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  4. The Fight for Ukraine: A Journey to the End of the Night

Alex and I spent our college years in Austin running a co-op together. We continued in DC, thick as thieves, where both of us finished our post-grad at Georgetown. Over many a sodden 3 am talk, he—soft-spoken and brilliant—provided a hard-nosed corrective to the endlessly critical takes on ‘the West’ that I was soaking up in that humanities department where, research tells us, ideologically liberal professors outnumber their conservative counterparts at a rate of 30 to 1.

Though many elements of the critique I was awash in continue to inform my thought, when skepticism prevails, it comes in the voice of that wise young man who’d grown up in the utopia I was being sold and found it wanting. That night I texted Alex back that, although I didn’t remember, I’d defer to Otto von Bismarck when he said: “The statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.”

This was not to suggest that Putin was any statesman Bismarck would have conjured but that the causality held. The same idea has lately been put more simply with the phrase: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” To try and understand why this terrible war is happening and why it has rallied our sentiment more than any conflict in recent memory, we must dissect both the hour and the man.

Cometh the Man: A Tale of Three Putins

As world leaders go, Vladimir Putin defies broad consensus, existing in public discourse as a set of theories swirling around a black hole. Roughly, we can speak of there being three Putins:

The first Putin is an ideologue. This is the Putin commentators find if they follow the adage: “when a dictator tells you his plans, listen.” This Putin’s view of Ukraine was announced in his essay of July 2021: “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” and in his speech to the nation on February 21. In both, Putin informed his audience that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” This wasn’t a sentimental observation but a historical thesis, which he substantiated along a timeline stretching back to the Viking dynasty of the Kievan Rus in the 9th century. Ukraine was not just Russian, he argued, but the wellspring of the Russian people. Its separateness an invention. Its existence as a sovereign state? An aberration of communism. Putin blamed not NATO, but Vladimir Lenin, who’d set Ukraine apart as a Soviet Socialist Republic, and behind him Khrushchev, who’d expanded its territory.

This may confuse those who speak of a continuation of the Cold War; however, it should be obvious that perhaps the world’s richest billionaire wouldn’t want to revive a communist empire. If we take Putin at his word—or at those of the ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal philosophers he admires—we must acknowledge that the Russia he envisions revives something like a feudal empire, forgotten to modern critics.

The second Putin is ‘crazy like a fox.’ This Putin might agree with what the ideologue said, but he doesn’t live or die by it. The second Putin is the veteran spy, the Machiavellian. He wants us to believe in the first Putin’s sincerity so that he can (to use the phrase lately invoked) “escalate to deescalate”. The second Putin invaded Ukraine and is waving around nuclear weapons in order to scare his neighbors into a position from which he can then de-escalate to his true goal: international recognition of his annexation of Crimea and possession of the energy-rich region of the Donbas. Advocates of this theory, usually editorialists, perhaps aspiring Machiavellis themselves, point to the siege of Mariupol, where Putin has created a living atrocity in order to secure territory connecting the regions he truly covets.

This second Putin is a little hard to believe in, inasmuch as a cost-benefit analysis of his alleged scheme doesn’t add up. But believers in the second Putin argue that, calculating as he is, the Russian president nonetheless greatly miscalculated the strength of his military relative to that of Ukrainian resistance. Miscalculating or not, the second Putin is the one we all hope to believe in because the last one is:

Third Putin—not ‘crazy like a fox,’ just crazy. This Putin incorporates the ideologue but gone mad from isolation and, possibly, a terminal illness. You will find this Putin in more conspiratorial corners, for instance, on a Telegram channel that claims to broadcast the insights of a secret Kremlin insider. This Putin is engaging in pagan ceremonies and sending his secret family to a Siberian bunker as he prepares for nuclear holocaust. He is in thrall to the apocalyptic vision of philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose neo-Eurasianism envisions an end to decadent liberalism and its replacement with totalitarian empire.

