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Alex Malouf reflects on the concept of hatred and situates it in the current political climate.
The word ‘hate’ is, at least in English, a very vague concept. You can use it for just about any kind of negative relationship with anything, regardless of how severe it actually is. You hate stubbing your toe on a furniture leg (pain). You hate missing the bus (inconvenience). You hate the arch-rivals of your footy club (competition). We make hateful jokes (humour). You hate your siblings (love). And you definitely hate sitting down to write assignments (dislike). The malleable nature of English words is one of their defining characteristics, as the meaning of our words is ultimately ours to decide.
When you view the word on its own, however, it takes on a newer, purer meaning. Unaccompanied, ‘hate’ is forced into a vacuum of the bare stem of its purpose. It’s resentful. It’s a visceral, brutal kind of malice. A desire to see and make violence, a want of something ruined in its entirety. Something in which you see nothing to redeem, nothing to desire or love. Something you want destroyed and gone.
Hatred between entire groups of people is a unique phenomenon, not least because it typically always conforms to the same historical patterns. One group will, directly or indirectly, commit ‘violence’ against another. The wronged group will then seek revenge against the former for this injustice, escalating the violence to organised retribution. To the first group this is an unprovoked aggression, and they respond by escalating it further. It’s a death-spiral of like for like, payback for payback, until the original act of violence is forgotten to memory, all the while giving either group all the more reason to hate the other. Once one gains a definitive upper hand on the other, the killing begins. Palestine, Lebanon, Ireland, and Rwanda are all victims of this exact cycle, with the butchery and mass graves which dot their contemporary history giving truth to this.
When a news anchor, summing up 1400 years’ worth of history prior to February this year, says to their audience that “Russia hates Ukraine”, what do they mean by this? It can’t be seriously thought that every one of the 41 million Ukrainians hates every one of the 145 million Russians, nor the other way around. Instead ‘hate’ was liberally used to describe the strong distrust and resentment held between Kyiv and Moscow, an animosity which is mainly a product of recent political upheaval. They hated each other about as much as a New South Welshman hates a Queenslander. To give an entire population a genuine cause to hate, a real reason to want for and seek the death of another, is no small feat.
To watch such a thing unfold in real-time, though, is unheard of. Watching the unprecedented surge in enmity and malice between Russians and Ukrainians can only fill an observer with a grim sense of foreboding. The similarity of both groups in thought, practise, belief, and culture prior to hostilities makes the time with which they’ve turned on one another even more astonishing. These are two peoples who could very well be counted as one. How could this have happened? How is it that peoples so alike, could so readily butcher one another, with so little hesitation?
Ukraine derives its name from the Russian word for “Borderlands”, and for the majority of modern Slavic history, that is what these lands were. It represented the furthest extent of where the ‘Kievan-Rus’ people lived, and was home to their largest city, Kyiv. Kyiv would be later destroyed by the Mongols, and its’ status as a power diminished. Then, when power concentrated around Moscow and the Russian Empire first formed, it sought to regather this lost land. Expanding south to the Black Sea, it enveloped the lands still occupied by people who, despite being ethnically and religiously still ‘Russians’, had developed slight linguistic differences in the intervening period. They would refer to these lands as ‘Na Ukraina’ (“the borderlands” in English), and its people, despite their small differences, were regarded as true Russians.
This would continue until the end of World War One. Victorious in the east, Germany sought to disarm Russia, and so granted statehood to Ukraine. Borders were hastily drawn, and in a matter of four years the lands were re-conquered by the new USSR, who turned Ukraine into a Soviet Socialist Republic, giving it a bizarre kind of sovereignty. Since they were essentially a puppet government, it didn’t really matter where the borders of Ukraine were to the Soviets, or what the makeup of people was within them. When premier Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, the move was viewed as a symbolic gesture, why did it matter if they all used the peninsula anyway?
In that time, however, things had changed. Botched collectivisation policies and the prioritisation of feeding large cities (mostly in Russia) had led to a famine in Ukraine during the 20s and 30s. With no help from the Soviet government, and in an act many countries consider genocide, around 7 million Ukrainians were allowed to starve to death. Some speculate that the famine was intentionally made worse by Stalin, who sought to curb any inkling of a Ukrainian independence movement. While this is impossible to prove, it nevertheless became gospel to many Ukrainian nationalists, who would begin seeking retribution against Russia however they could.
The first violence had been wrought.
The ‘Holodomor’, as it came to be known, would be used by Ukrainian leaders over the following decades to push for Ukrainian independence. Propaganda describing, in gratuitous detail, the depths of Russian savagery towards their people became more common and galvanised many apolitical Ukrainians against their “Russian Oppressors”. Once the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine had to construct a national identity, this only exaggerated further. For heroes in their struggle, some on the far right began looking to Nazi collaborators as champions of independence. Russians, seeing people they once considered brothers-in-arms celebrating the cause of their most hated enemy, began to be filled with an especially bitter kind of resentment.
And the hatred was returned in kind.
From here to the present, the two nations would only push further apart. Politically savvy actors on either side, Putin among them, would drum up damnations of the ‘other’ for popular support. Propaganda stations would broadcast details of Russian barbarity or Ukrainian Nazism to their respective populations and see it turned into political influence. This would, in turn, only further drive the excesses of ruling parties’ rhetoric. The cycle of hatred was truly underway.
Despite this though, violence was sparse. Ordinary Russians and Ukrainians were still mostly the same people, who spoke mostly the same language, prayed at mostly the same churches, and observed all the same holidays. They had no lived reason to hate one-another and saw the bickering of their politicians as silly and standard. It wouldn’t last.
