By Mariana Budjeryn, Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard Kennedy School
Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to cause unspeakable, unimaginable suffering. By now, the word “tragedy” is firmly installed in the lexicon of the war and has become almost a cliche.
Journalists record tragedies in Ukraine in their many heartbreaking manifestations. Marking the first anniversary of the war in February 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “This war was never a necessity; it’s a tragedy.”
The label of “tragedy” is liberally applied to most every development in this war. Russia’s breach of the Kakhovka dam on June 6, 2023, and the humanitarian and ecological disaster it caused was “the latest tragedy,” according to an Associated Press headline.
That “latest” was not the last: On June 27, a Russian missile strike on a pizzeria in Kramatorsk killed 12, among them Viktoria Amelina, a 37-year-old Ukrainian writer and researcher of Russian war crimes. Joining an outpouring of anguish and grief on social media, one commentator wrote of Russia’s deliberate targeting of Ukrainian civilians: “What Russia is doing is absolutely pointless, which makes it all the more tragic.”
Many more tragedies followed: the destruction of Odesa’s port infrastructure and UNESCO-protected Transfiguration Cathedral, a missile strike on an apartment building in Lviv in July and a massive missile attack on a number of Ukrainian cities in September. On October 5, a Russian missile strike in northeastern Ukraine reportedly killed 51 people attending a memorial service, which was “a terrible tragedy,” in the words of Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko.
Tragedy is a word used ubiquitously by Ukraine empathizers discussing the horrors of the war in Ukraine. But, it turns out, the word tragedy is also popular with autocrats who are responsible for bringing those events about – but have no intention of admitting their responsibility.
Dictators and tragedy
In July 2014, after a Russian missile downed a Malaysia Airlines airliner over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a tragedy, while denying Russian responsibility for it. When Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in 2015, Putin referred to the “shame and tragedies” of political killings in Russia.
And in 2022, Putin unleashed an unprovoked war against Ukraine and then went on to call it “a shared tragedy” for both Ukraine and Russia.
Similar to Putin, Ukraine’s own former president, Moscow-supported kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by popular protests in 2014 and complicit in Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea that year, called the annexation a tragedy, denying that either he or Putin were responsible for the land grab.
Earlier, in 2006, Yanukovych, then in opposition, had insisted that the Holodomor of 1932-33, a famine that claimed the lives of about 4 million Ukrainians, was a tragedy, not a premeditated genocide orchestrated by Josef Stalin and his regime.
In dictators’ utterances, the invocation of tragedy is not incidental. Designating something a tragedy is meaningfully different than calling it an atrocity or a crime, for which the wrongdoer must be held responsible and punished. Calling it a tragedy serves to minimize the human responsibility, typically their own, from the causes of the “tragedy.”
Choosing words with care
Words are not just passive descriptions. They create meaning in the world and help people understand how to think about events. This is particularly true of abstract concepts we use in political conversation.
In everyday speech, people use the word tragedy to describe anything deeply upsetting and unfortunate. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines the word tragedy as a disastrous event or misfortune. Merriam-Webster’s thesaurus offers further synomyms: calamity, catastrophe, misfortune, mishap, misadventure, accident. Most of those synonyms refer to or imply the working of forces beyond human control.
Those connotations come from the origins of the word tragedy and its meaning. Tragedy originated in ancient Greece as an art form that most poignantly reveals the mystery of interplay between fate and free will. A classical tragic hero is a man, usually of noble birth, who is fated to doom and destruction by the gods. During his rebellion against that unjust fate, a tragic hero nevertheless commits errors.
In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the tragic hero’s flaw is not due to his wickedness but merely an unwitting error of judgment: After all, he is not an omniscient god but only human. And so the tragic hero’s plight ends either in his demise or the humbling of his pride.
In his famous 1949 New York Times essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” American playwright Arthur Miller described the tragic hero’s plight as active retaliation against circumstances he deems demeaning and unjust. According to Miller, the “tragic flaw” is ultimately the hero’s “inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.” In Miller’s words, the lesson of the tragedy is the discovery of a moral law.
Tragedy, then, in its deeper original sense, implies inadvertence and inevitability: Unintended consequences of individual choices, originally driven by a noble quest for justice and personal dignity, ultimately crash against the firmament of divine designs and systemic factors beyond human control.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is first a crime and only then a tragedy
In contemporary politics, the invocation of tragedy has the unfortunate effect of masking the responsibility of perpetrators who cause injustices and human suffering through malicious intent and deliberate wrongdoing.
Ukraine’s fight for its survival is indeed heroic, but not in a tragic sense. It is engaged not in a struggle against unjust fate decreed by the gods but against a criminal aggressor, Russia led by President Putin, who has claimed that Ukraine has no right to exist as a political entity and a people and set out to wage a cruel and destructive war against it.
There is nothing inadvertent about the killing of Boris Nemtsov in 2015 or Viktoria Amelina in 2023. There is nothing inevitable about the Russian onslaught in Ukraine, about the killing, maiming and raping of its people and kidnapping of its children.
Russia’s behavior and the suffering it brings about is a brazen affront to international law and the basic human dignity this law seeks to uphold. So far, 80,000 alleged war crimes have been documented for prosecution before a court of law and an international tribunal.
Until that happens, it is best to keep a clear mind and use precise vocabulary: Russia has committed aggression, and its forces continue to commit atrocities in Ukraine. The nation’s responsibility for these crimes should not hide behind the label of “tragedy.”
Alex Babenko (AP), Evan Vucci (AP), Pavel Bednyakov (AP), and Ukrainian Presidential Press Office (via AP)
Originally published on The Conversation as Calling the war in Ukraine a ‘tragedy’ shelters its perpetrators from blame and responsibility