As we came closer to the coast, birds skimmed and whirled. The coastline is always changing here. Sediment and sand constantly form new low islands and sandbanks. Finally, we came to where this branch of the river flows out to the sea. A monument has been erected on the beach and become slightly lopsided. It is black, made of steel and says “Okm.” It means “kilometer zero.” It is supposed to refer to the end of the river, but might as well refer to the end, or the beginning, of Ukraine.
One of the most complex geopolitical issues in recent years is the situation in Ukraine. Europe’s second-largest country is one torn between progress, and the prospect of EU membership, and being mired in the historic difficulties of its past. No stranger to conflict, the most recent has been war between pro-Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian rebels in the wake of the Maidan revolution in 2014. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the historically disputed Crimea region also muddied the waters in terms of national identity and Ukraine’s position in Europe.
Getting solid information about what was happening on the ground in the country at the height of the revolution and what the sentiment was in the starkly divided eastern and western halves was no simple task. Misinformation has been rife, and overall the country is one frequently hurt further by being misunderstood.
I thought… that between journalism and academic books there was not much which explained Ukraine, that made it a vibrant place full of people who have something to say and to tell us.
These points, and the idea of shedding light on more of the current situation and contentions, led Economist journalist Tim Judah to travel through Ukraine’s regions, from west to east, creating a work of reportage seeking middle ground between academic analysis of the country’s sociopolitical background and a personal, journalistic account giving voice to the people living through a tumultuous time.
He provides a thorough history lesson giving context to Ukraine’s current status, both geopolitically and socially. And most illuminating, from my reading, he includes his own helpful commentary alongside the stories and perceptions of his interviewees – not only political or powerful figures but ordinary citizens, who give perspective on their ways of thinking. It also allows some telling insight into the better known events and players in this conflict, like Putin, with his widely varying perception between factions in Ukraine: hero or villain, depending on who you ask.
According to Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland in the government of Donald Tusk… Putin suggested to Tusk in 2008 that they partition Ukraine. “He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwów is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together.” At the time it might have seemed like a lurid joke, but now the question arises as to whether Putin was testing the water to see what the Poles might say. “We made it very, very clear to them—we wanted nothing to do with this,” said Sikorski. When this interview was published in 2014, a Kremlin spokesman claimed it was “a fairy tale.”
What emerges most strongly is the concept that Ukraine has a split sense of identity from west to east. Across this dividing line, the belief sets are so inherently different it beggars belief. Both not only envision different courses (and allegiances) for the country going forward, but they interpret the same shared history wildly differently. This was so eye opening.
When Judah lets his subjects speak in their environments, telling unique, deeply personal stories of their positions and feelings within country, town, or specific community, the book is at its strongest. There’s an almost Svetlana Alexievich-feel to this kind of raw, unfiltered storytelling. But in chapters detailing the country’s history I was less invested, and unfortunately for lack of a better word, bored. Statistics, percentages, population shifts – this information is presented contextually but so straightforwardly that it’s hard to absorb in any meaningful way.
Although I enjoyed the travel aspect, and Judah’s journalistic writing about observations both spoken and sensory and what it all meant was absorbing and well done, I didn’t like the drier way the history and politics were written. The structure and scope make it seem this should be accessible to non-scholarly readers, yet the tone and wealth of data, names, dates, political minutiae and the like made it feel too dense.
It’s an important book however. Ukraine and its seemingly regional conflicts aren’t well understood in the west but have bigger global implications, and Judah’s undertaking to clarify these is admirable. He gives a glimpse both academic and intimate into a country that’s still oft-overlooked despite its troubling recent disputes. Photographs throughout are an expressive bonus. 3/5
Like so many others, all she wanted for Ukraine was for it to be a normal European country, not one that continued to linger, as it had done since independence in 1991, in the gray zone between Russia and the rest of Europe, all the while crushed by a culture of economic and political corruption that left poor a country which should be rich.
In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine
by Tim Judah