As I write this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nearing the two-month mark and reports are that the war has entered a new phase. With his forces brought to a standstill or retreat by Ukrainian resistance, Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to be shifting focus to securing the eastern part of the country and employing even more brutal tactics targeting civilians in that effort. However the war unfolds in the weeks and months ahead, questions about its origins in Russian/Soviet history and international politics, the calculations that prompted the invasion, and the implications of the conflict for the future of Ukraine, Europe, and the world will continue to resonate.
In “Thinking About Ukraine,” senior editor Trey Popp marshals a range of faculty expertise to examine those and related issues. Casting the reader in the role of an “open-minded undergrad seeking to make sense of what was going on,” the article considers Putin’s motives and timing, how the conflict has reflected and amplified rhetoric stipulating a clash between democracy and authoritarianism, the “culture war” behind the military one, and the long-term consequences for the energy sector and world economy.
Among the issues raised are the extent to which mishandling of the West’s relationship with Russia in the post-Cold War era may have contributed to Putin’s sense of a security threat, the strength of Ukrainian democracy and whether a program of power sharing between the country’s west and more Russia-aligned east could have avoided conflict, and how much Putin’s presentation of himself as a “defender of traditional values” has to do with the slump in energy prices in recent years.
For me, the piece was full of information and insights I had not considered, but one quote that stood out was from Mitchell Orenstein, who chairs the department of Russian and East European Studies. After acknowledging that a range of factors were likely involved in the decision to launch the invasion, he added, “the most important is that Putin is running a mafia regime that is very concerned about its own survival.”
The war’s already staggering human cost comes to the forefront in the images presented on the cover and throughout the story by photographer Mike Logsdon C’03, who took them in March while journeying through Poland and western Ukraine and who remains in the country at this writing.
Also in this issue, in “Tim Beck’s Final Brainstorms,” Stephen Fried C’79 writes about his weekly meetings with Aaron T. Beck Hon’07 in the years before the giant of 20th-century psychology and founder of cognitive therapy passed away this past fall at age 100 [“Obituaries,” Mar|Apr 2022].
The author of books on subjects ranging from supermodels to founding fathers [“Rush on the Mind,” Nov|Dec 2018], Fried has a deep interest in mental health reporting. He ably sketches in the state of psychotherapy—entirely dominated by Freudian views—when Beck was starting out and how the essential insight of cognitive therapy, in focusing on helping patients recognize and question the negative thoughts that led them to “catastrophize” their lives —rather than plumb the reasons for their feelings—remade the field. He also writes intriguingly about Beck’s efforts in latter years to craft a new version of cognitive therapy with colleagues at his institute to serve more severely disturbed patients.
But the essence of the story is personal, in the details of their weekly encounters—Beck could be a tough interview, and a control freak—and the contrast between his increasing physical frailty and indomitable spirit. Up to the end, Fried writes, “He was fierce in his desire to learn and continue to contribute something every day.”
Associate Editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 has written a number of stories for us on the triumphs and heartbreaks of legendary Penn sports teams past and present. His latest is “Squashing the Narrative (and Competition)” on the men’s squash team. Made up of an international roster of players reflective of today’s multicultural campus and coached by former Penn standout and professional squash player Gilly Lane C’07 G’14 LPS’20, the team had its first-ever undefeated regular season and its first outright Ivy title since 1969. Ranked No. 1 in the country going into the sport’s national championship Potter Cup tournament—hosted this year by Penn, at the team’s brand-new squash center—they fell just short (there’s the heartbreak) to Harvard in the finals.
—John Prendergast C’80