In the summer of 1989 I was in Berlin for a month. I was 22, a budding actor, arrogant in some ways and insanely insecure in others, and I was consumed with self-doubt about my chosen career path.
stood in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and marveled at the real-life stories of escaping from the east via hot air balloon or hiding under car seats.
Standing next to the wall, which itself wasn’t that high and covered in graffiti, I climbed onto a lookout tower to look over it and at the soldiers behind, who occasionally made eye contact and raised their rifles ever so slightly to yield to you that thrill of danger.
The whole setup seemed so unreal and absurd. The Cold War was still a reality and somewhere in the Soviet Union, a 37-year-old Vladimir Putin was entering his senior year as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB.
I visited East Berlin with a day pass. It was like stepping into a weird sci-fi time tunnel into a bygone world of the 1950s with little matchbox-like cars and Soviet-era architecture – and I felt like a millionaire with my western money.
I had a few beers but was careful not to get drunk as if you missed your time to go maybe they would never let you out. Stasi agents suddenly burst in, picked you up and locked you up forever.
That summer I thought very strongly of the secret police as I read a short, sharp snippet of a play about state torture – One for the street by Harold Pinter that me and some friends wanted to wear when I got home.
I tried to get into the role of the main torturer. A suave man in a smart suit who did none of the physical stuff. He drank and did the psychological interview after the pain. He interrogates a father, a mother and finally orders the murder of their young son. I have tried to penetrate the mind of such a man. How could he do what he did? How do you try to understand what we might call a “monster”?
That summer, back in West Berlin, I also read a book that would touch me deeply. One of the great works of art given to us by the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment.
It tells the story of Raskolnikov, a young ex-student at the poverty line in St. Petersburg who plans to kill an old woman, a greedy pawnbroker who keeps money and valuables in her apartment. He formulates a grand theory that he can do great things with money, and convinces himself that certain crimes are justified if they remove obstacles to the higher goals of “extraordinary” men. But when he commits the murder and then kills an innocent bystander, he struggles with guilt and horror.
Now all of us who are horrified and horrified by the daily reports from Ukraine can hardly believe how such terror can once again occur in Europe. We understand the geopolitical fault lines and the East-West divide, but we struggle to understand the mindset of someone like Putin. How can a man order such things and justify them to himself and the world? Is it the same ideological passion that Dostoyevsky writes about that drives men like Putin to commit genocide?
The fictional Raskolnikov falls into paranoia and disgust with himself. His theoretical justifications are torn to pieces and he eventually confesses to the murders and is sent to Siberia where he eventually finds redemption and comes to terms with what he has done.
Will Putin ever face such personal psychological “punishment,” or is he too ideology-drunk and believes normal rules don’t apply when trying to rewrite recent history’s wrongs? He falsely claims he is only trying to restore his great country to its former glory.
Russia and its people have given us an extraordinary amount of amazing art and culture. Filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein, writers like Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov. They show us what it means to be a person of extraordinary complexity. They are fearless in their questioning of the human soul.
It’s a good time to delve into some of the films, plays and books by these great Russian artists. To remind us that people are capable of such creativity and understanding, even though we are sickened by the events in Ukraine. They need not be canceled or ignored just because their leader is determined to ruin Russia’s reputation and dam it to history as a “pariah” state.
When we returned home in the summer of 1989 we brought the play to the stage and were fortunate to cast a very talented 12 year old named Tom Vaughan-Lawlor who would make his mark by naming another complicated murderous human being Nidge played love hate. He was already a much better actor than any of us back then. The Berlin Wall fell about six weeks later. The story continued. Putin left the KGB and began his ascent to the top.
We continue to feel threatened and concerned by what is happening in Ukraine every day. It’s hard not to despair sometimes, but that doesn’t help anyone. Send money and welcome the refugees. Do our best. wish peace. Appreciate everything we have here. The peaceful sky above us and the food on our table. Our loved ones safe next to us.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/amid-the-despair-over-ukraine-lets-not-forget-our-capacity-for-good-41491452.html Despairing over Ukraine, let’s not forget our ability to do good