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No, this isn’t a direct quote from Vladimir Putin’s 2022 Victory Day Speech. But it sure captures the gist. Televised images of the ex-KGB megalomaniac — and the dour expressions of massed Russian brass hats around him in Red Square — seem tailor-made to the sardonic quote.

Author was Eric Frank Russell, my favorite science-fiction writer. The book was Wasp, published 1958. He used the genre to display his very individualistic takes on war and conflict. A lot of his stuff was rollicking and humorous. And some of it, memorably, wasn’t.

The state of mind of Vladimir Putin has been a worldwide subject of curiosity since his vast incompetent army invaded Ukraine in late February. What could he be thinking? Eric Frank Russell told us, in 1952 in I Am Nothing, a novelette.

In a breath-taking few pages Russell captured a ruthless dictator’s paranoia and rage. With jewel-like precision he encapsulated the emotions of civilian survivors of war crimes. The setting was the far future, two planets at war, a heavy-weapons siege of scores of cities across an entire world. Not just one country. That was the science-fiction angle.

With the battle raging hot, the dictator’s son — on the front lines to prove his worth — sends home a mute eight-year-old girl, a fresh-made war orphan, to be cared for. The dictator’s wife brings in a shrink to attempt communication with the child while the strongman fulminates about his son’s weakness. The war rages on. One day the child takes crayon in hand:

Watching Ukraine’s refugees and survivors over these weeks, the fictive eight-year-old’s words kept echoing in the back of my mind. I looked for the exact quote online and found it, thanks to other Russell fans.

“There’s a certain lack of enthusiasm for the results of warfare that frequently turns up in Russell’s work,” an Indian reviewer said. “Almost as though he had had personal experience with those consequences or was handicapped by empathy….” The Indian writer saw parallels between Russell’s story and an Indian tale of a ruthless warrior named Ashok, back about the second-century AD. This guy reportedly had a “change of heart” at least as powerful as Paul did on the Road to Damascus where he intended to persecute early Christians.

In Ashok’s case, the story goes his change of heart came when he saw the ruins caused by one of his conquests. The rest of the story: he became the first major proponent of Buddhism, so well-known the Indian government’s official stamp is a symbol from one of Ashok’s monuments.

“Change of heart.” That was to me the stunning thing about I Am Nothing.

Russell’s power-mad dictator was dedicated to proving the weak must give way to the strong. Whole cities cowered beneath the onslaught of modern weaponry ordered “to strip bare the countryside and lay siege to the cities, which leads to a series of video recordings and war reports that are strongly reminiscent of World War II,” another fan of Russell wrote. “Crater-pocked roads, skeletal houses, a blackened barn with a swollen horse lying in a field nearby….”

A lot of reviewers of video from Ukraine 2022 draw the World War II comparison.

Another Russell fan highlighted the fictional dictator’s self-rationalization:

“Only the strong knew there is but one cause of war. All the other multitudinous reasons recorded in the history books…were nothing but plausible pretexts. There was but one root cause that persisted right back to the days of the jungle. When two monkeys want the same banana, that is war…the feared are respected and that is proper and decent. If one can have nothing more….”

And then the dictator reads the little girl’s note.

I haven’t been able to find the complete story on the internet. Wish I could. Russell frames the dictator’s reaction to her note simply and starkly. The change of heart.

He sits down beside her. “I am nothing,” he says. And in simple sentences describes a life that taught him to pursue, achieve, and cling to absolute power. How he incited fear to win respect and perceived personal safety. How it all comes down to nothing.

When he stops talking, the little girl mutely reaches over to hold his hand.

Science-fiction all right, merging on fantasy. Two orphans of a destructive storm commiserating —though one of them deliberately and coldly created the storm. Reviewers called the story sappy and sentimental. I’m a sappy and sentimental guy, so I liked it. Plausible? Could a simple note from a victim lead a lifelong bully to instantly unearth such deep personal insights after a lifetime of rationalization and brutality? I doubt it, without professional help from a cognitive therapist— and who would dare to be the autocrat’s analyst?

Still, we have the Damascus-road epiphany of Paul, the Jewish persecutor of Christians. And we have Ashok, a kind of pocket Genghis Khan or Attila, who removed the beam from his own eye and beheld the carnage he wrought — and had a change of heart.

The change of heart was at the core of Russell’s story. The twist was how the dictator implemented his change. He immediately summonsed a neutral party (today it could be Turks, or the United Nations president) and summarily ordered a complete cease-fire, and peace talks. (The intermediary was logically suspicious, anticipating a demand of unconditional surrender. Was shocked when it became apparent the dictator meant no such thing and already was calculating reparations.

Loser, was the dictator’s assessment of the intermediary. Too weak to react quickly to major change. Because changing horses midstream takes courage, and a powerful man. Like himself.

Returning home after dispatching the intermediary to stop the carnage, the dictator’s ear was cocked as he climbed the stairs from his chauffeured car. Sure enough, the chauffeur closed the car door at the same step he’d closed it since his employment. Another loser, incapable of the smallest adjustment to his personal reality.

Real change requires a strong man, the strongman reflected smugly.

Pretty to think a dictator can reverse course like that. Of course he can. But he won’t. He’d have to acknowledge images of raped and plundered and wrecked Ukraine, the testimony of survivors, the silent reproach of civilian corpses littering the blasted landscape. He’d have to accept responsibility for all the dead Russian soldiers, deployed on a mug’s errand. And for loosing the sociopaths in uniform who raped and tortured and murdered in his name, “chust followink orders” in the classic Nazi excuse.

The hollow-eyed child of Leningrad survivors is not that strong. The atrocities mount. But. But Ukrainians are fighting-mad and on the prod. Eric Frank Russell’s sardonic rendition of a dictator’s victory speech from another of his books offers some hope:

For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralized enemy who is advancing in utter disorder.”

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Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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