There is a second, more moderate iteration of this crazed Putin. Some American intelligence analysts do suspect he is sick, possibly enduring cancer treatment (judging by his puffy face and the thirty feet he keeps between himself and visitors), and has gone mad from pandemic isolation. Either way, third Putin, the theory goes, is mired in the illusions of late dictatorship. Having reached the point of such concentrated power that none dare challenge his views, he’s lost the sense of reason or moderation which comes to us only via challenge. He resides in the ultimate echo chamber and is living out a destructive fantasy, ready to take the world down with him if he fails. He may not have the nuclear capacity to bring about a literal apocalypse—the nuclear winter scenario has long been dismissed as fantasy—but the seriousness of his threats has sent sales of potassium iodide pills up 600% on Amazon, rocketed “nuclear” to the top search term in the U.S., and sent bunker sales soaring. Libertarian and paleoconservative elements of the republican party use this Putin and his nuclear threat as evidence of the folly of our internationalism.

Clearly, whether or not Third Putin is real, he frightens us.

Which Putin, or combination thereof, is acting now has real urgency in the present; however, though the nature of such leaders may vary, the existence of men like Putin does not. Thus, to move forward in our attempt to understand how we got here, it may be more helpful to look to the hour that permits him, than the man himself.

Cometh the Hour: A Failure of Timeframes

In our traditional stories, settings give rise to characters. Poor orphans and handsome princes cannot exist without monarchies and breathtaking inequality. In history, it is not so different. Since we cannot control for the occurrence of monsters, we must try to imagine the deep, dark woods of circumstance that might allow them to become heads of state. Part of our problem over the last decades is that the loudest voices telling us the story of our world have been speaking about worlds of their own making, and the shock we feel at present is, in part, a shock at seeing those so quickly unmade by the real one. The unreality of those false worlds, which rotated on both sides of a polarized discourse, was rooted in the myth of their exceptionalism. Here is what they told us:


The Negative Exceptionalists: NATO Is to blame

To understand how exceptionalism left us unprepared for our world, we look first at a narrative that emerged early on in the war: namely, that the aggression of liberal Western powers—embodied by NATO—had driven Putin to act. Ukraine should have known better, this argument went, than to flaunt her self-determination in front of her bitter ex.

The most prominent proponents of this argument included realist political scientist Professor John Mearsheimer, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and (when not telling his people that he was fighting Nazis or acting on Russia’s right to re-assemble its 9th-century empire) Putin himself.

Three flaws with this argument were immediately apparent:

The first lay with the premise that the success of the West, and the success of Putin, are clearly independent and competing phenomena. In reality, the Cold War polarity that gave rise to NATO is thirty years buried, and Putin is no communist—a thing he underlines when in his abovementioned essay, he blames the existence of Ukraine on Lenin and Kruschev. Nor is Putin competing with his capitalist neighbors. He is president of an oligarchical state that enriches him partly by selling its natural resources to Europe. Western markets, alongside predation on his own economy, have made Putin a billionaire many times over, even if he doesn’t flaunt it with weekends in outer space. Where he feels threatened by Western alignment is not in an ideological battle with capitalism but in the obstacle it might pose to perfecting his autocracy.

This brings us to the second problem with the critique: it is morally incoherent, at least where it is leveled by academics like Mearsheimer. This might be irrelevant, given that moral incoherence is a longstanding feature of human discourse, but it’s worth noting for what it tells us about their worldview. Mearsheimer has pushed back against criticism of Putin, arguing that “it’s not imperialism; this is great power politics.” And telling us that Ukrainian democracy is an American invention. This is a blithe, almost exculpatory position on Russian aggression. But those familiar with the professor’s work are bound to wonder about this shrugging fatalism, given his years as an influential critic of U.S. and Israeli foreign policies.

