People are comparing Vladimir Putin to the Russian tsar Peter the Great.
By some weird coincidence, I recently read “Peter the Great: His Life and World,” which earned Robert K. Massie the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It is one of the greatest biographies I have ever read.
Putin’s concern with expanding toward salt water may sound like Peter, but Putin does not demonstrate the curiosity and complexity of the tsar (1672-1725.)
As tsar, Peter lived in the Netherlands for several years, learning how to build ships with his own hands. He encouraged European ways, first in Moscow, later in St. Petersburg. He also invaded, killed, tortured – all of that, too.
In the current turmoil in Ukraine, the real comparison is between women.
The other day at the naval base in Crimea, the wives of Ukrainian naval men stood watch outside the garrison. If Russian soldiers came any closer, they would have to face the women first. The stirring eyewitness report was in the Times:
The women had a spiritual ancestor in Catherine, the second wife of Peter the Great, who also faced potential disaster. Their union was one of the better love stories in history – a teen-age immigrant who impressed a tsar, became his wife, calmed him during his seizures, advised him, even cautioned him. And once accompanied him toward battle.
In July of 1711, Peter got himself surrounded by Ottoman forces on a foray to the Pruth River, which flows from Ukraine toward the Danube.
“In the center of the camp, a shallow pit had been dug to protect Catherine and her women,” Massie writes. “Surrounded by wagons and shielded from the sun by an awning, it was a frail barrier against Turkish cannonballs. Inside, Catherine waited calmly, whilke around her the other women wept.”
For some reason, the Ottoman leader allowed Peter and his army to escape, in exchange for land that will sound familiar today. Peter lived to strengthen his empire, and the next year he re-married Catherine in a more formal ceremony.
“Two years later, Peter further honored Catherine by creating a new decoration, the Order of St. Catherine, her patron saint, which consisted of a cross hanging on a white ribbon, inscribed with the motto, ‘Out of Love and Fidelity to My Country.’”
Massie adds: “The new order, Peter declared, commemorated his wife’s role in the Pruth campaign, where she had behaved ‘not as a woman but as a man.’”
The brave women outside the garrison in Crimea deserve a medal, also.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.