On April 12, 2014, the day the war began, journalist Tim Judah was in Donetsk, Ukraine, interviewing Vladimir Vygonnyi, a “wiry seventy-something … wearing a khaki uniform including a military-style cap and badge.” An ecologist, Vygonnyi, also an activist, was fighting against “coal launderers” who, he claimed, were mining illegally, stealing money and polluting the air.
He echoed what many of Judah’s interviewees reveal throughout the book: Ukraine was so rife with corruption it was going to the dogs.
From the beautiful Lviv in the western region near Poland to the far-flung southeastern towns in Bessarabia to the Donbass region that borders Russia in the east, for so many people, the war — which began in the wake of the Maiden Revolution — seemed almost secondary to the fact that their lives were getting worse. All in a country that was hardly poor.
And yet due to a host of factors that Judah unearths — including the problematic “weaponizing” of modern Ukrainian history, for which there exists no “all-encompassing post-Soviet narrative,” and Russia’s flexing of its political muscle (think: the annexation of Crimea) — eastern Ukraine was deep in an armed conflict over its borders for the unforeseeable future.
It was essentially in a civil war, which was only randomly visible to the rest of the world.
Judah, a reporter for the Economist, writes in taut, informative language, peppered with grim commentary, which is indeed justified, for there isn’t much by way of good news here. Organized primarily by theme and geographical region, the book also includes photographs depicting the absurd (“chocolate Putins”), the tragicomic (“a rebel in a Shrek mask at the stump of the Savur-Moglia monument”) and often the tragic itself.
The second picture in the book is heartbreaking, deeply haunting: a Ukrainian soldier, killed by a rebel or Russian missile in August 2014, hangs from power cables in Novokaterinivka, a village in the east.
If, as Judah writes in the introduction, his aim was to give an “impression of what Ukraine feels like, now, in wartime,” he succeeds, largely due to the dozens of interviews he conducts with those whom recent Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich calls the “little people” — the old women left behind in thinly populated villages across the country, a young mother in rebel-held Sloviansk, the girls dreaming of vacations in Odessa.
Collectively, their voices resonate with the reader, instilling a lasting impression of a nation at once divided in loyalties and in the throes of a war — a real and somewhat bizarre one — a quarter-century after independence from the Soviet Union.
Angela Ajayi is a Nigerian-Ukrainian writer living in Minneapolis.
By: Tim Judah.
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books, 257 pages, $27.