Indeed, one must wonder how anyone who has railed against power deployed by ‘the West’ without consideration for human rights, cultural autonomy, and popular self-determination is now explaining precisely the same behavior by Russia with a neutral, accepting tone. To my view, this signals the flaw of negative exceptionalist thinking, which trained so myopically on the Cold War target of the West and on Pax Americana, now via NATO, that it decontextualized the universality of human evil and injustice, perhaps even forgot that these things are not Western inventions. In reality, cruelty, conquest, and injustice don’t have a historical time period or address and never did. And any myopic focus is dangerous for the reason myopia always is: its narrowness blurs the big picture. In a clash of timescales, avid critics of the West operate inside a frame that goes back mere decades, maybe a bit more than a century, if the topic turns to colonialism. It confines itself to one locus of power as if that were all that was and ever could be. But Putin, and arguably history itself, are moving on from Pax Americana. And beyond the explanatory value of their critique.

The final problem lies with the evidence: namely, that there’s no direct evidence that NATO was instrumental in Putin’s decision, particularly in the near term. In 1994 Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for Russian guarantees of her sovereignty. Putin had assurances from Angela Merkel, a key guarantor of whatever West could still be said to exist, that Ukraine would not join NATO, and there’s been no movement on that front to contradict her since. On the other hand, Russia has concluded several cooperative pacts with NATO, and it was an open secret that while Ukraine had the ‘right’ to join, no one in NATO intended to poke that bear. Indeed, the trend over the last decade saw the allies in NATO growing further apart, while the right-wing movements that Putin backs online and finances furtively were enjoying success in challenging Western unity and undermining democracy; by contrast, NATO’s funding and activities had been on the decline.

In his New Yorker interview, facing a journalistic challenge, Mearsheimer reached back fifteen years to point to a statement Putin made about NATO aggression as evidence that we should have anticipated this, ignoring that, in the meantime, Russia’s president has been securing ever closer financial ties with the EU, and Germany in particular—hardly signaling any growing hostility. One wonders if this 2008 statement was the alarm, why it took fifteen years for the fire to start?

The problems of this ‘realist thesis’ go directly to our shock, particularly when Mearsheimer claims that smaller states like Ukraine should just forget about self-determination and accept policy assimilation by whatever big, autocratic state is nearby. The queasy-making arrogance of the professor, when he dismisses Ukrainian democracy and care for human rights as nothing more than an American invention, is being challenged, however, with incredible heroism by the Ukrainians themselves. They appear to disagree so strongly with his dismissal of the sincerity of their values that they have held off Russia longer and more heroically than he or any early analysis would have predicted and, at present, are turning the tide. They fight in the face of a preponderant force that may still succeed. But even in that event, those who dismissed Ukraine’s national will ought to take stock of their trivialization of it in light of those people who, laying down their lives in its defense, undermine their callous appraisal.

The Positive Exceptionalists: The West Won History

If the critical side of the exceptionalist aisle left us complacent with its suggestion that the West was the only meaningful power and its predations the wellspring of all that might go wrong, they were aided in this thesis by a second faction of thinkers who agreed that the West was the only meaningful power, while disagreeing with the negative exceptionalist critique. I refer here to those thought leaders who, in the early 1990s, declared with the fall of the Soviet Union that history was officially over; Western liberal democracy had won. Yes, that’s right: America won history. Or at least it did in 1992 when esteemed political scientist Francis Fukuyama theorized in The End of History and The Last Man that Western liberal democracy was humanity’s final and ultimate system. To be fair to the professor, he didn’t project this as an immediate utopia—his theory allowed for potential setbacks, even over many years. But the caveats weren’t the point.

Backing him up, Thomas Friedman trumpeted the ‘Golden Arches’ theory of capitalist peace to his neoliberal audience. In simple terms, it said that two countries which both had McDonald’s wouldn’t fight wars with each other. In its marginally more complex form, it held that the globalized market would create such deep interdependence as to prevent violent rivalries on a major scale. In other words, globalization wasn’t a passive state of economic entanglement: the theory held that illiberal governments like those in Russia (and, more critically, China) would be pulled by economic interdependence towards Western practices like democratization, free speech, concern for justice, and human rights.

Now that we had the history thing all settled, what was left for the West was an inward turn, a clean-up job. We could enjoy the prosperity the neoliberal global order would bring to all, safe in the knowledge that capitalism was improving life for the poorest.