This would change in 2014, when a revolt against the pro-Russian president of Ukraine would send the country into upheaval. Putin, never one to let a good crisis go to waste, annexed the Crimean Peninsula, while two uprisings led by Russian-backed extremists began in Ukraine’s east, creating the DPR and LPR breakaway states. Ukraine declared the move illegal and began trying to retake the land by force. Russia called this move illegal and began supplying the separatists with arms and munitions.
And the first bullets were fired.
Eight years of continuous trench warfare followed, with the leaders of either side unwilling to negotiate or concede anything to their hated enemies. In this time, 16,000 civilians would be killed by stray artillery, misguided bombs, or intentional targeting. Every reported casualty was a curse muttered under breath. Every new grave dug was a new reason to hate. Unreported hate-crimes began in both Russia and Ukraine against innocent people of the ‘other’, and were often overlooked by the authorities. The “Donbass War” would be the first scornful blooding between Russians and Ukrainians. Their leaders had worked their magic. Now they had a real reason to hate each other.
And in February 2022, as we all know, Russia would invade Ukraine. The penultimate escalation of their hatred: open warfare. What was ideally a swift operation has devolved into a bitter stalemate, with pitched battles, guerrilla attacks, and hitherto unseen levels of propaganda now a regularity. While the ‘fog of war’ makes any objective information difficult to come by, it is believed that roughly 50,000 soldiers are already dead, and that 5.5 million Ukrainians have already fled the country.
While these numbers alone are horrifying, it would be no exaggeration to say the worst is likely still yet to come.
On a quick note; It’s silly to believe the Russian government ordered the invasion of Ukraine based upon the premise of purely hating Ukrainians, in fact it’s doubtful it was even a motivating factor. The war is first and foremost a resource war, aimed at securing the vast natural gas wealth of the Black Sea, and should all go according to plan, disarming and turning Ukraine into a buffer state. For all his rhetoric of Ukrainian Nazism, Putin’s true concern is NATO’s steady eastward expansion, a fact western intelligence is well aware of.
But that’s all for nothing now. The soldiers of both sides now genuinely despise the people they’re fighting against. This has become a war of attrition, where the likelihood of victory isn’t determined through strategic success or successful manoeuvres, it’s measured in the sheer weight of piled human carcasses. Killing the enemy has evolved from the war’s cost to its purpose.
To make this ghastly job easier, both sides have taken a note from history and begun the systemic dehumanisation of the other. Russian briefings now refer to Ukrainians as ‘Hohols’, a derogatory term derived from their Cossack past. Ukrainians likewise now call Russians ‘orcs’ in official state broadcasts, supposedly reflecting their barbaric indifference to life. Killed soldiers routinely have their passports taken, and videos of their corpses are posted online so that their families may see. Footage has surfaced of Ukrainian soldiers torturing, mutilating and then executing prisoners of war, comparing it to animal control. As this continues, and propaganda elevates these incidents above all others, Russian soldiers can only become resentful of the people they’re occupying, just as Ukrainians steadily grow resentful of them. From a historical perspective, this type of enmity can only ever escalate.
Around four weeks ago, news began emerging in of an atrocity in the town of Bucha, north-west of Kyiv. As Russian forces withdrew and Ukrainian forces advanced, piles of civilian bodies were discovered throughout the town. The corpses showed signs of being beaten, burned, and lined up and shot – ostensibly proof of summary execution. While Ukraine claims that 412 bodies were found, the United Nations has reported only 50. Ukraine has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate these matters as war crimes. Russia, meanwhile, has denied all responsibility, and claimed the event was staged.
Bucha, however, will only be the beginning. Nationalist militias, often poorly trained and regulated, will grow increasingly barbaric in their pursuit of ‘collaborators’, real and imagined, among the remaining Ukrainian populace. Russian soldiers, in their retaliation, will look for ‘saboteurs’ and ‘guerrilla fighters’ in every town, village and city under their occupation. The United States once tried to employ the same strategy to ‘pacify’ the countryside of Vietnam – the “Hamlet” program – and to this day their inhumane policy towards civilians remains one of their greatest national shames. One would be sceptical of Russia’s ability to avoid doing the same.
There is no escape from this spiral for Russia or Ukraine. Both their leaders have played their hands and the die is cast. From now and for decades to come, their populations will hate each other with the kind of bitter malice that only the purest form of ‘hate’ can encapsulate. Searing, white-hot scorn directed outwards at the faceless ‘Other’. The eternal enemy who can never be fully repaid for their uncounted crimes against your people. Children will be raised on lessons of the inhumanity of their invaders or neighbours and taught to see them as little less than vermin. There is now no future for Russia or Ukraine that is free from hate crimes and racial murders, the likes of which the region has only seen a few times before.
Russia now hates Ukraine, and Ukraine, Russia. There is no longer anything vague about it. Historical precedent paints bleak futures for both nations, with these cycles of violence rarely broken quickly, or without first spilling rivers of innocent blood. Putin entered Ukraine on the pretence of eradicating ‘radicalism’, and in doing so has created new legions of radicals among their people and his own. Maybe that was the plan from the start. There are few better guarantors of power to a dictator than a hated enemy.
So here we are, the spectators to the seminal tragedy of the 21st century. These hateful years will define Eastern Europe’s future, and this war will have no real winner. To what depths of viciousness the forces fighting in Ukraine will delve we can only guess at. For every unexploded mine, every empty shelf and every small coffin lowered into the earth, their hatred of one another will only fester further. Even when the guns eventually fall silent, that hate will remain. One needs only a cursory glance at history to know where this may lead.
This war may never have an end.