"From one of the finest journalists of our time comes a definitive, boots-on-the-ground dispatch from the front lines of the conflict in Ukraine. Ever since Ukraine's violent 2014 revolution, followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea, the country has been at war. Misinformation reigns, more than two million people have been displaced, and Ukrainians fight one another on a second front--the crucial war against corruption. With In Wartime, Tim Judah lays bare the events that have turned neighbors against one another and mired Europe's second-largest country in a conflict seemingly without end. In Lviv, Ukraine's western cultural capital, mothers tend the graves of sons killed on the other side of the country. On the Maidan, the square where the protests that deposed President Yanukovych began, pamphleteers, recruiters, buskers, and mascots compete for attention. In Donetsk, civilians who cheered Russia's President Putin find their hopes crushed as they realize they have been trapped in the twilight zone of a frozen conflict. Judah talks to everyone from politicians to poets, pensioners, and historians. Listening to their clashing explanations, he interweaves their stories to create a sweeping, tragic portrait of a country fighting a war of independence from Russia--twenty-five years after the collapse of the USSR"--
First, the few minor negatives that I ran across. Since I had an advanced copy of the book, there were some spelling/grammar issues that I think will be corrected before the final publication is out, but at times such issues made for having to reread sentences and even paragraphs as some of the arguments presented and events described became convoluted and the errors/writing style made it harder to figure out what was actually happening. Secondly, and more importantly, since Judah isn't a historian - and although this is not a history book - yet attempts to tackle historical issues/topics, he does not always do a satisfactory enough job in presenting them (conversely, he has unearthed some interesting material and has led me to ordering a few books to continue my own research). I'll only utilize two minor examples. When discussing the referendum in Donetsk and Lugansk he compares the event to the Soviet "acceptance" of Western Ukraine and Belorussia after the dismemberment of Poland following the non-aggression pact. The comparison is fair but omits the precedent the Soviets were working from, that is, the German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. Similarly, when discussing the annexation of Crimea and the referendum that took place there, the author ignores the more recent precedent of what happened in Kosovo, which Russia had a large interest in and whose concerns were ignored when Kosovo was granted independence. Obviously none of this is an excuse or justification for Russian/Soviet actions, simply that the author is presenting historical events with limited context which places all the onus on the Soviet Union/Russia and misses important precedents. Finally, the author is not fluent in either Russian or Ukrainian, thus he used translators and there's the possibility that some nuances or context might be missing, but that's an issue that doesn't come across the pages of this book, at least nothing jumped out at me, but it's simply something to keep in mind.
What the author does well is discuss the numerous shades of grey that exist in this conflict. That includes the propaganda campaigns from both sides that recycle Soviet/Nazi rhetoric and propaganda while justifying their own actions. However, Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state seeking a history to grasp onto but unfortunately the historical heroes and events many right-wing groups, including some in government positions, have grasped onto ignore the other rich historical legacies that exist throughout Ukraine. Thus the selective memory of OUN and UPA actions against Ukraine's enemies have come to represent a heroic Ukrainian narrative that ignores the genocide of Ukraine's Jewish population, some of whom died at the hands of the same OUN and UPA heroes that are honored today. These decisions, of whom to honor and what events to ignore, have added fuel to the propaganda fires that have been emanating from Russia and the rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine. A grain of truth is all that is needed to paint entire groups as "fascists" and "puppets of the West." While some believe the propaganda campaigns the vast majority of Ukrainians want peace and an end to the corruption that they have been witness to at every level of society. They want to live their lives in peace, raise their children and work jobs that pay relatively stable and meaningful salaries, something that has eluded most Ukrainians for the past two decades and has become even harder to come across in a Ukraine that now has to wage war on its eastern frontier. The majority of the stories presented from interviews are interesting and give minor insights into everyday life throughout various regions of Ukraine (Galicia, Bessarabia, and the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk). Each region has its own distinct history, interests, cultural legacies and impressions of the Maidan revolution and the ensuing war in the east. There is no single, coherent narrative that all of Ukraine can get behind and support, something Ukraine's government has been unable to create, while Russia has taken every opportunity to emphasize its own propaganda efforts to discredit Ukraine's current regime. Thus, Ukrainians continue to struggle to understand their place in Europe and their relationship to Russia while waging war in their backyard.
Though it’s clear Judah is coming from a pro-western/pro-Ukraine/anti-Putin pov he lets his subjects voice their own opinions and speak their own truth.
This is excellent, if ultimately disquieting, reporting. Though a reader need not be incredibly well-versed in either past or contemporary Ukrainian history I would advise he or she at least a passing awareness of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Judah will lay it out for you but it’ll be a lot less confusing if you do a little homework first.
