This was illustrated by a video clip shown by the BBC on Monday, April 14. It showed the aftermath of the seizure of a police station in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian militias. Two men, presumably Ukrainian police officers, were being assaulted by a mob at the foot of a staircase. The makeup of the mob at first was typical – a group of young men in their late teens/early twenties, but then something unexpected happened: two older women, perhaps in their forties, who had been watching the attack, stepped forward and got their own licks in on one of the prone men. According to the BBC, the man thankfully survived his beating.
The video serves as an illustration of a disturbing, yet fascinating, phenomenon: how quickly peaceful, multi-ethnic communities can devolve into open sectarian - and often brutal - war.
Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been a nation with a large Russian minority population. While there has been some occasional tension between the groups over issues like whether or not Russian should be recognized as an official language in Ukraine, the two ethnicities have basically lived together peacefully – there have been no reports of systematic violence between the two groups. This is especially true in eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of Ukraine's Russian population is located. There, the two ethnicities lived together and intermarried; it was not uncommon for families to be spread out between Russia and Ukraine and crossing the border of the two nations was usually given about as much thought as crossing the street. Certainly there are no outward physical signs to distinguish a Russian from a Ukrainian. Even just a few months ago such inter-ethnic violence in Ukraine would have been unthinkable. Yet now, cities across eastern Ukraine are being roiled by just such attacks. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine have been flooded by messages from Russian-based media outlets condemning the “Fascist putsch” that overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and ominous warnings that Fascist mobs were heading east from Kiev to brutalize the ethnic Russian population (a comprehensive United Nations report could find no evidence of these alleged attacks). For their part, some ultra-nationalist groups that became involved with the Maidan protests in Kiev have talked openly about their desire for Ukraine to be “for Ukrainians” - meaning ethnic Ukrainians and not Russians who happen to also be citizens of Ukraine; though again, the anti-Russian, Ukrainian-nationalist mobs that the Russian media constantly warns about have not materialized.
The BBC video brings to mind another recent European conflict: the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1990s. Before the conflict – Europe's bloodiest since World War II – Yugoslavia had been a fairly prosperous multi-ethnic nation, of Serbians, Croatians and Bosniaks (Muslims from Bosnia), who peacefully co-existed. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sarajevo, a vibrant, multi-ethnic city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. A decade later, the city would lie largely in ruins, having borne witness to the worst acts of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust. The roots of the Yugoslavian Civil War can be traced back to then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, himself an ethnic Serb. In an effort to bolster his regime, Milosevic filled the airwaves with Serbian nationalist rhetoric, some of it reviving ancient ethnic tensions that dated back to the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 between the Serbs and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. A conflict soon emerged with neighbors who had lived together, sometimes for decades, beating, killing and raping each other in a brutal inter-ethnic war.
The Ukrainian crisis also comes along at the 20th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities of the past century; the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Here again, two ethnicities – the Hutus and the Tutsi – who had lived side-by-side were soon embroiled in a genocide that would kill more than 800,000 people in the space of just three months. The roots of that conflict can be traced back to Rwanda's time as a colony when the ruling Belgian empire used minor physiological characteristics to create a division between the two very similar Hutu and Tutsi peoples. A century later, these differences would be exploited - again through a deliberate mass-media campaign - to sow division between the two groups that would eventually lead to the genocide.
In the United States even today tension exists between the Caucasian and African-American communities; occasionally the rhetoric employed around this tension can be ugly and hateful. But with these two communities, there are outward signs of difference; a way for one to cite the “otherness” of the opposite community. These outward differences are minor in the cases of the ethnicities involved in the Rwandan and Yugoslav conflicts and totally absent in Ukraine where the “Russian” and “Ukrainian” ethnicities are entirely social constructs with no basis in physiology. Yet in each case it has been remarkably easy for some actors within one community to use the mass-media to portray the other ethnicity as something evil or dangerous, an existential threat to the welfare of the actor's ethnicity. What is disturbing is how willingly people are to buy into the victimization narrative and turn on the others, even if they were their friends and neighbors. During the heights of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda conflicts it was not uncommon for people to rape and murder the neighbors they had lived next to for many years just because they belonged to the other ethnicity.
Ukraine has not sunk to that level of violence yet, but recent history has shown that it can sadly be a very short descent.