Ukrainians and Russians sacrifice lives for an illusion called “nation”

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Jhe cobbled path of Andriyivskyy Descent in Kyiv tells how easy it is for warmongers to fool us. It connects the Baroque-style St Andrew’s Church at the top of the steep Zamkona Hora hill with Kontaktova Square below, descending 700 meters. This small path is known for its art galleries and small museums. It may also be the only street in the world to have a museum dedicated to him.

Every Sunday morning, on the sidewalk of the Andriyivskyy Descent, grandpas and grandmas display their treasures and invite buyers to buy their trinkets. The wrinkles on their faces invite empathy. One winter day, they wrap themselves in blankets. They appear to be the children and grandchildren of World War II soldiers. They sell badges of military uniforms, mostly belonging to Stalin’s forces, and some salvaged from Nazi soldiers.

During World War II, young men had proudly worn the insignia of their country. This is what they fought for. They won medals at the cost of their lives. Their pride in their nation has ruined a continent. Their patriotism has killed, maimed and raped hundreds of thousands of people. But the uniform justified everything.

Today, the badge is for sale on sheets spread out on the sidewalk. The symbols of honor that have led to the murder of millions, wiped out trillions of dollars of economic assets, and devoured humanity, are available for anyone to buy for a few dollars.

Ukrainians and Russians are expected to learn a lesson in the futility of war after an informal visit to Andriyivskyy Descent. In fact, they seemed to have done well for the first few years after Ukraine’s independence in 1991. The country gave up its nuclear weapons, feeling safe with Russian guarantees. But the good times didn’t last long: Since April 2014, the two countries have engaged in armed hostilities, and by early 2022, more than 14,000 people had been killed in the conflict. Finally in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, killing thousands on both sides within months. A war that could not have been imagined in 2010 had dismantled the country in a decade and sparked the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II. Patriotism, respect for the national flag and honor of the uniform remain intact. If we are to visit Andriyivskyy Descent in a few decades, we may be able to purchase badges of Russian and Ukrainian uniforms of soldiers fighting in the current war for a pittance.


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us and them

Why are people willing to die and kill in the name of the nation, only to have their national pride sold in the streets for pennies and cents by their grandchildren? Since human beings started to form social groups, they started to differentiate between “us” and “them”. “We” are the people related to us by relationship, caste, creed and ideology. “Them” are the people who do not share our blood or our beliefs. And the “us” and the “them” keep changing. During World War II, Ukrainians thought Russians were “us” and Germans were “them,” and Ukrainians and Russians shed blood together against their common enemy. In the 21st century, Ukrainians and Russians are no longer “us”. Russians hate Ukrainians who they think deserve to be slaughtered. The Ukrainians believe that the Russians must be killed. Ukrainians and Russians loved a common nation in 1940. They were loyal to different nations in 2020. They want to sacrifice their lives by devoting themselves to an esoteric illusion, the “nation”, which is not even permanent.

The divisions between “us” and “them” are wrong in many ways. When you think of yourself as Muslim, Christians are “them”, and vice versa. However, when one considers oneself Sunni, the Shiites are “them”, even though both Sunnis and Shiites are Muslims. Similarly, for Christian believers, another Christian is part of “us” and Muslims are “them”. But for Catholics, Protestants are “them”, even though Catholics and Protestants are Christians. For the Shiites, all the Shiites are “us”, but for the Twelver Shiites, the Bohras, the Zaidis and the Alawites are “them”. Likewise, on one level all Catholics are “us”, but on another level Roman Catholics are “us” and Anglicans, Orthodox Christians and Assyrians are “them”. In India, followers of some other religions imported the caste system from Hinduism. Hindus see themselves as ‘us’, and Muslims and Christians as ‘them’. But once there are no more Muslims and Christians, Hindus continue to divide into ‘us’ and ‘them’ along caste, sub-caste and sub-sub-caste lines. With over 3,000 castes and subcastes, there are just as many ingroups and outgroups. Additionally, there are 1,600 distinct languages ​​in India, potentially providing space for 1,600 linguistic identities. India’s population is nearly 1.4 billion. Papua New Guinea, with 8 million people, has 800 languages ​​and potentially 800 internal and external groups. In Africa, for most people, black people are ‘us’ and white people are ‘them’, but closer to home, one particular tribe is ‘us’ and another tribe is ‘them’. The list is endless!

The greatest irony of society’s division between “us” and “them” can be seen in a famous church in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the holiest shrines for Christians around the world and pilgrims have been visiting it since the 4th century. It’s in the Christian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. This is the place where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Jerusalem was also the cause of one of the greatest conflicts between two communities: the Israelis or Jews and the Palestinians or Muslims. As we enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a different identity conflict plays out, where neither Jews nor Muslims are involved. Within the precincts of the church, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians see themselves as “them” and sometimes tensions between the different Christian groups are high. Indeed, the key to the church does not belong to any Christian but has been entrusted to Joudeh, a Muslim family, for several centuries. Another Muslim family, Nusseibeh, has the task of opening and closing the doors of the church on a daily basis. There is a historical reason for this. In contemporary Jerusalem, the fact that two Muslim families are entrusted with the responsibility of the keys and doors of the Church helps to reduce tensions between rival Christian denominations. Christians and Muslims have shed blood all over the world against each other, including during the Crusades, which were launched in the name of Jerusalem. Yet today, in that same city, in the holiest of the holiest churches in Christendom, where Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians find it difficult to coexist, Muslims are being entrusted with the most sacred.

This excerpt from ‘A World Without War’ by Sundeep Waslekar is courtesy of Harper Collins India.

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