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A Parable for Putin

Based on a true story.

ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images for the women

I was five and my cousins were 9 and 10. They were daring masters of life, they made the rules, and I was relegated to the role of a lame appendage. I would bring them apples and water; they would condescendingly take the treats from my hands, but wouldn’t accept me into their grown-up games. I was too little, they didn’t respect me; they looked down on me. Sometimes, they even roughed me up a little.

Once, in the village, I became witness to their game: they would pull a piece of straw part of the way out of a giant haystack that stood in the yard, and would set it on fire. The straw would burn cheerfully and, just before all the other straws in the stack would catch the flame, my cousins would pull it out and extinguish it.

It was so cool. I also wanted to play like this. I was horribly jealous, but I was little. I wasn’t grown-up enough for grown-up games, and I was allowed to watch but not participate.

What did I do when everyone went back in the house? I took a box of matches and went out to the haystack. No one could tell me what to do anymore. No one could tell me that I was little. I was cool. I was just as cool as my older cousins. With humiliation and envy in my heart and matches in my hand, I was unstoppable.

I pulled out a straw, lit it, pulled it out, and extinguished it. I was a grown up. I was tearing it up and my excitement only grew as I played. The straws lit up, one by one. I had everything under control.

And then I didn’t pull the straw out in time, and the hay was suddenly ablaze. I watched the growing orange smear and still thought that the situation is under control and that nothing terrible is happening.

When the flame had consumed about ten square feet and the speed of its spread started to scare me, the game didn’t seem quite as fun anymore. I decided to call the adults.

I walked into the house and said first to my aunt: “I set the haystack on fire.”

No one reacted. In the yard, the haystack was burning furiously. All around it were little village construction projects, and they were all wooden. It was a hot, dry, windy summer.

It was only when my cousin ran into the house and screamed, “The haystack is on fire!” that everyone snapped to attention and ran outside to extinguish it: relatives, neighbors, passers-by.

My cousins said I was a moron. Today, I understand that they also behaved like morons, and I was just happily, diligently mimicking them.

I was five and I almost burned down half the village, but I remembered one thing forever: if you persistently kindle fires, there will come a moment when the whole fucking thing goes up in flames.