My friend Deb recently sent me a quote from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and claimed, perhaps at a metaphysical level, that it helped explain Vladimir Putin’s serial adventurism, and of course, his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Actually, I am not sure whether Deb from Gujarat considers me a friend. We have never met face to face. I recently wrote something about India and China. Less than an hour after it was posted online, he sent me an angry missive accusing me, quite correctly, that I knew nothing about his country. Since then, we have been having a healthy correspondence in which he freely shares his erudition and wisdom. I have stolen many ideas from him in this space, and never given him proper acknowledgement. He doesn’t seem to mind, or at least hasn’t complained. Here’s the Gogol quote. I think it’s at the very end of Dead Souls . Someone please correct me if I am wrong: “And you, Russia of mine – are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? … What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes – only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!” The “troika” is a horse-drawn carriage. Unlike Deb, it didn’t at first remind me of Putin’s war, but an embarrassing lunch date I once had in college. The young lady told me she was reading Dead Souls , and mentioned the horses at the end as a metaphor. But I wasn’t interested in what she was reading. Instead, I proceeded to pontificate, like any self-respecting, insufferably pretentious 20-year-old who fancied himself as an intellectual, that Gogol must have been channelling Plato; you know, the famous allegory about the chariots of the gods and those of mere mortals, in the Phaedrus . Every immortal soul, whether that of a god or of a man, is a composite of the charioteer, and his two horses, according to Socrates. Well, here I go again. With the gods, the charioteer and their horses are in harmony; with humans, not so much. With people, the charioteer is in control of only one horse, but not the other. Sometimes, both horses are out of control. That’s why mortals are torn between reason and passion; some are simply driven by passions, in chaos, incapable of rhyme or reason. These are lunatics and lovers. “We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer,” Socrates said. “Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case, the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome. “The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and all such qualities; by these then the wings of the soul are nourished and grow, but by the opposite qualities, such as vileness and evil, they are wasted away and destroyed.” Actually, I had no idea if Gogol was referencing Plato, dead souls, corrupt souls or no soul at all. I was only trying to impress her then, and perhaps you now. Needless to say, she left lunch as quickly as she could, and I never heard from her again. But, rereading the Plato passage today, I wonder if some nations are not unlike highly (self-)destructive mortals, while mistaking themselves to be gods. The souls of nations, like those of people, may be unconsciously drawn in opposite directions, all the while galloping head on into a fatal crash. Deb comments on this line: “Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes – only the weird sound of your collar-bells.” “Russia is a nation of destiny. Many Russians think so. Putin certainly thinks so,” Deb wrote. “But what her destiny is, no one knows. Perhaps it’s unknowable. So Russia must gallop forth, scaring everyone standing in her path, to meet her destiny.” You run faster in the dark, not knowing where you are going, I ask? Well, yes, don’t you, he replies? No, not me. I am a couch potato. Deb thinks I am making light of a very serious topic on whose outcome the peace and future of the world depends. I have no idea if my Indian friend is right about Russia. Couldn’t the same be said about every big country with a long and bloody history?