The cobbled path of Andriyivskyy Descent in Kyiv tells the story of how easy it is for warmongers to fool us. It connects the baroquestyle St Andrew’s church at the top of the steep Zamkona Hora hill to Kontaktova Square below, winding down over 700 metres. This little path is known for its art galleries and small museums. It might also be the only street in the world that has a museum dedicated to itself.
Every Sunday morning, on the sidewalk of Andriyivskyy Descent, grandpas and grandmas exhibit their treasures and invite shoppers to buy their trinkets. The wrinkles on their faces invite empathy. On a wintry day, they wrap themselves in blankets. They seem to be the children and grandchildren of soldiers in the Second World War. They sell the insignia of military uniforms, mostly belonging to Stalin’s forces, and some recovered from Nazi soldiers.
In the Second World War, young men had worn the insignia of their countries with great pride. That is what they fought for. They earned medals at the cost of their lives. Their pride in their nation ruined a continent. Their patriotism killed, maimed and raped hundreds of thousands of people. But the uniform justified it all.
Today, the insignia is on sale on bedsheets spread on the footpath. The symbols of honour that led to the murder of millions, obliterated trillions of dollars of economic assets and devoured humanity, are available for anyone to purchase in exchange for a few Euros.
One expects that the Ukrainians and Russians would learn a lesson about the futility of war after a casual visit to Andriyivskyy Descent. In fact, they seemed to have been faring well for the first few years after Ukraine’s independence in 1991. The country gave up its nuclear weapons, feeling secure with Russian guarantees. But the good times did not last long: since April 2014, the two countries have been engaged in armed hostilities, and by early 2022, more than 14,000 people had been killed in conflict. Finally in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, killing thousands of people on both sides in a few months. A war that could not have been imagined in 2010 had broken up the country within a decade and ignited the most significant military confrontation in Europe since the Second World War. Patriotism, respect for the national flag and the honour for uniform remain intact. If we are to visit Andriyivskyy Descent a few decades from now, we will perhaps be able to buy insignia from Russian and Ukrainian uniforms of soldiers fighting in the current war for a few paltry coins.
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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 be sold on the streets for cents and dimes by their grandchildren? Ever since human beings began to form social groups, they began to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ are the people bound to us by relation, caste, creed and ideology. ‘Them’ are the people who do not share our blood or beliefs. And the ‘us’ and ‘them’ keep varying. In the Second World War, the Ukrainians thought that the Russians were ‘us’ and the Germans were ‘them’, and the Ukrainians and the Russians shed blood together against their common enemy. In the twenty-first century, the Ukrainians and the Russians are no longer ‘us’. The Russians hate the Ukrainians, who, in their view, deserve to be butchered. The Ukrainians feel that the Russians should be slayed. The Ukrainians and Russians loved a common nation in 1940. They were loyal to different nations in 2020. They want to sacrifice their lives in dedication to an esoteric illusion, the ‘nation’, that is not even permanent.
The divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are spurious in many respects. When one sees himself as a Muslim, the Christians are ‘them’, and vice versa. However, when one sees himself as a Sunni, the Shi’as are ‘them’, even though both Sunnis and Shi’as are Muslims. Similarly, for Christian believers, another Christian is a part of ‘us’ and the Muslims are ‘them’. But for Catholics, Protestants are ‘them’ even though both Catholics and the Protestants are Christians. For the Shi’as, all Shi’as are ‘us’, but for the Twelver Shi’as, the Bohras, Zaidis and Alawites are ‘them’. Similarly, at one level, all Catholics are ‘us’ but at another level, the Roman Catholics are ‘us’ and the Anglicans, Orthodox Christians and Assyrians are ‘them’. In India, the adherents of some other religions have imported the caste system from Hinduism. The Hindus consider themselves ‘us’, and Muslims and Christians ‘them’. But once there are no Muslims and Christians around, the Hindus go on dividing themselves as ‘us’ and ‘them’ along the lines of caste, sub-caste and sub-sub-caste. With more than 3,000 castes and sub-castes, there are that many ingroups and out-groups. Moreover, there are 1,600 distinct languages in India, potentially providing scope for 1,600 linguistic identities. India’s population is nearly 1.4 billion. Papua New Guinea, with 8 million inhabitants, has 800 languages and potentially 800 in-groups and outgroups. In Africa, for most people, the Blacks are ‘us’ and the Whites are ‘them’, but closer to home, a particular tribe is ‘us’ and another tribe is ‘them’. The list is endless!
The greatest irony about dividing society between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is seen at a famous church in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest shrines for Christians around the world and pilgrims have been visiting it since the fourth century. It is in the Christian quarters of East Jerusalem. This is the place where Jesus Christ is believed 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 precinct of the church, the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Christians consider one another as ‘them’ and at times, tensions between different Christian groups run high. In fact, the key of the church is not with 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 every day. There is a historical reason for this. In contemporary Jerusalem, the fact that two Muslim families are given the responsibility for the keys and doors of the Church help reduce tensions between the rival Christian denominations. The Christians and Muslims have shed blood all over the world against each other, most notably in the Crusades, which were launched in the name of Jerusalem. Yet, at present, in that very city, in the holiest of holy churches of Christendom, where Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians find it arduous to coexist with one another, Muslims are trusted with the most sacred functions.
This excerpt from Sundeep Waslekar’s ‘A World Without War’ has been published with permission from Harper Collins India.