A person walks through a building in Chernihiv, Ukraine that was destroyed by an aerial bomb in the Russian war on Ukraine.
A person walks through a building in Chernihiv, Ukraine that was destroyed by an aerial bomb in March 2022. Credit: Anzhela Bets / Unsplash Credit: Anzhela Bets / Unsplash

What a difference two years of bloody, inconclusive war makes. When this war in Ukraine began, with the Russian invasion, the conversation was mostly in absolutes, and you still hear that. Ukraine’s foreign minister says that back then some of his allies “were wrongly convinced it was necessary to negotiate with the devil.” In fact, they seem more sure of it now than they were at the start.

U.S. security honcho Jake Sullivan said this week that despite the vaunted resumption of U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine, it’s “possible Russia could make additional tactical gains.” The New York Times, a faithful mouthpiece for the State Department, says a “question remains whether the new technology will be enough to help turn the tide of the war” when Russia has “momentum.” Sounds like someone’s getting ready for negotiations instead of total victory. Why now?

Albanian philosopher Lea Ypi takes this topic on quite bravely, given the consensual rhetoric. She says most wars begin like the First World War, with vast optimism and overstatement. But very few end up being worth the fighting. Painful compromises ensue, which often could’ve been had without the war. This is the core of the mindful pacifism of Bertrand Russell or Immanuel Kant.

(The Second World War is an exception that had to be fought and won, but it was the result of the stupid war before it and the ugly “peace” the victors imposed.)

The likely solution, now that a door is opening to non-absolutisms, will be Russia keeping the parts in the east that broke off, postponing Crimea’s status to the future, and Ukraine joining the EU, but not NATO. In other words, exactly what was available via the Minsk treaty before the whole bloodletting began — minus losses to both sides: Donbas for Ukraine, NATO expansion to Scandinavia, for Russia.

Cue the howls about appeasement and Munich. But Russia isn’t the superpower of Cold War days and perhaps never was. And even Putin may wonder if he really wants the headache of ruling a place that now so clearly loathes him.

Death of a piano teacher

I’d wanted to note the sudden passing of Margaret Halliwell-MacDonald way back around Christmas but weightier world events kept intervening. I still don’t feel it’s any less urgent than I did then.

School teachers get recognized for the deep impact they have on peoples’ lives. Music teachers less so. Yet they’re often around their students longer and more intimately, are at least as impactful, and require quite particular skills.

When I called her about teaching my son, then in elementary school, I knew the head of the Royal Conservatory had asked her to teach his daughter, so she had the music chops. I described his piano and violin experience so far. She said, “Now tell me about him.” And there you go. You have to feel your kid is in good hands if that’s the big question. She also had a truly deft human touch.

When he improvised his way at a recital through a piece he’d utterly lost track of, she bustled up after and said joyously, “You are such a great fake!” As if what everyone, musician and not, must learn at some point, and the sooner the better, is how to make it through when we momentarily lose the plot.

I recently watched a 1974 documentary, Antonia, Portrait of the Woman, about pioneer U.S. conductor Antonia Brico who, for guessable reasons, had to spend more time teaching piano than conducting. It has more fun and value, for my money, than the pompous Tar or Maestro. Brico’s obstacle-ridden path through life took its toll and undersold her worth, but she had a good time anyway. Unlike Tar or Maestro, it should’ve won the Oscar it was nominated for.

After my son’s first lesson with Margaret, he said, with a playful awe, “She is such a piano teacher.” I didn’t tell her but I imagine if I had, she’d have smiled wryly as if thinking, there can be no higher praise.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.