medium could.  Thanks to his efforts and those of other documentarians, later Americans can catch glimpses of a wildly tumultuous period in black history, when millions who had endured the tragedy of bondage enjoyed self-possession for the first time.

Image: Waud’s “Negroes Leaving The Plough,”
published with descriptive text in
Harper’s Weekly, March 26, 1864,
from this source.

The “Contraband”—A Precarious Freedom


As the Civil War unfolded, slavery began ending.  It didn’t end through a single act or pronouncement, any more than it had gotten started that way.  Instead, as battle followed battle, humans began chipping away at slavery on an extemporaneous basis, as opportunities arose.  White officials in the North, agents of the Union cause, did something to facilitate this process of emancipation, which yet required Southern slaves’ own determination and action to become a real thing.  To become free was momentous, but it was also a curiously precarious and fearfully abstract condition.  It was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner aptly put it.

This photograph captures the momentousness and curious sameness of emancipation.  In 1862, as Union and Confederate troops battled in Virginia, slaves seized the moment, leaving their putative masters and seeking refuge from bondage by crossing over into Union camps.  The slaves pictured here were newly free, but their freedom was tenuous and geographic, dependent on the Northern forces’ advance onto enemy ground.  Before the war, such fugitives could never rest easy, for a federal law passed in 1850 required Northerners to respect slaveholders’ rights and allow them to recapture their “property,” even if their property had fled into the North and resided on “free ground.”

All that went by the boards when the sections warred.  Union strategists recognized that hastening slavery’s end was key to defeating the rebel states.  Hoping to deprive the Confederates of a captive labor force and to disrupt slave-master relationships, Northerners began encouraging and harboring the freedmen, as former slaves were called.  Besides, many of those leading the Union effort were abolitionists who recoiled at the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  To many Northerners, though by no means all, liberating and “uplifting the slave” was a principled, intrinsic part of what the war was for.

Others saw the refugee slaves as more problematic.  Laws had yet to be written or passed establishing that former slaves should enjoy the status of free citizens and the attendant rights.  Years would pass before the legal and civil status of former slaves was settled.  In the meantime, some folk regarded the freedmen as more akin to “lost property”–chattel who fell short of being truly human and free.  White ambivalence toward the freedmen was reflected in the word they used initially to define them: “contraband,” a word for forbidden or illicitly held property.

The Union army, willing to facilitate the former slaves in their passage to freedom, hastily staked out and ran provisional “contraband camps.”  The refugees pictured above had been assigned an outbuilding on a farm in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, where Union officers were also headquartered.  Eventually, the Union army would shelter a population of contraband estimated at as many as one million souls.  In 1862, though, when this picture was taken, fleeing slaves were a novelty: they were the emissaries of a race of people white northerners were unfamiliar with, whom they would previously have had little chance to see or know.

The strangeness of this historic moment lives on in the photograph, in the stances and facial expressions of the newly free, whose difference from the photographer and the army around them is registered in expressions of watchful gravity.  Only one woman in the center is smiling, and no wonder.  Despite having survived their first flight to “freedom,” these intrepid souls were right to doubt whether they had truly arrived.  They needed to keep the army between themselves and the Southern rebels, or else face the awful risk of being re-enslaved.

Image: from this source