The deaths contrast with the more optimistic images circulating on social media showing influencers and celebrities who took up arms against Russia. Just a day before his death, Lee, who had recently reached Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces, posted a photo of himself and a woman, both dressed in military gear. In the caption, he noted the heavy shelling they faced. “We are smiling because we are going to manage,” he wrote.
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Of course, no one in Ukraine has been spared by the conflict. But there’s something about the death of a celebrity, according to psychologists, that brings war home, showing that the people we place on a pedestal are not immune to violence.
In a Facebook post, director Anatoly Solovianenko called Datsishin a “beautiful artist” and a “wonderful man.” Russian-American choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who worked at the National Opera of Ukraine, described his “unbearable paincalling Datsishin a “beautiful dancer loved by her colleagues.” Shvets’ death was also met with a public outpouring of grief: in a Facebook statementthe Molodyy Theatre, where she worked, expressed “irreparable grief”, adding that “there is no forgiveness for the enemy who came to our land!”
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The response to the deaths of the famous — perhaps disproportionate in a war that claimed so many victims — recalls a quote, sometimes attributed to Joseph Stalin, who, as the architect of the Holodomor — the man-made famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s — has its own dark history with the former Soviet republic: “A single death is a tragedy,” Stalin reportedly remarked. “A million dead is a statistic.”
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Baruch Fischhoff, a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies risk perception, argues that telling the stories of these famous victims can lead to larger truths about the nature of conflict.
“Even fame may not protect people from indiscriminate violence,” he wrote in an email. “Or there may be people who choose not to exercise the privilege that comes with fame, but to show solidarity and share the fate of everyone else.”
Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist at West Virginia University, has studied how the perception of celebrities in danger affects the general public. In 2020, she examined how individuals reacted to news of Tom Hanks’ covid-19 infection, and found that people felt themselves at greater risk of illness after learning of his diagnosis.
The death of a celebrity, Cohen argues, can have a similar effect. When a “God-like person” falls victim to disease or war, “I think that might actually put our own risks more into perspective. It actually brings it closer to home,” she says.
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Celebrity deaths loom large, Cohen says, because famous artists and performers “mean something to us as individuals. But they also mean something to us as a community. We can all join them. Cultural figures such as Datsishin, who was part of a long artistic tradition, can also be representative of the collective culture. “In Ukraine,” Cohen says, “they are symbols of a nation, what the nation values.”
Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has studied how human sympathy wanes as the number of people affected by tragedy increases – a paradoxical effect created by what he calls “psychic numbness.” His to research even suggested that increasing the number of people affected by a crisis from one individual to two decreases our compassion.
On the Arithmetic of compassion, a website on which Slovic details his research, he compares our inability to scale our emotions in proportion to lives lost to the limits of sensory perception. “Just as we don’t notice the difference between 30 burning candles and 31 burning candles,” he writes, “our feelings don’t register the difference between 30 deaths and 31 deaths.”
One way to combat this tendency to overlook mass tragedy is to tell the stories of individuals affected by crisis and create what Slovic calls “narrative empathy.” The fact that a famous ballet dancer, on stage and vital just a few months ago, or an actor taking selfies in the swimming pool earlier this year, could be the victim of an attack brings unimaginable and catastrophic violence to a human level.
Cohen sees benefit in telling the painful stories of these celebrity deaths: “I think there’s a very good chance that the celebrity stories that are being told are generalizable, and people are translating them to understand the experience of each.”