In the 1970-80s when I was still a child, Russians (and any Russian speaker was automatically referred to as a Russian; at that time there was no such thing as a Ukrainian who simply did not speak Ukrainian) were no longer seen as enemies. Twenty years after the 1940s, the pain had subdued but the Russians remained different despite the fact that everything had grown intertwined in everyday life and we all lived in one country, and this country was as much theirs as it was ours no matter what. They were still different. After all, we were different for them, too. Consequently, the Russians didn’t like us for being Ukrainians and we didn’t like them. Actually, some of us tried to switch to Russian to please them, although they never switched to Ukrainian to please us. After all, those of us who tried doing that didn’t last long – someone would always remind them who they really were, in one way or another.
Also, we were forced to take Russian classes every day. They, however, could skip Ukrainian classes any time and hang out in town instead. They were entitled to disregard everything that was Ukrainian, while we not only had no right to respect what was ours, but also had to take everything theirs enthusiastically. If we wanted to love what was Ukrainian, we were called the biggest enemies of ourselves. And they were always right – from the day they were born.
Small insults mounted – and children are extremely sensitive to injustices. The frontline in boys’ battles was always between Ukrainian and Russian schools of the town. Every year this good old tradition peaked during the military training sessions for the town’s tenth-graders at a local army field. That was a good example of what a real Russian-Ukrainian massacre would look like, although Russians were no longer seen as enemies by that time and children were still children and insults were personal.
Then, things changed. What did not change however, was that the funniest Ukrainian jokes still ended with the violent death of a moskal, a derogatory name for Russians. Jokes like this cannot be ignored. Folk humour, you see, is very telling — laughing helps prevent an act from occurring in real life. Jokes are a way to withstand the surge of insults. A small injustice for the sake of great tolerance. And there is nothing special about a moskal in this regard.
Western Ukraine had many similar jokes about the Poles before (mostly without murders, however. Maybe because murder had once been a painful reality in Western Ukraine). The Poles used to be different, too, even despite the fact that they honestly believed Western Ukraine to be their historical homeland. And the Polish world looked much more credible than the Russian World currently being imposed on Ukraine, even after the many centuries that Western Ukrainians and Poles had lived side by side, unlike Ukrainians and Russians under the Communists. Interwar Poland had a load of its own problems, as did its citizens of different nationalities. Of all of those problems however, Poland embarked on resolving the problem of the Ukrainian language the most vigorously. By doing so, it underlined the differences between its citizens even deeper. This insulted the Ukrainians and turned the Poles in their eyes into people who hurt everyone.
All this came to a tragic end in the 1940s. Surprisingly, nobody thought such wild things could happen in such civilized times. Since then, Ukrainians no longer told jokes about the Poles. They were replaced by Russians.
Over the past twenty years, everyone has begun to get used to thinking that they could all be identical citizens of this country. That peaceful co-existence of different languages was possible. We have waited a long time for the civilized times to come.
And here comes the devil’s temptation! The difference once again has a chance to grow visible. Sharp and irreconcilable, with some as "our guys", and others as "strangers". Some are the humiliated Ukrainians, and some are the obnoxious Russians, always right from the day they were born. Moreover, violence suddenly became the norm at all levels of the once soft state that is still paradoxically called Ukrainian.
What is missing in this situation is a few first murders driven by despair. Things have gone to the edge where it is no longer possible to tolerate them – and even those who had been inert, now realize that the time has finally come to do something for the common good, not just for themselves. The easiest thing to do is to commit a desperate and justified murder. And then it won’t matter who started it all and who is right. And the difference is too stark to do it wrong.
In fact, people are too weak to risk being tried with such temptations. Metropolitan Sheptytsky knew this and did his best to convince believers that people should not kill other people. That killing someone is committing suicide. And those who used to listen carefully to every word he said just a day before were now tossing the Do not kill! letter in fire or turned a blind eye to the commandment, or sighed in grief believing that even the metropolitan had began to make mistakes and nothing could be done about it. And the jokes were no longer funny. Nothing can ever make someone who killed himself laugh.