Generation War is a three-part miniseries that unfolds over the course of five years, 1941 to 1945. It follows five German friends: a Jewish tailor, an aspiring actress, a nurse, and two Wehrmacht soldiers who are also brothers. It is a sentimental portrait of World War II, but also unsparing—everyone is punished for experiencing the war, and the more awful the choices the characters make, the more awful their fates.
The series came out in 2013, and many reviewers were careful to describe the ways in which Generation War was problematic. It generalizes and oversimplifies—in some ways, it does so in ways that border on trivialization. It makes extraordinary coincidences seem commonplace. People survive, albeit changed. The Poles are anti-Semites, and the Ukrainians are so brutal it makes the Nazis look merciful by comparison. Russians are enemies, rapists, and (ultimately) judge, jury, and executioners for the Germans who survive the war.
The series is, in short, a German story. The title, in German, loosely translated, reads “Our Fathers, Our Mothers.” While subtitled in different languages, the series is not targeting anyone else’s experience of World War II: it’s claiming to present a vision of the war as seen through the eyes of children and grandchildren. From this perspective, as a series, Generation War is successful—regardless of what occurred to people during World War II, this story is not for them—it’s not a story for Poles, or Ukrainians. In a certain sense, it’s not a story about The Holocaust, either, although that tragedy affected many German citizens.
Zinky Boys is a non-fiction collection of vignettes about the Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Drawn from interviews and conversations with wounded veterans, widows, traumatized survivors and (most terribly) mothers of dead soldiers, Zinky Boys is the translation of a Russian term for the people brought back in sealed zinc coffins during the fighting: tsynkovay grobyi. It is reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a similarly-conceived non-fiction project set in America’s intervention in Vietnam’s civil war. Zinky Boys offers damning testimony as to the criminally negligent conduct of the war, if not the foolishness of war itself—this testimony seems to have paralleled a push in the media to discredit the war. Many former citizens of the USSR still conflate media attacks on the military and the politicians responsible for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan with the fall of the USSR. Zinky Boys has taken on a symbolic meaning that extends beyond the stories within. One could say that it’s a Soviet story about the collapse of the USSR, similar to how Generation War is a story told from the perspective of German children or grandchildren .
Different Perspectives on Similar Events
National storytelling is an important component of the modern nation-state. Growing up, I was taught to view these stories as essentially negative—manipulative, failed attempts to forge unity from a more sophisticated and complex world. These stories were supposed to be fundamentally untrue on a certain level. Deceptive, kitsch, bad art.
Watching Generation War in Ukraine, with a Ukrainian whose family had experienced World War II, I was aware of three perspectives—firstly, that of the series’ creators, who were making Generation War as a sentimental and national account of World War II from the German perspective. Secondly, that of the Ukrainian, who saw and noticed things of which I was unaware, and the series creators were also likely unaware. Thirdly, there was my own perspective, that of a German-American whose grandfathers both fought in the war (against Germany) for America. The overall effect of this was a paradoxical simultaneous appreciation for how the modern, ethnic nation-state has developed, as well as a clear understanding that these rigid definitions will always be vulnerable to change and evolution.
While WWII kitsch started almost as soon as the war ended, with movies like The Best Years of Our Lives offering redemptive and positive views for the future, in modern terms, the film and tv series that began the retrospective urge to understand were undoubtedly Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, both of which influenced Generation War. I think it’s fair to call Band of Brothers a type of series, now—a kind of story that a nation tells itself after the fighting is over to understand what happened. Band of Brothers was not the first miniseries of its kind, nor was it the last—it was non-fiction, and portrayed events (presumably as they happened) from history. Generation Kill, following a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is influenced by Band of Brothers (which was very kind to the Germans, and in fact allowed the Germans to determine its ethical heart, extraordinarily) as was another, less successful WWII series following the Marine Corps (Pacific).
Not every country focuses its attention on World War II as much as the USA—Russia, of course, focuses on one part of World War II, “The Great Patriotic War,” or everything that happened after Nazi Germany mounted an attack on them, and not including the two years they were allies of Nazi Germany. The USA and Russia are similar in the sense that World War II (or “The Great Patriotic War”) were experiences which no matter how traumatic during the fighting, became great stories of unification: the soil in which the seeds of national unity could be grown, profitably so. World War II was a sort of Bildungsroman for both the USA and the USSR as global powers.