Nothing about this casually grandiose exceptionalism should surprise us. Long before she led the world, the United States had pronounced herself exceptional. Before she even began her journey in the 17th century, John Winthrop described the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the ‘City on the Hill’—a light unto the world, imbued with godly purpose. George Washington spoke of the “sacred fire of liberty,” and the destiny of the government. When she grew westward, driving out indigenous communities, this was no ordinary exercise of power, as many civilizations before had undertaken—this was “Manifest Destiny”. When the United States went beyond her borders, intervening in global politics from the early 20th century, it wasn’t for the petty reasons other nations did so—to enrich herself or increase her power. No, when America ventured abroad, she carried with her the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ a sacred imperative to improve all of mankind. JFK, Reagan, and Obama all at some point echoed Winthrop’s claim during the Cold War and after. Thus it was consistent, at least, when her efforts culminated in her victory over the Soviet Union, that this meant the U.S. had the whole of history solved. In this, and many other ways, for both her critics and her lionizers, the United States, along with an ill-defined constituency called the West, has been given a story out of time. 

My point here is not to evaluate the relative goodness or badness of any civilization, nor its degree of exceptionality—a concept which strangely implies that there have been unexceptional civilizations and empires. That conversation has been formulated and revised since at least the 14th century, when Ibn Khaldun put down his cyclical theory of civilizations in the Muqadimmah. Rather, what I mean to say is that both the shift embodied by this war and our shock at it, are unexceptional. Put otherwise, I suspect that every order is convinced of its timeless imperative, and everyone shocked by its end. Does the failure of every grand presumption not harrow? Even if not, surely exceptionalist thinking across the political spectrum has helped lead us to this moment by lulling us into a complacency about both the extent and the durability of our world order. 

A Pragmatic Stab at Why

There is another group of people who put NATO and ‘the West’ at the center of Putin’s thinking. Only they say it was not NATO's provocation, nor Putin’s fear of Western strength, but rather his observation of Western weakness that spurred him to act. This camp, critically, includes the voices of those who, in their real lives, were obliged to think about the material threat of Russian power in the world and about Putin’s long-term plans: among others, they count Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, and Tine Khidasheli, former defense minister of Georgia.

As evidence that it wasn’t NATOs threat, but precisely the lack of any such threat, that moved Putin, they point to a cascade of illiberal provocations over the last decade, for which no great consequences were paid. There is the Russian military occupation of territories in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014; Putin’s material support for Bashar Al Assad as he used chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War; the ongoing war in the Donbas; the 2018 Salisbury poisonings in England. Going further afield, we see Russia’s key ally in Belarus grounding a RyanAir passenger flight in order to arrest and imprison a young political activist, numbering him among those critics who’ve stood up to Putin only to find themselves poisoned or imprisoned.

During these years, rather than face meaningful sanctions from some mythical liberal alliance, Putin, along with his oligarch backers, continued doing deals in the West, and concluded even closer trade ties with China in the lead up to the war—some analysts say to buffer the Russian economy against sanctions ahead of this bigger provocation. Those choices paid off. Through China, Russia has enjoyed a powerful alternative to the condemnation voiced against the invasion of Ukraine by leading nations. At the offset of the invasion, China’s diplomat at the U.N. informed Western journalists that their characterization of this as Russian aggression was not one China shared. The country does not condemn the invasion and has instead echoed Russian claims about biological weapons labs in Ukraine in her closed, state-run media environment. She lately blames Western arms sales to Ukraine for prolonging the conflict.

For those ready to contend with the world as it is, it must be considered that all of this takes place against a backdrop of challenges to democracy, often funded by autocratic states which violate human rights in shocking and large-scale ways, with no harm done to their trade ties with the global economy. As of this writing, Viktor Orban’s expressly illiberal Fidesz party in Hungary has just won a fourth term in power, an outcome most analysts predict will spell the end of Hungarian democracy. Marine LePen is catching up to Macron in the polls. Poland is veering undemocratic. No one needs reminding of what the last presidency in the U.S. brought. Suffice it to say that those who’ve long suspected that history wasn’t over and Western liberalism not the final order appear, unhappily, to have the weight of evidence on their side.

