June 2022. Still Keeping Things in Perspective.




This is a strange world we live in. Today, here in Tuscany, you may wake to a misty morning possibly heralding another sunny day in the quiet air that carries just a hint of a breeze to remind you that Italy is a beautiful place.

Yet, just one thousand miles away the morning will reveal a quite different scene, one torn apart by bombs and bullets, an ugly terrain of pain and death. The news will carry photographs of smouldering buildings that remain merely as garish piles of concrete and twisted metal. Mostly, the journalist spare us the photographs of dead and scorched bodies. One can say little of the pain they must feel at man’s callous regard for the squandering of innocent lives. Yet the very mention of Ukraine and Russia reminds one that wars are waged at the behest of governments, not of the citizens who may be baffled, if certainly not bemused at this turn of events. Are we too compliant in our acceptance of the political dogma that may surround the political will of the state?

Perhaps! Putting aside the ‘Blame Game’, and ‘Bragging Boris’, one thing must be obvious. Russia did not invade on a whim, but gave ample evidence that they were signalling a warning that the present political and geographical status quo was being put under threat. Do you remember, for example, how long Russia sat on the border “flexing its muscles”? The build-up began in the Spring of 2021, just a little before Mr Johnson started to mutter that Russia was sending mixed signals. Meanwhile, he was sending Ukraine a little more UK debt! It was, in fact, ten months before the Russian invasion actually began. Western governments, it seems, were asleep at the wheel.

There was a preamble. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall in 1989, an uneasy status has been the de facto political agreement between the West and the Russia Federation. There seems little doubt that this fragile position was shaken by the United States inspired so-called popular uprising that led to the illegal overthrow of President Yanukovych sparking a civil war in eastern Ukraine. This was further fuelled by the NATO secretary general stating that the expansion of NATO forces in Europe would go ahead regardless of Russia’s interests and concerns. Coupled with the European Union’s welcome of eastern countries into their political orbit a scenario for future conflict became inevitable.

What were the western leaders doing for all this time? One thing they constantly reiterated was that they could not give any assurances that the Ukraine would not become a member of NATO. If you wanted to wave a red flag at a bull, this was definitely the way to do it. It may be worth reiterating this particular scenario, more fully covered in my February Blog, as I have wandered from my original intentions of noting how such morbid matters have touched the quiet and dignified terrain where I live. Since the modern mechanical age war has been waged on an international scale, and the destruction similar. For its instigation we have to go back quite a long way in modern history, but still only a little outside contemporary memory. But it is only the tragic scale that is actually new.

Volterra, for instance, like so many cities in Italy is indeed a quiet and peaceful place, and little is made of its illustrious past, not helped by an historical language that remains virtually indecipherable. That doyen of Etruscan history, George Dennis, considered it a “dirty and gloomy place”. Indeed, the first mention of the city seems to have been in 298BC when it certainly had already been a place to be reckoned with for five hundred years or more. From a visual point of view, it still is. Whichever direction you approach it, from miles away you will see the city sitting on its summit nearly two thousand feet above sea level, approached by a bald, open landscape. Once it was ringed by walls over five miles in circumference and between thirty and sixty feet in height. Such, enclosed fortifications in the Ukraine, would be of little use in modern warfare, but were considered impregnable in ancient times. As indeed they were, for Volterra was never taken physically, only surrendered twice in its history after two years of resistance, with their food running out. Despite that, the inference here has echoes that may soon be heard in the present hostilities. Food. Or rather the lack of it! Ukraine may not be exactly the ‘bread basket of the world’, but scorched wheat fields are going to make a serious dent in western demands for what is a very important element in its diet. So it was when Sylla, Roman General and Statesman, decided to park his troops outside the walls. As such it resonates with the West’s action over Ukraine. The city having taken sides with Marius in the civil war that was raging at that time, found the choosing of friends fraught with problems. Sylla only had to sit there long enough, but it must have tried his patience mightily. In that instance the city was lucky as its greatest mentor was the then Consul, Cicero, and thus it was able to escape the wrath of the victor. The outcome was a very civilised occupation from which the city was able to prosper. Not so from the second and final antagonism.

Medieval times were barbaric in the extreme as petty counts plundered the Italian countryside. Sometimes they were men of considerable intelligence and character even as they ravaged the countryside around them. One such was a Medici – Lorenzo the Magnificent. Responsible for a local war that surrounded Volterra from 1470 to 1472, it was concluded in the terrifying ‘Sack of Volterra’, an event following its formal surrender that saw troops, ignoring the pleas of their officers, run amuck in the town, killing every man, woman and child they came across. For this tragedy, Savanarola, tending Lorenzo’s death bed, refused to give him absolution when he turned his head away from the friar’s demand, he accept guilt for the massacre.

Who now will accept the guilt for Putin’s seemingly irrational invasion of a neighbouring country? From any perspective the cause does not warrant the wholesale slaughter of a fellow nation, yet this seems the Russian ambition, a harking back to a Medieval immoral burst of outrage to justify what they perceive, and others too, as an expansion of Western influence on their borders. From a purely practical view we will have to find new sources for grain, oil, gas and timber etc. At what point exactly will the nations of Europe wake up and consider this new perspective?  It will not be easy. Perhaps if the West had looked kindlier on Russia’s desires to join NATO, the possible terrible price of an escalating war, may have been avoided.