In this book, Tim Judah, a reporter for The Economist, presents a series of stories from across the Ukraine, a land that sits both physically and politically, at the center of the difference in world views represented on one side by the West and the European Union and the other side by Russia and her partners. Judah has organized his account geographically, traveling through difference areas of the Ukraine and speaking to a broad cross section of its people. Government officials, freedom fighters, students, day laborers, grandmas and more are all heard from, each shedding a little light on the complexity of politics within the Ukraine.
One thing that quickly becomes clear in the reading is just how incredibly complicated the Ukraine is. This is true linguistically, ethnically, geographically…just about any way you want to look at it. In the 20th century it was ruled by the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Soviets again, and then gained a sort of independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. Each of those governments acted in ways that precipitated and exacerbate the situation today. Factor in the ethnic displacement of the 20th century and you are left with a place that is ripe to believe nearly any rumor and to trust no one person. The ability of the internet to spread information, or disinformation as the case may be, only complicates the desire of the average person to be able to live in peace.
One other thing I gained from this book was a sense of the level of complexity in certain other areas of the world, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The names of peoples and places may be different but the nearly intractable sense of the strife is the same. I really enjoyed this book and the way it opened my eyes to the very real way that geopolitical conflict is played out in the lives of ordinary people. May real and lasting peace one day come to the people of the Ukraine.
As others have noted, there isn’t a great deal of background about the Maidan Revolution itself, even though it is referenced constantly throughout the book, nor much history before the 20th century that would give a reader a broader understanding and context of current events. I also agree with those who think the writing style is a bit erratic and can be difficult to follow, but I appreciated the opportunity to increase my knowledge of Ukraine. I worked with a Ukrainian exchange student last year. I wish I had been able to read this book before my conversations with that wonderful student. I can only hope and pray for a better future for her than what much of Judah’s reporting portends.
First, there needed to be more framework. Throughout the book the situations are placed against the background of the Maidan Revolution of 2014 and Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine, as if that country’s recent history is extremely well-known. However, one of the points of this whole thing is that it is not. Unfortunately, Judah doesn’t really provide more than a couple sentences about the lead-up to and the events of the revolution. So, the reader is forced to fill in contextual background far more than is ideal in this kind of book.
Second, it’s a little dry at times. Regular recitations of, “and the number of ethnic Ukrainians in such-and-such year was 5000, and the number of ethnic Russians was 6000, and the number of Poles…,” don’t make for fascinating reading…at least, to me. I would rather this time had been spent defining and supporting his conclusions, which remain slightly murky. I was particularly left wanting by the lack of analysis on how the rest of the world is reacting—if they are—to this.
Lastly, I simply found his prose difficult to read. He has a penchant for the quasi-run-on sentence and an uncertain grasp of comma usage. I found myself re-reading sentences several times to get their sense, particularly at the beginning before I became used to his style.
Balancing all of this is the fact that I don’t know a lot about modern Ukrainian history and, from what I can see, it’s something that we should all know about. What’s going on is not entirely dissimilar to pre-World War II or the Balkan conflicts at the end of the last century and shouldn’t be swept into a back page of a newspaper somewhere.
In summary, it’s okay but I would really like something that had more depth and polish on this subject.
Tim Judah presents an immense amount of work, including interviews with everyday people as well as important local leaders, historical research, and photos, to try to dissect the state of Ukraine today. He takes an extremely confusing subject and renders it less opaque and chaotic by good writing and good journalism. He draws on his own experience reporting on the Balkans in peace and in wartime.
In a way, Ukraine is simple, as is Turkey, and countless other countries that are divided simply by their east/west history/alliance/economy. The east poorer, less developed, less western and western-educated. The west is richer, more western, more developed. Sound familiar? While the people in the west cannot fathom why anyone would not want to prosper, be more like the west, people in the east see economic and ethnic ties with their eastern brother, Russia, as the thing that will save them from themselves.
Judah sets the two themes of the book from the very beginning: corruption and info-wars. These two larger issues play pivotal roles in not only the bigger picture of where Ukraine is today, but also the tiny, seemingly insignificant stories of every person Judah speaks with during his travels. There is always corruption, and there is always the past being re-written by someone somewhere with the purpose of owning the present and controlling the future. That people who have lost many in their own families to the famine Stalin engineered to be able to think that I am full of shit when I say Stalin engineered it because I was brainwashed by the anti-Russian, pro-western propaganda... itself shows how impossible some of these impasses are. Who is to say who is right or wrong, which journalist is unbiased, which authority (nation, president, mayor, military) is free of ulterior motives? Who's playing on which side? If it is so easy to just say "America is behind it" or "Russia is behind it," then how can the way people think be changed? Beyond that, if people were there, saw it with their own eyes, heard it from their family members who were there, and STILL manage to believe otherwise, what in the world can make them believe otherwise?
