Maidan Voyage

Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine BY Sophie Pinkham. New York: Norton. 304 pages. $27.
Cover of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine

IN THE EAST ARE THE PRO-RUSSIAN Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. Southward lies Crimea, snatched by Russia in 2014. The rest of the nation sprawls inchoately westward, historically arbitrary in its flickering borders, beset by corruption, inflamed with bigotry, rich in folk culture, inspired and tormented by myriad identities. Even the next ten years in Ukraine resist prophecy; the next fifty remain utterly unknowable. The two slender books under review will soon be as dated as any dispatch from the last days of Yugoslavia. But to the extent that nationalism repeats itself, and great power games claim eternal interest, both may retain value for students of this fascinating region.

Sophie Pinkham’s Black Square is mostly memoir, with history thrown in, including a narrative of the Maidan Revolution based on live feeds and interviews with Ukrainian friends. It reads best in its first-person observations: “Babushkas might or might not know how to cook a boot or give an abortion with herbs, and they believed that birth control gave you a mustache.” Despite its name, In Wartime is less a description of the conflict itself than a series of analytic snapshots. Its tone is even and its approach systematic.

Black Square has been classified by its publisher as “Travel.” Tim Judah’s In Wartime is more of a primer—an explanation, if there can be such a thing, of the country’s historical and political forces and how they have come to bear crushingly on the present. It is also a portrait of what it’s like living during wartime.

We Americans suffered on September 11, but we have no dread that our nation will imminently disappear. Our states and territory remain intact; no invader struts on our soil. We live as if tomorrow will closely resemble today. The past influences us powerfully, for a fact, but almost invisibly. The Civil War, for instance, has small perceptible impact on our daily getting and spending. But our complacency is no more than a local peculiarity. In certain other places, among them Ukraine, history blocks the horizon like a range of mountains. “Today,” writes Judah, “what you think of this past, how you relate to it, determines what you think about the future of Ukraine. And what you think of the past is quite likely to be bound up with the history of your own family and where you live.”

The nineteenth-century ancestors of a Donetsk coal-mining family could easily have been Russian—and even back then, Russians and Ukrainians were bickering. Nowadays this Donetsk family might well look kindly on Putin. Meanwhile, a family from the southwestern region of Transcarpathia looks back on a past when, as Judah puts it, their land appeared in the same travel guidebook as Vienna, Prague, and Trieste, those glamorous cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One would expect these people to be less drawn to Russia, as is indeed the case. Transcarpathia then belonged to Galicia, another bygone region whose identity was cultivated by Hapsburg overlords “keen to divide and rule and to balance Polish identity and aspirations.” So Judah carefully explains the matter: “Today, when we see [from] voting patterns in Ukraine” that eastern Galicia is “more nationalistic and proud of its Ukrainianness, this is the historical root of the reason why.”

To all this an American might respond that a Scots-Irish coal-mining family in Appalachia need not vote any differently from the descendants of Norwegian immigrants in Minnesota, so what is causing Ukraine’s trouble? The answer: In Ukraine, the past is an unquiet grave. The present is inhabited by three ghosts.

The first is Soviet terror, episodically directed against Ukrainian language, culture, nationalism, and faith and realized most abominably in the Great Famine, by means of which Stalin collectivized the peasantry. Ukraine being the breadbasket, Stalin hit hardest there. In his careful and possibly understated tally, Robert Conquest proposed that, between 1932 and 1933, five million Ukrainians were murdered. This “constitute[d] 18.8% of the total population.” (Judah asserts 3.3 million died. Pinkham mentions only “mass starvation and violence.”) Then came other kindly measures. In a history of the KGB, we read that the Greek Uniate Church of Ukraine (now the Ukrainian Catholic Church) “became the world’s largest illegal church. All but two of its ten bishops, along with many thousands of priests and believers, died for their faith in the Siberian gulag.” Meanwhile came repeated attempts to “Russify” the language. When Pinkham first began visiting the region, long after the collapse of the USSR, she found that “even speaking good Russian with a Ukrainian accent marked a person as provincial in Moscow or St. Petersburg.” No wonder that in May 2015 Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, signed legislation prohibiting any denial either of “the criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1971–91 in Ukraine” or of “the legitimacy” (Judah’s paraphrase) of “the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century.”