Where Are We Now? Much Ado About the Wrong Things

To a great extent, the war caught us dreaming. In many ways, we continue to. At the beginning of the conflict, there was self-congratulation about the unity of our Western sanctions, initially aimed at the wealth of Russian oligarchs. Every day brought tales of yachts confiscated, and London villas occupied. This emphasis, perhaps, underlined how thoroughly we’ve bought into our own marketing: a seeming belief that a few rich men losing their toys would shape the course of a war. That our ultimate target to strike at the powerful was a fancy boat. Ironically, these are exactly the sentiments a critic of our decadence would point to as proof of the same. When those sanctions did a predictable nothing, we followed up with the ones that might matter: the ones that lead to bread lines. These are the least fair and the least just. But they may move politics, eventually, if not in any predictable way. If and when retaliation comes, if and when they cost our populations too, they will move our politics as well. As things stand, Putin’s popularity in Russia among the people who have neither yachts nor villas in London—in other words, his popularity among the great majority of Russians—remains strong.

So far in this war, predictions have failed us. There was worry about how the war would play out online: fear that Russian hackers would take vital infrastructure offline in cyberattacks, that deep fakes would remove our grasp on reality itself. So far, nothing of this kind has happened. In the U.S., social media companies took various steps to de-platform Russian state television, or at least de-emphasize its output in search results. However, the contingents vulnerable to Putin’s disinformation already disbelieve mainstream media outlets, more or less reflexively. Russia, for her part, has banned the social media platforms themselves, demonstrating an advantage of authoritarianism in this domain. Putin is selling this war to his people on state media as a special military operation to protect Russians from an aggressive Nazi contingent in Kyiv (not from NATO, it should be pointed out). There have been protests in Russian cities, admirable ones, and interviews with Russians condemning Putin. But our own media distorts matters, in its usual way, by focusing on these perspectives: those of the educated and the urban, a minority everywhere in the world, if everywhere unaware of that. Meanwhile, out in the wilds beyond downtown St. Petersburg, Putin’s popularity reportedly stands at around 80%.

While there have been no great shocks in either the weaponization of our online world or in its ability to move people out of their echo chambers, there have been surprises. The two biggest of them on the disinformation front have been positive: first, the effectiveness of pre-bunking by the U.S. government—starting with the announcement of Putin’s intention to invade and continuing with the publication of intelligence on several ‘false flag’ operations. Traditionally, the U.S. government has been guarded with what it learns from intelligence, for good reason. But in a world where state actors are ready to deceive the public, announcing their intentions ahead of time removes some of the power of their disinformation. The U.S. government put Putin in the uncomfortable position of proving their claims about him right. If this hasn’t stopped his bad acts, at least it’s made it harder for him to lie about them.

The other great surprise has been Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, written off as a lightweight in international politics but now proving himself a hero both outside of, and of, his time. Outside of because he’s staking his life on the principle that freedom and democracy are still real enough to die for. He leads his people in undermining the creeping cynicism that seems to be gaining an upper hand in world politics. However, he is of his time in how he leads. Broadcasting from bunkers, he uses technology to speak to the world: its parliaments and congresses, its media, its Grammy audiences, and to his followers on Telegram. If world politics can be moved by an influencer approach, then Zelensky will be the first to have managed it.

That said, it still remains to be seen what difference new media might make in the mix of a major war. On the positive side, social media and commercial platforms, at a grassroots level, have been commandeered to raise money and support for Ukrainians in innovative ways. Airbnb was used to transfer funds to Ukrainians in Kyiv. Local WhatsApp groups organize supplies and sleeping arrangements for the onslaught of mostly women and children fleeing to neighboring countries. The online game Fortnite has raised 36 million euros in aid, and traditional fundraisers are advantaged by the ease of donating from any smartphone. Some of those fleeing bombardment can log into networks and apps that help guide them to safety. These examples show a potential for social media to aid society on the ground, but careful observers tell us that such impacts tend to be short-lived and unlikely to lead to structural change. How war refugees are treated in the long run, at the policy level, remains the domain of larger, more durable forces. And money raised across all crises and conflicts sees a big bump at the offset of an emergency, when media focus is sharp but dwindles over the long run when our attention turns elsewhere. This is the nature of our prejudice. Social science research tells us that, where events aren’t immediately threatening, humans respond with short bursts of empathy, but as crises widen and drag on, and as the number of victims grows, audiences reliably back away. Deep change, then, requires sustained community interest over time and high levels of social cohesion and social capital—trust and investment among individuals within communities—elements that are more harmed than helped by social media.

