October 2006


Love One Another

TsitsernakaberdOne of the more edify aspects of my journey to Armenia was the realization of how deep mistrust and hatred of other peoples can go. There were two things that drove this message home, affecting me in ways I had not anticipated.

The most obvious and visible symbol of hatred in Armenia is Tsitsernakaberd, the monument remembering the Turkish genocide of Armenians. These citizens of the Ottoman Empire were singled out because of their race and religion and summarily sent 90 packed into a railway car (documented by a German second lieutenant as well as many others) to destinations unknown.

Tsitsernakaberd was my first destination in Yerevan upon arrival. The monument was built by the Soviet Union after a massive protest in 1965 by citizens of the Armenian SSR. I got to the memorial at 3:30, about half an hour before the museum closed, so that was my immediate priority—it was an incredibly moving museum with substantive documentation of the genocide. I wandered around the museum as long as I could, absorbing the information. Once the museum closed, I emerged into the sunlight and walked to the spire and eternal flame.

If you’ve looked at my Flickr set, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I took more than a few photos of the memorial—but I also sat down and thought about our world, and about what it all meant. Certainly whilst the Armenian genocide was the first explicitly defined genocide of the twentieth century, it was not the only one. Hitler instigated the holocaust, killing nearly 11 million people, the recent Rwandan genocide killed nearly a million people—just to name two others.

All of this death due to trivial differences disturbed me. As Amber notes in one of my favorite songs of all time, “Love One Another:”

One boy is born in Bethlehem
One girl in Amsterdam (kingdoms to death)
One boy is born in Gambia
One girl in Vietnam
Everybody black, everybody white
We are all the same, if we look inside
Knowing what we know, why do we still fight?
Time for us to see the light

All of this started me thinking a bit more deeply about life in general, making me think about the second way in which mistrust and hatred of people run deep.

While it is traditional to think that the Soviet Union was a grand experiment to see if it was possible to create a Communist “Workers’ Paradise” that was ultimately corrupted by its leadership, perhaps it would be equally useful to think of the Soviet Union as a grand social experiment. The principle goal of this social experiment was, in fact, to erase religious and ethnic differences between the citizens of the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics. Toward this end, religion was discouraged (no new churches, old ones destroyed) and racial intermarriages encouraged. Russians moved into the neighborhood thus encouraging Russian as a second language (if not first) in places like Estonia, the Ukraine, and Armenia.

While this is a highly simplistic overview of the social experiment, it does follow to some extent—the Soviet Union attempted to control where its citizens lived, attempted to integrate people of differing backgrounds, and to eliminate religion. It did so over for well over 60 years.

TsitsernakaberdNeedless to say, the integration within the USSR was not actually achieved. No sooner did the Soviet Union start disintegrating, than ethnic and religious strife reappeared—not only did it reappeared, but resentment also appeared. I observed the later when visiting Estonia visiting the community’s history museums where they unequivocally announced that Estonia had been occupied by the Soviet Union (read: Russia). The former erupted in war. Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region—an area inside Azerbaijan whose residents were (and are) predominately Armenian. At the outset of war thousands of people were displaced from the very place they called home, forced to seek refuge.

The ethnic and religious differences, although suppressed for many years, reappeared with violent consequences.

All of this made me wonder about the United States: Why is it that, for the most part, people in the US get along? Is it because we don’t suppress ethnic and religious cultures? Is it because the States is a society of hyphen Americans? Irish-Americans? Italian-Americans? Islam-Americans?

I sat on a step around Tsitsernakaberd’s eternal flame and watched others lay flowers while pondering these questions. Unfortunately there were no answers.

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