Through conversations with the people he meets in Ukraine, Tim Judah provides a unique picture of what is happening on the ground in wartime.
Crisscrossing the country, he explores the impact of the ongoing conflict, with a focus on the lives of the majority of people, who are caught between westward-leaning nationalists and Russian-backed rebel forces. The book is not a blow-by-blow account of events that led to the 2014 Maidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea or the resulting war. Instead, Judah provides a unique and highly important “impression of what Ukraine feels like, now, in wartime.”
A veteran war correspondent, Judah has reported on the war in Ukraine for the New York Review of Books and the Economist, where he is the Balkans correspondent. Thanks to knowledge of that region, he is able to provide illuminating points of comparison between the war in Ukraine and the Yugoslav wars. He has also covered conflicts in Romania, Iraq, Afghanistan and Uganda.
Without the “weaponising” of history, the conflict in Ukraine could not be fought. Judah analyses how past events are emphasised or glossed over in today’s Ukraine. In much of the west and centre of Ukaine, statues of Lenin have gone. In the west, too, memorials have been built to honour the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA, of Stepan Bandera. More than 3.3 million people starved to death during the Great Famine of 1932-3, which was engineered by Stalin, but its memory is contested. The place historical events take in Ukrainian consciousness depends on who is in power. Those who glorify the Soviet past in Ukraine ignore its dark episodes and vice versa. Ukrainian nationalists exalt those who fought the Soviets but brush over the fact that they often collaborated with the Nazis, and committed atrocities against Poles and Jews.
Anti-Semitism and pogroms are a recurring theme wherever Judah goes. As the great-great-granddaughter of a rabbi who was murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom, I found these parts difficult to read. Anti-Semitism was the main reason my family left Kiev, where I was born, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. When Judah writes that Jews in the West have been brought up on tales of how “the Ukrainians were the worst”, I sadly know what he means. In one chapter, “The Shtreimel of Lviv”, he recounts that despite the city’s effort to present positive stories of Jewish life in Ukraine, the gruesome shadow of the past remains.
For this book, Judah speaks with an impressive range of people on the ground from all sides of the conflict: pensioners, businessmen, the keeper of a wildlife reserve, officials, such as the new minister of finance, families who live in bomb shelters, Ukrainian nationalists, young and old, separatists who yearn for a new Soviet-style regime, teachers and poets. “Everywhere in Ukraine ordinary people want to tell you what they think, in large part probably because they believe their own leaders don’t listen or care about them,” he writes.
One of the great flaws of the modern Ukrainian state is, according to Judah, that “it has never been able to create an all-encompassing post-Soviet narrative.” It has no “common soundtrack of history, which for Britain for example includes Churchill telling Britons they would fight on the beaches and in the hills, or de Gaulle telling the French they had lost a battle but not the war,” he writes. Instead, the conflict in Ukraine has brought two sinister figures to the fore, Bandera and Stalin.
For an outsider, it may be hard to understand how Stalin, who was responsible for the death of millions, has become the object of quasi-mystical admiration. But, as Judah explains, it is important to understand that “if people think that Stalin made the world tremble and that everything has gone to hell in a handcart since the end of the Soviet Union, then, with such a black and white view of history, for them restoring him to greatness makes sense.”
Only this January, a new cultural centre dedicated to Stalin has been opened in Russia and Soviet-style realist art is gaining popularity.
In eastern Ukraine, Judah speaks with a man who campaigns against corruption and illegal mining, which began to grow in the 1990s. In southern Ukraine, he travels to Bessarabia, the “appendix” that curls out of Odessa beneath Moldova. There he untangles the various ethnic affiliations of its inhabitants. He jots down the succession of those who have ruled this land over the past two decades, and observes, how “along some of the canals people teeter on narrow boardwalks and tiny rickety wooden bridges as they go about their business”.
Not only do both sides try to control traditional media; social media is a battlefield too. There, “Russian authorities contract firms to employ people to ‘comment’ and spread, among other things, the central line of Russian propaganda, which is that the Ukrainian government, after the Maidan revolution, is nothing but Nazism reincarnated.” Media scholars call this development the mediatisation of war. Some have argued that this has accelerated over the past 50 years and has established the media as the fourth branch of military operations, just as essential as the army, navy, and air force. Stig Hjarvard described mediatisation as “the process whereby society to an increasing degree is submitted to, or becomes dependent on, the media and their logic”.
Lies and conspiracies thrive in digital spaces as well as national news channels. Judah’s book provides a vital antidote in a house of distorting mirrors.