This downside is evident too. In a moment that cries out for unity and an underlining of common values, social media exercises a prismatic effect on our collective consciousness. Whatever event falls into the online sphere fractures into different shapes and shades based on the preoccupations of the platform. Far-right leaders and QAnon fit Putin’s campaign into their conspiracy theories, their narratives of civilizational clashes. They cast him as a hero of traditional values, even if popular disgust at Putin’s violence has forced some of his more mainstream fans (Matteo Salvini, Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, and Tucker Carlson) to switch gears and perform morality, for the moment.

On the progressive side of the aisle, legions of InstaActivists, are generally well-meaning but often more zealous than informed. Some have used the attention on Ukraine to cry out hypocrisy over a lack of concern for whatever their activism concentrates on. Even those of us who share their interests can see that the comparisons they draw tend to be shaky and ill-considered. More importantly, exploiting the popular sympathy brought out by an immediate crisis in order to shame the public over their lack of empathy elsewhere is not perhaps helpful to the wider cause of justice. Shaming people delivers activists' feelings of righteousness; it is not known, however, for producing solidarity or even a sense of common purpose. And yet the aggravation of activists is understandable because the platforms themselves, in their prismatic effect, fracture the public into smaller cohorts over which attention seekers of all stripes must compete. The stakes are high. The audiences small and easily distracted. Frustration follows.

In a hopeful read, we can look at this war and speculate that an increasing awareness of deep fakes and bots might drive thinking people to seek added layers of verification for their information. The more difficult it becomes to trust internet sources, the more we may need to return to high-quality news, winnowing out spurious Telegram channels, activist uncles, YouTube talk show hacks, and Q. The likelihood of that happening remains to be seen. In the meantime, we must ask how online communication works against us. Ask what we can do about the fracturing of our publics, about the echo chambers alienating us, even as they give authoritarian leaders, who control the media environment, an upper hand.

Where Is This Going?

The greater implications of this conflict are plain. History is not over. Economic interdependence isn’t the great liberalizer—indeed, it can encourage liberal democracies to look away from systemic human rights abuses, corruption, and attacks on democracy, in order to keep supply chains running smoothly. Right now, big European states continue to pour billions into Putin’s coffers, effectively funding the continuation of the war in Ukraine in order to keep their heating on. This should not shock us. We have known for some years that the world was not trending freer and that we were paying, for our goods, into illiberal orders. But looking at these dynamics honestly, we can say that because of them, power isn’t shifting away from the West; it has shifted, if not decisively. Globalization makes the world more multi-polar by making power, leverage, more diffuse. This is not big news to those who’ve been paying attention; it’s merely the first time the shift was too big to look away from.

Thus, the anguish we feel is not only born of human empathy, it comes as the discomfort of waking to truths that contravene the myths that have safeguarded our complacency. It is no longer a given that those who value self-determination and human rights, however imperfectly implemented, will be on the winning side or even constitute a majority. We must reckon with the fact that our new media landscape does not reliably provide platforms for the dispossessed: that they are equally well suited to delivering government surveillance to people, as to giving them a say. And where they do give everyone a voice, we must ask how to make those voices lift as a chorus, rather than distract as cacophony.

The deep shock that people feel around Ukraine signals, above all, the end of our illusions. If we choose to awaken, it must be to abandon the license we took, within those illusions, to look away from the trajectory of our world. To abandon the schools of thought that have dominated over the last decades and acknowledge that history is still very much in play and that there is much more to it than great power politics. It is towards that more that Ukraine’s bravery points us, and to which we must find our way back.


