Thousands of images go past our eyes as they face the unending television coverage of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. In one such image, a BBC reporter asks a Ukrainian girl how old she is and what she is thinking as she boards a train out of Kyiv to head to the Polish border. She is 19, she says, and she wants to take revenge for what the Russian President is doing to her country. Then she adds: ‘How can anyone be so bad in 2022?’ Though it is phrased like a question, it expresses a sense of moral outrage. It also conveys bewilderment — of a young person who is about to become a refugee.
Layers of meaning
Her question reveals a globally shared emotion among youth born around the turn of the century. They have every reason to believe that the world is an inter-connected place, governed by rules and consensus. They have recently witnessed proof of the world’s efficiency and inter-connectedness in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The lethal virus failed to stop two Olympics from being held. In the first one, Ukraine won 19 medals, and in the second one, held a few weeks ago, it won a medal. Then, bombs started falling and city streets turned into rubble. No wonder the 19-year old girl feels lost. So are we, watching devastation in action.
The girl’s question will linger for a while. It has already mutated into an allegory, with layers of meaning that are hard to decipher.
How can this happen in 2022? The ferocity and the scale of the violence are shocking enough; the aggressor’s resolve to give peace no chance is profoundly depressing. We witnessed the helplessness of Myanmar’s common people over the whole of last year. This time, it is Europe’s turn to stare. Phrases assiduously promoted by United Nations agencies for decades now sound like stone-dry bean pods. Two of them come to mind with especially hollow effect: These are: ‘global citizenship’ and ‘sustainable development’. The pictures of Ukraine under attack show icons of prosperity catching fire, millions leaving homes, their faces looking numb with disbelief. They do not look like refugees from the poorer parts of the world, waiting at the Mexican or Greek borders.
The news that Russia has put its nuclear system in a state of high alert also jars with received wisdom. The global information system had for decades reserved its dire phraseology to Iran, Palestine and Kashmir. Terms like ‘flashpoint’ and ‘nuclear neighbours’ were used for territories far away from Europe. Memories of the Bay of Pigs had faded, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had been sanitised. When I visited it in the new century, all its horror-inducing imagery had gone. A member of the museum staff explained that the earlier style of display had proved discouraging for tourism.
What the young confront
For us in India, the poignant absurdity of Russia’s war in Ukraine is personified by our stranded students. The precarious nature of their plight, and the marks it will leave on their future, cannot be imagined. Some people, who should know better, have been asking: ‘How did so many Indian youth end up studying in Ukraine?’ This is not the right time to contemplate this kind of query, one can say. At the same time, we know how short public memory is — and few public concerns have longevity in our ethos. This situation reminds us of the folly of worrying about headdresses to be worn in classrooms. The news that a senior medical student who has been killed by a Russian bullet hails from Karnataka carries far too many connotations than one might wish to probe, but not just now.
The sudden turn their lives have taken in a war-torn land is no less sharp than what the 19-year old Ukrainian girl is trying to cope with. Her question expresses a feeling that millions of youth would empathise with. ‘How can someone be so bad in 2022’, she is asking. In many countries such as her own, middle class youth had convinced themselves that they were living in a world far better than the one their parents had to cope with. And they were sure it was getting better. The digital convenience of negotiating the complex demands of life had a mesmerising effect. Nothing seemed to pose a problem that technology and science might not be able to solve.
That a European location can be the site of a nuclear alert might also surprise a generation that had no reason to remember how dangerous nuclear weaponry is. What has helped in the erasure of this awareness is the rhetoric of nuclear energy being clean and environmentally friendly. The discourse of separating nuclear energy from nuclear weapons and war has never died. Under the new, broader discourses of climate change, nuclear energy has begun to look safe, and those who talk of nuclear deterrence benefit from this idea.
If a Russian Minister comfortably talks about a third World War based on nuclear arms, his world-wide young audience cannot necessarily be expected to shiver. They have been told that the Cold War ended in the last century, leaving the new century to stride forward with a relaxed mind. It is rightly described as a post-truth generation as it is used to the idea that politicians can say and get away with anything. Russia’s assertion about Indian students being used as hostages is an example. At least on this matter, India has refuted Russia’s lie.
A widening gap in Russia
No matter which nation they belong to, those born after 1995 do have a special problem making sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There have been several visible signs of a generation gap in Russian society. For the younger Russians, the Bolshevik revolution is as distant as the map of the Soviet Union. Unlike many societies that go through sharp turns and historical twists, Russia has had to face the challenge of upgrading its sense of the past. Reforms in curriculum and teacher training since the beginning of the 1990s have been pursued with a considerable degree of imagination. Ironically, these very reforms have widened the gap between generations. It is perhaps a reflection of this gap that a gigantic effort is being made to reach out to the young in order to explain to them the reasons for the ‘special military action’ in Ukraine.
The burden of history that sits so awkwardly on their shoulders cannot be lightened by good education alone. The problems of understanding what they face are quite similar to those encountered in parts of Germany following the removal of the remarkable Berlin Wall. It was a bizarre symbol of a war-infested history. A 2003 German film, Good Bye Lenin!, adroitly captured the difficulties that a senior citizen of Berlin had maintaining mental balance when the city’s division between the eastern and western sides of a wall had started facing open resistance from the younger citizens. The story revolves around an imaginative, desperate attempt to stretch the past into the present. Something like that is happening in Ukraine today, but this is not fantasy: the country is facing naked, violent aggression. Its struggle to survive echoes a terrifying vacuum in the modern world. That it is a moral vacuum, is obvious enough, but it is also a vacuum in intelligence. In War and Peace, Tolstoy had said that ‘the need to seek causes has been put into the soul of man’. No cause that Russia can possibly cite today can justify its violent behaviour on display.
Krishna Kumar is a teacher and bilingual writer. His forthcoming book is ‘Thank You, Gandhi’