Judah chronicles these hopeless impasses and along the way visits honey smuggling, border roads that exist in a country different than the surrounding village, illegal mining, Chernobyl, and much more. In the end, the picture that emerges is similar to that of other large, multi-ethnic, developing (i.e., not so rich) countries in the world: unity is difficult, especially if there is an old tradition of corruption and many outside forces impinging on the country for various reasons. It seems that educating the masses so they do not answer two questions on a voting ballot with opposing answers, for example, should be the way out of such situations, but with corruption and the (mis)information-wars at play in each step of the way, this task seems impossible to achieve. Swaying the masses, dividing them and getting them to forget the past(s) and having them remember a different version, on the other hand, seems equally easy to do.
Highly recommended to Ukrainians of any sort, to people who like apples and honey, and to history lovers.
Thanks to LibraryThing and the published for a free ARC of this book for my honest review. It was incredibly informative and eye-opening.
This was a hard book to start, as there was a lot of information to absorb from the beginning. But once I grasped all of the historical and political connections that the author was attempting to make, it was hard to put down. The history of Ukraine, along with a good cross section of people quoted gave me a new understanding of why the Ukraine is where it is today. To be honest, my understanding of the current war was based on my scant knowledge of the historical connection between Russia (USSR) and Ukraine, but after reading Wartime Stories, I was able to realize that Russia's actions are not as one-dimensional as I had first believed (although still frightening on many levels). I urge anyone interested in the history of the region (both culturally and politically), as well as those wishing to attain a better understanding of the current situation, to read this informative collection of both facts, and opinions. I am certainly glad that I did. Another great job by Tim Judah.
I was happy to find In Wartime - Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah being announced. The author visited cities, local officials, musea and spoke to numerous people in the eras that Poles, Russians, Germans ruled this region. He finds sympathy for Vladimir Putin in unexpected places, almost vanished Jewish communities, ties with Georgia, and similarities with the Balkan War. What is Ukraine actually? What do flags stand for? Does one feel Russian, Pole, Jew, Ukrainian? What does language mean? Judah travels to Lviv, Odessa, passes the border with Crimea and still finds its infrastructure integrated with the rest of Ukraine. The book covers topics like bureaucracy, mining industry, the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and fascism, forced relocations of people and the daily struggle to survive.
Ukrainian history has come a bit closer to the foreground of American awareness due to recent events including the breakup of the Soviet Union, the ouster of President Yanukovych and the Maidan protests, and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. For those of us following these stories, the news is intermittent and somewhat shallow. It flares up when the violence deepens, such as the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight, but details of what life is like there remain scarce.
Fortunately for those of us interested in Ukraine specifically or foreign affairs beyond the Middle East, Tim Judah has immersed himself in the complex history of Ukraine and its relation to Russia. He integrates that knowledge with the experiences of a diverse group of individuals. He spoke with people across the country from east to west ranging from pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk to the finance minister of Ukraine, an American woman who left Chicago to assume this responsibility.
Ukraine’s history is even more complicated than the history of the Balkans, and that’s saying something. Both of these eastern European regions have been torn apart by recent war and genocide. The Balkans, however, have a history that is relatively more transparent. Ukraine’s terrible burden is the role it played in some of World War II’s worst genocide. Not all Ukrainians joined with the Nazis, but many did, enough for the country to be more forthright about its role in postwar years. Not doing so has given Putin ammunition to cry “Fascist” at those who supported the Maidan protests and who fight today to contain Russia’s breach.
Much of the rhetoric in Russia attacking Ukraine uses this same coded language which many Americans do not understand. Fascist is used to label those who lean west or pro-European Union. Russians who bask in the glory of their role in World War II immediately see themselves as occupying the moral high ground when this term is used. The fascist West represents moral decline, and you have only to see Russian’s move to criminalize gays to see the Russian terms of morality. Yes, there are some in western Ukraine who, sadly, are fascist or ultra right, but they remain the minority and exist in similar or higher numbers in other countries. Clumping all Ukrainians and westerners into this pot of Fascism simplifies the bad guys-good guys for Russians who applaud the strong leadership of Putin.
One of the eye openers in Judah’s reportage is the extent to which people yearn for a strong leader and some even become nostalgic remembering Stalin. This is truly amazing when you consider that Stalin was responsible for his own genocide of Ukrainians and others. The Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine, led to the estimated deaths of 7-10 million. If Ukraine needs to atone for its role in the concentration camps and genocide of World War II, Russia needs to do the same with Holodomor.
To read Judah’s multi-layered book is to go deep into the psyche of people frustrated by their inability to achieve economic prosperity despite a land rich in resources. The geographic proximity to the European Union is both hopeful and bitter; it is to both be so close, and yet so far from those values which western Ukraine, at least, yearns for.
One thing is clear, though. Ukraine’s independence, both economic and political, rests on its ability to shed the decades of corruption which have seeped into all aspects of daily life. Were Ukraine to abandon its move toward western values, it would stand no chance at all of doing so.
