In these times, as too often in the past, we are embroiled in conflict and misery, where the narrow-minded rule and make their nightmares our nightmares. The incessant cruelty and hatred spreads through the media, poisoning the minds of all who are drawn into the conflict, while those who feel the suffering even from a distance fall into a hole of frustration. Empathy generates pity that helps no one, but which is in fact shame by proxy, the shame of our own destructiveness, but also of our own fear. Each side of the conflict is compromised by its own inconsistencies and hypocrisies that prevent any thought of backing down and finding common ground. Thoughts of revenge render answers monosyllabic, and imagination is blocked by worst case scenarios. Bodies lie about like memorials to the naked animosity and terror that has brought us here, and destruction obscures the coming spring – and the hope it would otherwise bring.
Nature is weak against the machinery of human destruction, but it will always raise a trembling stem in defiant affirmation of life. A single dandelion, a wild rose in a wall, a daisy in a sea of mud. The sound of a songbird perching on a branch of a burned tree, or even the sunrise over a hollowed-out building – they can all move us to tears as we realize the carnage we have wrought. A bloody teddy bear in the rubble testifies to the loss of any dignity we may have had. A portrait on a wall in a derelict house, reminds us of the story that had taken place there, which ended in tears and tragedy. Are we, like nature, able to defy the malice of misguided people? Can we raise a quivering hand for life, risk the smile of compassion, or give an embrace of sympathy? Can we carry each other’s burdens, each a part of the way, until we reach our destination? Or have we lost our source of wisdom, common sense, and unity?
It would appear that we haven’t had a common source of wisdom, let alone common sense. Professor Olga Chyzh, an ethnic Ukrainian, wrote an explanation on Twitter (https://twitter.com/olga_chyzh):
“Why do so many Russian-speakers support Putin and this war? Still. Even in Ukraine (though their number is declining). And in other former satellites, or even Canada and the US. Why? How? WHY? It’s not just the Kremlin propaganda. Let me tell you a deeply personal story.
When Russian missiles hit my hometown of Odesa on Feb 24, my mom jumped on the first bus out of the country. Her obvious destination was Moldova—because of geographical proximity, but also, because our family lived there until 1995 when we moved to Ukraine. My mom has a network of friends there—Russian-speakers who, unlike our family, still live in Moldova. From the bus, she called her old friend—I’ll call her Tanya—who still lives in Moldova, and asked if she could spend the night—she could only find a hotel room for the day after.
Tanya was irritated. It was her birthday, and my mom’s unexpected visit was at a bad time. The Russian invasion shook up the entire world, forcing millions of Ukrainians to walk over the border with Moldova in the middle of winter—and Tanya was having a party! Tanya is not a monster (at least not fulltime)—she is a highly educated woman that plays the piano and casually quotes Russian literature in everyday conversations. But if you ask her about the Bucha massacre, she’ll tell you it didn’t happen. There are millions like her in Moldova, Ukraine, Russia itself, and even in Western countries like Germany, Canada and the US. We call them the “deceived generation,” the last victims of Soviet propaganda.
The break-up of the USSR marked the start of nation-building (actually re-building), pitting Russian minorities against the ethnic majorities. After more than 50 years of repression (think Bucha), the ethnic majorities finally got a say in the politics of their own states. This nation-building consisted of downplaying or outright rejecting everything Soviet (read Russian) in favor of national (Moldovan, Ukrainian), and the corresponding change in the distribution of power and wealth. All of a sudden, ethnic Russians who refused to learn the national language, started getting passed over for promotions in favor of those (including ethnic Russians) who spoke the national language. In Moldova where I lived, everything around me—TV programming, store signs, street signs, and ever street names—changed from Russian to Romanian. Other changes included an increase in the hours of Romanian (in schools for Russian-speakers, like the one I attended), as well as the content of literature and history classes.
I was a child, so none of this was a big deal. I quickly picked up Romanian, as children do. For the Russian-speaking adults, however, it was not so easy. It is difficult to learn a completely new language as an adult. But the real obstacle was the hubris. Decades of Soviet propaganda (backed with repression) taught the ethnic Russians about their undeniable superiority over everyone else. Why should they learn some backward language like Romanian or Ukrainian if Russian is the “purest and the most beautiful language”? How and why should they accept a government made up of non-Russians? And anyway, there was no point in trying, because Russia was going to come back and re-absorb all the former satellites soon enough, setting everything back how it was.
I kid you not, these were the conversations I listened to as a kid in our Russian-speaking circle of friends. More surprisingly, these are the conversations I still hear (even from my own relatives) today, 30 years later. These people still hope that Russia will come to save them from the “inferior” national majorities AND give them their coveted Russian pension. These people are still waiting for Russia to give back the money they lost (na knijke) when the Soviet Union broke up. These people did not cause the Russian invasion—contrary to what they think, protecting them is the last thing on Putin’s mind (he doesn’t actually want to pay them pensions). But these people are complicit in the crimes being committed against Ukrainians. Deep down, they know that the Bucha massacre did happen—they just don’t care, because the victims are “inferior.” Just ask them about Russian crimes in Chechnya.”
It appears that the nationalist idea of “superior race” is alive and well, but not only in Russia, where xenophobia has been demonstrated in state media there, it is all over the place. I experienced a similar mentality in Russians who were descendants of Germans deported to Siberia and who had returned to Germany. The xenophobia they experienced in Germany was more of a problem to them than the conditions they had lived in when in Siberia, despite admitting they could never return. Attending a wedding put on by these people, the Russian traditionalism above all was abundantly clear.
Although the views of Professor Chyzh were confirmed by other Russian speakers, members of minorities in other countries, who experienced xenophobic repression for speaking their own language in public, could identify this with the superiority complex of white Americans and Europeans. There were comments like, “In Australia there are those who still deny the British Empire performed a hostile invasion, decimated the indigenous population. They were hunted like animals in some areas less than 100 years ago.” Another person wrote of a “similar experience here with a Syrian expat friend who refuses to acknowledge the brutality of the Assad regime even though her own sister was imprisoned and tortured.”
A German wrote that the statement, “reminds me so much of my grandmother. She was lovely, best Oma ever. But she believed the Wehrmacht was noble, the SS very elegant and the Holocaust had never happened. She lived from 1910 to 2001 and never changed her mind.” An American wrote, “I couldn’t help noticing how this scenario feels very close to the white nationalists here in the US who are in a death rattle because they know their days are numbered as the “ruling” race.” A British person suggested a “wider context: why did so many western European intellectuals in the 19th century support colonialism? … Possible answer: “universal values” depend on educated class who in turn defend that class (however they understand it – eg. Russian) as “special”. He quoted an Article (https://www.parlia.com/a/dickens-defended-colonial-privileges-europeans) saying that “Dickens, like many people of his time, endorsed the British Empire and its colonial aims to conquer non-western nations, and dismissed the cultures of indigenous peoples as primitive and inferior to the British way of life in his writings “The Noble Savage” and “The Frozen Deep”.”
This makes it clear that the sentiments I spoke about at the beginning of the article are overshadowed by mindsets that are nationalistic and xenophobic in nature, and not only do we need to search our own hearts, but reconsider how we see the world. If we want to have a common basis for life on this planet, this is where we have to start.