5 things North Americans should know about the war in Ukraine


Opinion: The war on Ukraine offers insight into the power of identity, what “neo-Nazi” really means, the dangers of collective guilt and more.

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CORDOBA, Spain — It’s now possible that many North Americans are treating the war on Ukraine like a Netflix series, which first grabbed their attention and then largely faded. Invasion is now one of many options to follow in this overstimulated culture.

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But we have to stay tuned. Russian leadership’s blatant assault on Ukraine provides insight into the power of national identity, the often hidden role of religion in history, the real meaning of ‘neo-Nazi’, the dangers of guilt collective action and the elusive quest for the “perfect victim”. .”

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These themes were uncovered at a recent conference organized in Spain by the International Association of Religious Journalists – of which I am director – which explored the difficulties of writing about cultural, religious and military conflicts, including the attack of Russia against Ukraine.

Ukrainians are in an “identity war”

While some European journalists spoke of how strange it was to cover the conflict without adopting their usual stance of neutrality, Dutch writer Hendro Munsterman described how the bloodshed of the conflict in Ukraine distills a “war of identity”. .

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Despite long-standing ties to Russia, Ukrainians are fighting the oppressor to protect their independence and identity, which is deeply rooted in their religion, Eastern Orthodoxy, said Munsterman, who works for Nederlands Dagblad.

As Munsterman spoke, I wondered if Canadians would ever mount such a strong defense if their identity, as a nation and as a people, was threatened by a vicious external enemy. It is not certain.

Ukrainians more religious than Russians

Munsterman suggested that Ukrainians are defiant in part because they are more religious than most, especially Russians.

While President Vladimir Putin has pressured the Russian Orthodox Church (which has a strong presence in Ukraine) to support his “military operation” aimed at eliminating so-called “decadence” and “neo-Nazism”, the he strongman comes up against Orthodox followers who are far more devout than the typical urban Russian, who some say tends towards cynicism.

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But that hasn’t stopped Putin from arming the Russian Orthodox Church in its efforts to colonize other countries, including many in Africa, Munsterman said. The good news is that his tactic is backfiring dramatically in Ukraine, where Orthodox members have found several ways to marginalize the Russian arm of the 220 million-member Orthodox tradition.

Ukrainians are more religious than most, especially Russians, said Hendro Munsterman of Nederlands Dagblad.  This contributes to their nationalism.
Ukrainians are more religious than most, especially Russians, said Hendro Munsterman of Nederlands Dagblad. This contributes to their nationalism.

A similar miscalculation occurred in the Amsterdam town of Munsterman, where a Russian Orthodox bishop dramatically showed up on a Sunday (along with security officials) to take over a Russian- Ukrainian, where the priest had criticized the invasion. Embarrassing news of the hostile takeover attempt shot around the world.

Part of the reason Putin has denounced Ukraine as decadent, Munsterman said, is that he can’t stand that the country has developed a confident identity as an “ecumenical laboratory” in which different kinds of Orthodox and other Christians get along, including with the Jews. and Muslims.

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“There should be no collective guilt”

Despite all the despicable behavior of Putin and the leaders who support his invasion, Serbian journalist Jelana Jorgacevic has discouraged people from painting all Russians with the same evil brush.

“We shouldn’t do collective guilt,” said Jorgacevic, who works with Vreme magazine.

This is what happened to Serbs during and after the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia, in which former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was convicted of atrocities. The majority of Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox, she said, felt that “the world hates us”.

Just as most Serbs thought they were demonized – which made it difficult for different types of Serbs to get along with each other, let alone other Europeans – she said the same stereotype could well happen to all of them. Russians.

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Although Jorgacevic did not mention it, she supported the theories of German-Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt, who opposed the idea that all Germans should bear responsibility for the Nazi death camps.

The concept of collective guilt, as opposed to individual guilt, is “senseless”, Arendt said in the 1960s, and only serves as an effective “whitewash” for guilty individuals to hide behind.

Problems of collective blame persist in many contexts, including in Canada. More recently, Australian-born American scholar Dirk Moses said, “The accusation of collective guilt is unacceptable…and is, I believe, one of the key ingredients of genocidal thinking.

As Jorgacevic said: “When the war is over, the Ukrainians will still have to get along with the Russians. Many are married to each other.

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“When the war is over, the Ukrainians will still have to get along with the Russians,” said Serbian journalist Jelena Jorgacevic, warning against the concept of collective guilt.

Does Ukraine really have “neo-Nazis?”

The mood at the conference turned electric when two journalists caustically discussed how some Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” suddenly became heroes after the Russian invasion on February 24.

Was it true? A revealing discussion ensued, in which panel members warned against the sloppy use of the epithet “neo-Nazi”, which Putin is by no means alone in abusing for profit.

Moscow has portrayed the entire Ukrainian government as neo-Nazi, which is bizarre given that its citizens overwhelmingly elected a Jewish president whose family endured the Nazis’ anti-Semitic Holocaust.

The Kremlin particularly targets the Azov Regiment, which defended Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks in May, as one of the main perpetrators of so-called radical anti-Russian nationalism, or Nazism, which it says must protect Russian-speakers from ‘Ukraine.

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The Azov Regiment was formed in 2014 as a right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists who had taken over parts of the Donbass region. But the regiment denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi, and Ukraine says it has been reformed.

While Jorgacevic said some members of the Azov regiment were known to employ Nazi symbols, she said much of her early efforts were aimed at limiting mass and unregulated immigration.

We have to be careful with our words, Munsterman said. Is it reasonable to compare a small faction of aggressive nationalists to the diabolical German system that murdered over six million Jews, gays, mentally disabled, political resisters and others?

Although the Azov regiment seems unlikely to contain any rogue members, Jorgacevic spoke wise words when she said it was not necessary to portray all beleaguered Ukrainians as models of virtue.

“Society,” she said, “is always looking for the perfect victim.” But pure innocence rarely exists.

And whatever the relative virtue of some Ukrainians, there is no justification for this imperialist invasion.

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