We're heading into a new Dark Ages. We've been saying so in our house for years as shorthand for the more bizarre manifestations of the times. Lately it's seemed less like just a desperate attempt at black humour. Washington Post's Petula Dvorak summed up the situation last year: "A medieval pottage of religious extremism, anti-science sneering, conspiracy theories and ill-conceived, ragtag, spear-and-pole crusades? Heck, we even have a plague."
Zeitgeist moment: Wellington anti-mandate protesters who refuse to wear masks don actual tinfoil hats to protect against radiation being fired at them from Parliament. Or something. Apparently, campers were having strange flu-like symptoms. As police eventually moved on the occupation, some protesters were reportedly armed with wooden shields and pitchforks.
And Russia invades Ukraine. Some attempted to find justification for Putin's actions because the United States, because Nato, because Ukrainians apparently don't live in their own country but in a strategic buffer zone. For the rest of the world the sight of tanks rolling in swept away moral ambiguities.
The pictures tell stories of courage under fire. A man attempting to push back a tank with his bare hands. A recording of an exchange between Ukrainian and Russian forces has gone viral. Thirteen border guards on Ukraine's Snake Island consider a Russian warship's demand to surrender: "This is it," one says – the reply, "Russian warship, go f*** yourself." They were initially thought to have been killed. Some good news: they have reportedly survived.
Anyone who tries not to forget history knows what lies behind such euphemisms as "special military operation". The anguish of Ukrainians, and many Russians, has been devastating. On TVNZ's Q+A, Massey University's Professor Rouben Azizian, formerly in the Russian Foreign Service, fought emotion as he expressed sorrow about loss of life in Ukraine and of "Russian young soldiers sent to fight a war which will not bring glory to Russia".
For those of us with family who survived the Holocaust - or largely didn't - our relationship with Eastern Europe can be complicated. Ukraine saw some of the most horrific mass atrocities committed by the Nazis and collaborators. The non-Jewish population also suffered terribly and many further risked their lives by trying to save their Jewish neighbours. Putin claims he wants the "denazification" of Ukraine. The country has a Jewish leader. Members of President Volodymyr Zelensky's family were murdered in the Holocaust. "How could I be a Nazi?" he has said. "Explain it to my grandfather."
After gaining a law degree, Zelensky worked as an actor and comedian. In a show, Servant of the People, he played a teacher who accidentally became the President of Ukraine. Such is life – and art, ever struggling to be more fantastical - in the 21st century.
Zelensky has so far proved ready for his close up. Offered the chance to evacuate by the US he said, "The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride." Ukraine agreed to peace talks. Putin put nuclear forces on alert. The territory between those two responses is full of terrifying potential.
In Canada during the Cuban Missile Crisis we had air raid drills, a neighbour built a bomb shelter, we learnt to "duck and cover" and take other useless measures in the event of nuclear attack. More realistic advice went, "Bend over, place your head firmly between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye."
Now this. Around the world sanctions, boycotts and outrage say no to this war. Meanwhile, TikTok proves to be a new avenue of resistance. Russian influencers have risked speaking out. One, a car mechanic, offered a practical demonstration. "If you happen to find a free or abandoned armoured personnel carrier," she says, "here's a life-hack on how to start it."
The last couple of years, it has seemed the whole planet is wearing a tinfoil hat. Chaos begets chaos. On the ground in Ukraine, photo journalist Alejandro Alvarez reported on protesters in Russia: "Hundreds still turned out in St Petersburg today, even with mass arrests and dispersals all but guaranteed," he tweeted.
"No to war," they chanted. They stood up for their neighbours in Ukraine. Hard to imagine who wouldn't want to stand with them.