Jen Hollis, Guest Contributor and former teacher of IB History at the School for several years, returns to the classroom this September. Please join St Stephen’s in welcoming her back to the community.

hero jill muti
Chapter 01: News from the Board of Trustees | Welcome to St. Stephen's

Welcome Head of School-Elect Jill Muti

The St. Stephen’s community looks forward to welcoming Head-Elect Jill Muti when she arrives in Rome later this summer.

For the last eighteen years, Ms. Muti has been the Head of Ashley Hall, a Pre-K-12th-grade independent school for girls serving 685 students. In this capacity, she has managed the budget, staffing, and all aspects of student life and has had hands-on leadership in virtually every dimension of the School's program, including strategic planning and development. 

Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2022 Highlights

The Fight for Ukraine: A Journey to the End of the Night

It was a day after Russia invaded when Alex texted.

Now a successful attorney, my good friend is Ukrainian. In childhood, he was a refugee, encamped in Italy before being relocated to Texas. “Remember that thing you wrote about whether individuals shape history?” he asked. I had to admit that I did not. “I do,” he said.

By Jen Hollis - Teacher of IB History
ukraine facts
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times

Ukraine Facts at a Glance



In March of 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed a region of Ukraine called Crimea, which Russia believed belonged to them. It was annexed through a Crimean parliament vote, followed by a 97% win referendum. The annexation, however, is still widely disputed by Ukraine and the International Community. (NPR)  It remains the only time a European nation has used military force to seize territory since World War II.

By Aslan Stephenson ‘25
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | Putin's Mind, A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2022 Highlights

Opinion - Putin’s Mind: A Psychological Assessment

With Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine,

Russia's rise towards autocracy hit a new high. Putin has threatened any country attempting to intervene with dire consequences, which some fear may include the use of nuclear weapons, during this full-scale military invasion.

By Emma C. Jansen ‘24
when will it end
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times

When Will It End?

A chill ran down my spine on February 24th as I watched the invasion of my home country in absolute horror.

Many said it wouldn’t happen. It did. Our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appealed to the Russian people in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable in those early morning hours in late February.

By Unnamed SSS Student
Chapter 03: Around School | Boarding Activities

Boarding: Holiday dinner & weekend activities

Enjoy our photo gallery

Lago Albona bording2
Chapter 03: Around School | Fall Trips, Boarding Activities

Boarding: Lago Albano & Fall trips

Enjoy our photo gallery

Field trip&CAS2
Chapter 03: Around School | Service, Field Trips

Field Trips & CAS

Enjoy our photo gallery

Chapter 04: Technology Today | Blockchain, Technology

The Blockchain

Generation Z is growing up in a technologically advanced world.

Even though we are supposed to know the latest technology and advancements, many things you read about are still unclear and confusing.

By Emma C. Jansen ‘24
love of bitcoin
Chapter 04: Technology Today | Love of Crypto, Technology

For the Love of Crypto

Cryptocurrency is one of the world’s greatest inventions.

However, there is a lot of false information about it. For many, it remains mysterious and something not well understood. Because of that, many people choose to stay away from it, believing they will lose a lot of money. But is that really the case?

By Matteo Torralba ‘24
Chapter 04: Technology Today | NFT, Technology

I’ll Have an NFT, Please

In the last couple of months, interest in NFTs has skyrocketed.

If you haven’t heard of or know anything about this latest craze, the concept is relatively simple. NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token, which is essentially a virtual or digital collectible (e.g., art). If you are to buy a particular NFT, that means you are the only certified holder of it. It’s a pretty cool phenomenon.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
Chapter 04: Technology Today | New Technologies

New Technologies on the Horizon

Blockchain technology offers many exciting possibilities in various industries–from finance and law to music and fashion,and we’ve read a few use cases in this chapter. Below, you’ll find a few more technologies that are my top picks I believe we should keep an eye on for the impact each has the potential of having on human welfare.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
Chapter 05: The Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum | The Lyceum, Classics

The Aventinus Minor Project: An Educational and Community Archaeology Project

Learning about human societies - past, present, and future.