Unfortunately for “legitimacy,” the second ghost is complicity in Nazi terror. In her classic account of the Holocaust, The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945, Lucy S. Dawidowicz writes, “The Baltic and Ukrainian populations collaborated voluntarily with the Germans in murdering the Jews . . . in the Ukraine about 60 percent of the Jews were annihilated.” Here is one specific example, drawn from the Nuremberg affidavit of Hermann Graebe, describing the liquidation of five thousand Jews in Dubno: “Armed Ukrainian militia drove the people off the trucks under the supervision of an S.S. man.” Pinkham remarks, “We had already learned that in Ukraine the word balka, which literally means ‘ravine’ or ‘gully,’ functioned as an effective synonym for ‘place where Jews were killed.’”

Anti-government protester, Kiev, 2014. Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr, Maksymenko Oleksandr ©
Anti-government protester, Kiev, 2014. Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr, Maksymenko Oleksandr ©

The third ghost is the child of the first and second. Call it a history of rewriting history. Judah makes this vividly clear in his account of the museum created from the Lonskoho Street jail in Lviv. He believes the display captions to indicate (he doesn’t quote them, so we have to trust him) that “this was a jail where the three totalitarian regimes—the Poles, the Nazis and the Soviets—imprisoned heroic Ukrainian nationalists . . . The Polish state is almost, but not quite, equated with the Nazis and the USSR.” The jail has become “above all a shrine to the UPA,” which was “the armed wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), [an ultranationalist] political party.” He notes, and Pinkham concurs, that “the UPA was a brutal organization, infused with anti-Semitism and hatred of Poles, though of course there were also instances of people saved by the UPA,” which “wanted to create a Ukrainian state for Ukrainians and was a product of its time.” It did not fade quietly. Pinkham writes, “After 1991, OUN and UPA became tragic heroes of the new Ukrainian history.” In 2007, two of their dead eminences were named “Heroes of Ukraine.” Pinkham writes of her visit to a “Ukrainian nationalist theme bar in the cellar of a Habsburg building that was once the Venetian embassy.” Here the toasts consisted of old OUN and UPA slogans. The patrons were often “Russian tourists looking for a thrill.” The bar’s “chief function was to confirm that you were safe; Russia had killed off the real Ukrainian guerrillas long ago.” Well, what if they weren’t all killed off?

The historian Tarik Cyril Amar has worried about the “suppression of the experiences of” Poles and Jews, “where remembering them would disturb the glorification of Ukrainian nationalism or implicate ethnic Ukrainians in morally reprehensible behavior.” Judah notes that since 2010 the government has been “putting the brakes on” such propaganda; and after reading in Pinkham that “the new Ukraine adopted an old blue and yellow flag” rather than the UPA’s red and black, which reflect Nazi ideals of blood and soil, one might imagine that the UPA is innocuously dead. But its red and black, reborn in the banners of the ultranationalist Right Sector, must surely remind Russians and pro-Russia Ukrainians of the Fascism that killed so many millions. Hence, perhaps, the slogan of one eastern separatist who hopes to “save a multinational sovereign state”—in other words, Russia—“and stand against nationalistic ideas.” He, a Ukrainian citizen, calls Putin “our president.” He tells Judah, “We have to destroy the idea of Ukrainian identity . . . the easiest and shortest way to do that is by war and repression.” Meanwhile, a woman in Kiev tells Pinkham, “I am supporting the idea of exterminating separatists.”

Other easterners turn toward Putin for more pragmatic reasons. Their Soviet-era pensions went away. Russophones were offended by the 1989 law requiring Ukrainian to be the national language. Pinkham writes, “They felt, not without reason, that they were being pushed out of the new Ukraine . . . Occasionally, I’d encounter a nationalist zealot who would refuse even to listen to Russian.” And once the shooting started, the separatists began to say, as would anyone in their shoes, “We want independence. How can we live with them if they are killing people?”

For vivid and mostly sympathetic images of the “blue and yellow” Ukraine, with its embroidered blouses, mushroom pickers, outsider artists, pre-annexation Crimean nudists, and “ethno-nationalist kitsch, with a strange dose of hippie contemporaneity,” Pinkham is the one to read. She is intimate, sincere, and unpretentious—the perfect cultural commentator. She frequently considers the how and why of what she sees; the following musing is typical: “It was ironic that Ukraine employed . . . Soviet-approved folklore as a signifier of its post-Soviet identity.”

