We've long known that Russia operates differently than America does. Russia settles disputes with neighbors by turning off their gas and stifles free expression by murdering journalists. This disrespect for human life was most recently exemplified by Putin's freeing of political prisoners as a pre-Olympics publicity stunt.
Calls for action and the outrage expressed in response to recent allegations of human rights violations and environmental destruction by the Russian government in the days leading up to the Winter Olympics are important and warranted. But we should also take this opportunity to reflect on another point: that sometimes the best way to battle what's wrong with the world is to unapologetically celebrate what is right with the world - and with ourselves.
We can actually learn a lot from Russia's own great writers when it comes to the importance of finding beauty and humanity in even the most horrid situations. Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison and was committed to four more years of mandatory military service for participating in a socialist revolutionary circle, and that was only after receiving a last-minute reprieve from execution by firing squad. A little over a century later Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested for having criticized Stalin in private correspondence to a friend, and was sentenced to eight years in one of the worst prison camps in the "Gulag." Yet their writings continually remind us not only what human beings are, but what we can become.
Both writers emerged from the hell of prison neither cynical nor embittered, but with a redoubled commitment to creating works of art that celebrate human excellence and perseverance amid the pain and injustice all around them.
And then there was Tolstoy, who as a young man witnessed a public execution in Paris, lived through the European revolutions of 1848 and the first bloody Russian revolution of 1905. In the final decade of his life he was reading daily newspaper accounts about pogroms and violent workers riots. He watched in horror as his country razed villages and destroyed non-Russian populations as part of their centuries-long effort to subjugate the Caucasus-- the very region where the Sochi Olympic Games are being held.
Yet what counts is this: Having lived through all that, he never lost his faith in human promise. And, nowhere is this faith more powerfully expressed than in his greatest masterpiece, War and Peace.
Tolstoy takes us to the center of battlefields drenched in blood. He shows us incompetent and cynical leaders and cruel politicians, including one Moscow governor who tosses a teenage political prisoner to an angry mob to be devoured. But he also gives us some of the most memorable moments of transcendent beauty in all of world literature--like a soldier, lying wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, gazing up at the lofty, infinite sky and discovering for the first time the gorgeous immensity of the universe.
Or, when a young man loses himself in a wolf hunt, momentarily able to forget his family's troubles and, almost animal-like, immerse himself in the thrill of the chase. Breathlessly galloping across the fields after the wolf on a crisp fall day, the boy experiences life with a concentrated intensity unlike any he's ever known. His body, mind, and soul seem to work in perfect harmony with the universe. He is focused and flowing, the world weirdly right.
These sorts of moments--the ones that Tolstoy captures perfectly in his art--will happen over and over again in real time over the coming weeks.
We must celebrate the triumphs and mourn the tragedies for these young Olympians. Thousands of hours dedicated to achieving the pinnacle of physical and mental prowess and years of grueling training will be compressed into a few short minutes down a ski slope or in a skating rink. The athletes may falter. They might break our hearts. But when they're on, they'll leave us breathless, transforming an exquisite pirouette or a perfectly executed ski run into nothing less than a connection to the divine, to life's most vital energies, to the very best inside all of us.
Tolstoy wrote: "Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man."
Russian politics and injustice will likely still be around long after the Olympics are over, but the fleeting moments of transcendent beauty and universal humanity created as we experience this year's Winter Olympics will not. Let's celebrate those moments when we can.
Andrew D. Kaufman is the author of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times [Simon & Schuster, $25.00].