By Inge Weustink - Director of the Lyceum, Classics Teacher
Chapter 05: The Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum

Scientific Methods in Archaeology Lessons

During the last week of March, the 9th- and 10th- graders engaged in a presentation followed by an interactive session related to archaeology and the sciences.

By Esme Lundius ‘10 - St. Stephen’s Activities Coordinator, Boarding Department
Chapter 06: Creative Writing | The Arts, Creative Writing

Celebrating the Core Value of Creativity

Creative Writing Teacher Moira Egan is extremely pleased to introduce these pieces by students in the Spring Semester’s Creative Writing Classes.

A wide and wonderful gamut is represented here, including works inspired by works of literature or students’ artwork, the classic yet fun form of ovillejos, and beautiful translations from the Hindi and Chinese.

eric mayer
Chapter 07: Interview with Outgoing Head of School Eric Mayer

Eric Mayer

Outgoing Head of School

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
new technologies
Chapter 08: Our Life Online | Digital St. Stephen's

Technology for Good

In this online event, we discussed and provided insight into how St.Stephen’s alumni benefit from an adaptive aptitude towards building technologies that truly solve problems, beyond the financial gain.

Chapter 08: Our Life Online | Gaming, Technology

The Wonderful World of Gaming

In gaming, there are several social and emotional advantages.

Although online games are a form of entertainment, with the support and guidance of parents, they can help children develop creativity, cultivate relationships with friends, and improve strategic thinking.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
healthy mind
Chapter 09: Sports | Exercise Critical for a Healthy Mind

Why Exercise is Critical for Maintaining a Healthy Mind

Exercise, be it aerobic or anaerobic, is generally perceived as a positive activity to partake in; yet what does the science say when it comes to its effects on mood, mental health, and general well-being?

By Alexander Carbon ‘22
Chapter 09: Sports | Sports Program at School

Sports lens

Enjoy our photo gallery

ice skating
Chapter 09: Sports | Ice Skating is a Passion

The Fire Inside Me

I frequently question what people are passionate about.

And, I mean like insanely in love and an ardent passion towards a sport, music, subject, person, or anything; a kind of passion that lights a fire inside you.

By Clotilde Citrani ‘23
true to myself
Chapter 10: Mental Health | Surrounded yourself with Healthy People

To Thyself Be True

The importance of surrounding yourself with healthy people is knowing you are fine just by yourself if you don’t find them

By Emma LeGalle ‘23
mental health
Chapter 10: Mental Health | Impact on Mental Health, The Pandemic

The Impact of the Pandemic on the Mental Health of Adolescents

Psychologist Erik Erickson in his theory of psychosocial development, posits that between the ages of approximately 12 and 18, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity and explore their independence.

By Luisa Nannini - LCSW Health and Wellness Counselor
Chapter 11: Service Tributes | In the Spirit of Service

Supporting the Children of Idjwi

“Providing a meal at school is a simple but concrete way to give poor children a chance to learn and thrive.” WFP

By Dr. Helen Pope - Former St. Stephen’s Teacher and Director of the Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum
Chapter 11: Service Tributes | In the Spirit of Service

The House Whose Name is Love

La Casa di Andrea

By Annie Jacquet - Teacher of French and Supervisor of the Reach Out Student Club /Associazione Andrea Tudisco
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Book Corner

The Giver by Lois Lowry

HarperCollins Edition 2014

The novel, The Giver, is a fantasy intended for young audiences. It is an exciting story full of twists and turns. But above all, especially in these times, it pushed me to reflect on the pain brought by war and human brutality.

By Vittoria Giusti ‘22
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Book Corner

The Plague by Albert Camus

My English class has been reading and studying the novel The Plague by Albert Camus.

Throughout the book–centered around disease, sickness, and consequent suffering–we observe the plague's ‘chillingly rapid’ progression throughout the city and its psychological, social, and emotional effects on those living through it.

By Benedetta Bosco ‘22
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Photography, The Arts, Digital St. Stephen's

Liana Miuccio's Photoclasses

Enjoy our photo gallery

Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | What Students are Watching

Film review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

IMDB Rating: 7.5

‘Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?’