Putin tries to gloss over Ukrainian history and culture and say that being Russian and Ukrainian are essentially one and the same. Ukraine, especially the eastern region of Donetsk and parts of the south, such as Crimea, is a melting pot of ethnicities as people from all bordering lands came to work in mines, shipping, and other industries. But that rich diversity does not dilute the identity of those who hold allegiance to an independent Ukraine, one which seeks to bond closer to the values and economy of its allies to its west.
One cannot help but feel for the people of Ukraine who have lost much in these last several years just as they were hopeful they were about to gain so much. Judah has done an amazing job of keeping his eye focused on the people of Ukraine, allowing them to tell their own stories, and doing so with the understanding that comes with knowledge of historical facts. My father would be happy to know the sad history of his country has found such an effective voice.
The pros of this book are simple, but that doesn't make them unimportant. For starters, it sheds light on a confusing and ongoing battle in the Ukraine that has received very little press after the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This is done in a journalistic style that is, in my opinion, necessary to the topic at this point in time. There is very little in the way of personalizing, emotionalizing, or otherwise attempting to sway the audience. It's straight facts, as they are perceived/ interpreted by the author and the people whom he interviewed. For that reason, I'd say that this piece would make an excellent resource for someone studying the area. Political climate aside, it also gives insight into the economic situation of the country, and not just the overall wealth or lack there of as it pertains to the country as a whole. The reader also gets an idea of what it's like for the people actually living there and how they get by on a day to day basis. Finally, it was quite interesting to learn how the people of the Ukraine see themselves: some as Ukranians, some as Russians, and some as something else entirely.
There are a few cons to this book though. Because of the nature of the subject matter, the book itself is a little confusing. It's nice that he stays in the same towns, for the most part, in each section, but the jumbled nature of the war (?), conflict (?), predicament (?), whatever moniker you'd like to give it leads each chapter and section to be a little disorderly. I'm not sure if this is because the people he interviewed in each section weren't all on the same side, despite not necessarily taking part in the fighting, but regardless it made things a little difficult to follow at times. Additionally, and this is just a personal pet peeve, it really bothered me when names were split between lines, and I don't mean first name on one and surname on another. I understand that Eastern European names are long, at times, and can be difficult for people who aren't familiar with the language, but that's all the more reason not to hyphenate a name and split it between two lines.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend this as reference material, both for people studying the area and for people planning a trip to the country.
(Note: I received this book from the publisher via a LibraryThing Early Reviewer.)
“Why defend this country? We are not waiting for Russia, we are waiting for changes for the better.”
Judah’s travels begin in the west of the country, centred on Lviv, telling the heartbreaking tale of Poles, Nazis and Russians who’ve been conducting a tug-of-war back and forth over this region, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Moving to the south, Judah treats us to an almost surreal sidetrip to Bessarabia, part of Romania – for now – but a region of half a million people that has been governed variously by Russians, Romanians, Moldovans and Ukrainians in the past 150 years. This, in a region where over 20% of the population describe themselves as Bulgarian, and Russian is the lingua franca. Untangling this is a geopolitical challenge for our times, and hardly unique to Ukraine, but as Judah says: “these are small places, but Ukraine is now faced with a war based on maps and history”.
As for the “tinderbox” conditions in the east, Donetsk, Lugansk and its surrounding industrialized belt, Judah methodically examines the pretext for Russian intervention. His interview with the pro-Russian extremist, Sergei Baryshnikov, is particularly chilling.
Judah’s fascinating travelogue is greatly enriched by the brave souls willing to express themselves on the record. He describes a population confused and torn by what is going on, afraid to speak the truth about how they feel, about the creeping paranoia instilled by their own leaders and by the shadowy – but firm – hand of the Russian state. Judah deploys a fascinating analogy to paint an unflattering portrait of the stalemate of war:
“…given the way Putin had begun fighting for the Ukraine – and this was before Crimea was stripped from Ukraine and a single shot fired in the east – he seemed “like a dog with its teeth clamped into a man’s neck.” A year later it seemed rather that the dog had its teeth clamped onto Ukraine’s leg. Ukraine could not shake its bleeding leg free, but the dog, unable to do more harm, still would not let go.”
Fascinating not simply because of its in-depth analysis of a region seemingly on the brink of totalitarianism, but also because it describes a dynamic felt in many global hotspots. Are we witnessing the retrenchment of democratic ideals? This thought-provoking book gives us some clues. Not only does this exceptional book delve deep into the unique conditions in Ukraine, it hints at a blueprint for a greater Russian sphere of influence. I hope this book is digested in the capitals of the Baltic States and the former Soviet possessions in central Asia, as well as in London, Washington and Paris.
Disclosure: I received an advanced review copy of this work in return for an impartial and comprehensive review.