It is a beautiful day in Florida, and all I can think about is war. I am, I suppose, a bad Buddhist incapable of living in the moment, and live, instead, in a parallel reality, constantly analyzing, looking for explanations, and sorting the facts. Mentally bridging gaps in terminology. Employing history as a potential sense-making tool. And, probably, failing. Most likely so.
On July 17, 2014, a Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in Eastern Ukraine, downed by the Russian terrorist forces, referred to as “pro-Russian separatists” in western media. The questions my US friends asked me most after the crash of MH17 near the Ukrainian town of Torez were as follows: Who are the people casually going through the dead passengers’ luggage? Why are they taking selfies next to the parts of the plane? The questions now haunt me. As a writer, I am usually fascinated by high passions, but this is more like high indifference, and I don’t know what to say about indifference. It did not look like these people were the rescue team or even any kind of concerned observers. They mostly appeared moderately entertained by the exotic event, and the fact that death was involved did not seem to upset them. In today’s world, they say, our imagination has been so profoundly impacted by the constant flow of images via Internet and special effects in the movies that when we see something real, we cannot perceive it as such any more. Perhaps, this could be a partial explanation for the actions of the spectators slash marauders, and yet it does not exhaust the issue.
Truth be told, marauders and selfie-lovers were not the only kinds of people present at the crash site. It is just that whoever took the photos and posted them on Facebook (or the Russian versions of it) became visible to the world first. It is true, the culture of selfies these days is somewhat pervasive, and even the visitors of Auschwitz take them, spurring debates about the ethical codes of behavior in the places of death and mourning. However, when it comes to the nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union, one can claim that it is not only the syndrome of the globalized world that affects people’s behavior, but also a number of deeper influences, the ones from the past.
In his Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a scene: the long-term camp prisoners are observing the newcomers and laughing at their attempts to adjust. They are not evil people, Solzhenitsyn explains. But, he says, their empathy has atrophied. Another writer of the Gulag experience, Varlam Shalamov, brings up similar instances and concludes: anger is the last emotion to die. Everything we consider lasting, compassion and hope included, evaporates first. Shalamov spent eighteen years in the camps: he knew a certain gruesome truth about human nature. What is truly tragic though is the necessity to recognize that the camp mentality – and the atrophy of compassion as one of its long-standing effects – has become a part of all the cultures that lived under the Soviet rule. I am not talking about specific individuals; I am talking about a certain psychological background that affects the choice of basic values and adherence to them. In Gulag they used to say – “you die today and I die tomorrow;” this meant that nobody will survive in the end, but some will survive for a little longer. Human life had no value at all, and this is still a rudimentary pattern and a transgenerational trauma that has not been eradicated. It is this longing for survival – unattainable, for all are doomed anyway, but temporary, tenuous and almost ephemeral – that turns humans into predators, and then switches off every compassionate impulse.
Maybe the reason for all wars are just misunderstandings. Maybe there is a way to talk and to be understood, to explain, to reach out. I am not sure. All I know is that old wounds do not heal by themselves if left untreated, and the wound of Gulag and Soviet totalitarianism has been left untreated – unacknowledged, even – for too long. And the logic of this wound commands total fatalism and hopelessness: you die today, I die tomorrow.
This is what I think about when I look at the casual selfie of two men who stand on a part of a crashed plane, a few hours after it was downed.