Judah has also traveled well and listened much. While Pinkham most often interviews friends and friends of friends, he for his part seeks out mayors, activists, curators, apparatchiks. More effective than Pinkham in delineating structural context, he builds up a plausible composite portrait of a Ukraine ideologically bifurcated yet still sadly homogeneous in its poverty, isolation, and insecurity. Unfortunately, we can hardly double-check his picture, for he serves up his interviews in watery stews: an original word or two, once in a while a verbatim phrase, and all the rest summarized by him. Why on earth an experienced journalist would do this is beyond me, unless he is so accustomed to writing brief columns that he cannot see how to put book space to use. Perhaps his publishers asked him to make a “product” lightweight enough for our postmodern minds. At any rate, we get little sense of what any interviewee actually said.

Consider for instance the opening scene in the press office of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. Judah includes a photograph he took of a poster of a giant Putin calmly preparing to paddle an openmouthed Obama. I say “calmly” because Putin’s face looks to me serene; his hand is upraised almost like a Buddha’s, and he does not appear out of breath. His interviewee at the press office is its chief, a certain Ekaterina Mihaylova, who, in what must have been a very interesting speech, seeks to rehabilitate Stalin: “Stalin has a ‘bad image in the West’ but he was ‘good for us.’” What was that truncated from? Above all, we would wish to hear her explication of the Great Famine. But this has been diluted into uselessness: “Yes, some had died, but to argue that Stalin had deployed” the famine “as a weapon against Ukrainians was a ‘fairy tale.’ Russians had died too.” In this longish ascription the only direct quote is the phrase “fairy tale.” Judah continues: “The tone of the conversation suggested [that] . . . Stalin was a great man and the death of millions was a minor detail which should not sully the big picture.” To what extent is Judah putting words in her mouth? We will never know. This is so ubiquitous a fault in his book as to nearly extinguish what could have been a deep and diverse compilation of voices.

Pinkham excels in letting people speak for themselves. She also describes them well, so that we almost feel as if we have met her nudist friends in Crimea, her tubercular, HIV-positive acquaintance Sveta, who is too thin for the smallest pair of underpants, and Zakhar the artist, who has lined a stolen Dumpster with blue tiles. But her political analysis can be diffuse. Moreover, her “note on sources” is less detailed than it might be. When she relates the ordeal of the student Natalia Yurchyshyn in separatist-held Sloviansk, Pinkham, who was not there, recounts conversations verbatim. Was she quoting an account by Yurchyshyn or exercising artistic license? How are we to know?

Black Square and In Wartime both deserve attention. When they touch on common topics, such as the UPA, they verify each other, which is a relief. Although they tilt somewhat against the separatists (Pinkham widens the lens to relate what is being said about them in Russia), both books try to present their motives fairly. Judah gets further into Polish relations and the Austro-Hungarian period; Pinkham makes the present more vivid. Neither one adequately recapitulates the Orange Revolution. Judah touches on the Maidan Revolution. Pinkham’s account of Maidan is thoughtful, if mostly secondhand. Having visited that nationalist theme bar whose toasts were old UPA slogans, she grows “uneasy” to hear the same words shouted by two hundred thousand people. Since at this point in the book we have some sense of her associates—free spirits, artists, leftists, sex workers, gays, Romas, addicts—it means something when she says, “I was surprised at how many of my friends and acquaintances defended” the nationalists. One “Russian-speaking lesbian feminist activist, the last person you’d expect to make excuses” for them, tells her, “Even though they’re homophobes and fascists and racists and often very unpleasant in their values,” they “did some good work and impressed a lot of people.” (I’ve heard similar praises of our Mr. Trump.)

To finish the comparison: Judah gives a very helpful overview of Ukraine’s systemic economic difficulties. Of the two writers, he is more interested in structures and world pictures. He often succeeds in making his abstractions vivid, as when he repeats a pre-Crimea characterization of Putin as “like a dog with its teeth clamped into a man’s neck.” “A year later,” he remarks, “it seemed rather that the dog had its teeth clamped onto Ukraine’s leg. Ukraine could not shake its bleeding leg free,” while “the dog, unable to do more harm, still would not let go.”

Pinkham is a do-gooder of the best sort; she has worked with AIDS-infected addicts in Ukraine and Siberia, so my heart goes out to her. The most moving passages of Black Square were written from a deeply caring perspective. As for Judah, he is brave, thoughtful, self-effacing, and effective. I feel grateful to both writers for the risks they took to introduce us to Ukraine’s situation.

William T. Vollmann is a novelist, journalist, essayist, and war correspondent.