Italy, Japan and Germany’s movies, series, and art about World War II are decidedly less positive and more circumspect. Not surprisingly, Jewish accounts of World War II focus far more on The Holocaust than any other aspect. And other countries pay far less attention to the event at all—for a variety of reasons, some of which are certainly economic, but also largely because WWII wasn’t formative for them in the same way it was for the USA (or the USSR). China springs immediately to mind as one such example.
Individual Experiences, and the Supposed Death of the Modern Nation
As a series that attempts to describe a type of experience representative of the status quo in Germany, Generation War works. As a series that describes every individual German’s experience of the war, or every Pole’s, or Ukrainian’s, or Russian’s, of course, it fails. One recent movie that sets out to describe how a solitary human moved through World War II and does so successfully—on a universal level—is the Hungarian film “Son of Saul.” Capably unpacked here, the movie uses The Holocaust historically and allegorically, to demonstrate how humans make difficult choices under impossible circumstances, and what value those choices have, on an individual level. This is not “Hungary’s” story, nor is it “the story of Jewish Holocaust survivors everywhere,” it is a story about a man who has lost his sense of purpose, and discovers that sense again, redeeming himself in the process.
Movies that speak to individuals regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity or religion are special, and help frame important questions that people have about the world around them. They can be set in a concentration camp or on another planet, in a squalid hovel or in a lavish mansion and they are equally useful. They point to the human experience.
Industrial-scale wars of the 19th and 20th century as well as genocides that occurred therein helped drive the first globally-significant secular transnational organizations. The failed “League of Nations,” the United Nations, the USSR, NATO and the European Union all responded to some war or another. Although they reflected competing ideological and political interests, the tendency throughout the 19th and 20th centuries seemed, until recently, to be away from national boundaries and national self-definition. Increasingly, the thinking was that nations didn’t necessarily have any particular right to exist—not really. Sovereignty depends on context, and relationships. And individual rights, especially in the light of The Holocaust, were more significant than the rights of the nations in which those individuals existed.
Return of the Nation-State Model
As it turns out, that thinking depended on faulty assumptions. Nations deserve to exist, and require their own art, their own movies and television series. I would not have thought or written this in 2013. Then, I would have claimed the contrary. It seemed, then, that defensive alliances like NATO were obsolete, and that as the prospect of wars of territorial ambition were soundly behind us, things like armies and nations should not exist. It seemed to me that the destruction of modern nation-states would lead inexorably to greater harmony for people, and for peoples. In other words, I was naïve. Others were, too.
America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Europe’s support of the Libyan insurrection of 2011 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 changed everything. Each of these events eroded the importance of sovereignty, and allowed individual nations to determine the fates of weaker nations, often over the vociferous and reasonable objections of other countries. But while Iraq and Libya came first, no single action did more to end the dream of a transnational or globalist world than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine was a modern, European country that had relinquished a substantial nuclear arsenal and more or less willfully dismantled its military. Boats and planes were cannibalized to keep smaller fleets afloat and in the air, while, tanks and armored personnel carriers rusted from disuse. A massive Army shrank to 40,000 on paper, though perhaps only 20% of that in reality. Ukraine tripled down on the post-Cold War theory that nations would not attack one another for territory, and especially not great nations like Russia.
Not to put all the blame on Russia—the USA and Europe assured Ukraine that it would be protected. Ukraine, too, gambled that the world would be a fundamentally more stable and less violent place. Conversation in Europe and the U.S. turned to the violence of words and economic structures—microaggressions and neo-colonialism—and away from the idea of actual violence, done to us by others (this possibility, that others could do us violence, is why each “we,” each nation, has a police force and a military). President Obama’s weak and indecisive response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine convinced Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that Russia could take without serious consequences beyond Western sanctions.
Between Russia’s attacks, and Europe and America’s inability to mount credible defenses of Ukraine, the hope for a peaceful post-national future was destroyed—at least, in my lifetime.
Ukraine Should Tell Its National Story
So if individuals can profit from good cinematic storytelling, but also countries, and countries are necessary, those nation-building (or critical) stories like Band of Brothers and Zinky Boys and Generation War are not just permissible, not just necessary, but actually good.
Living in Ukraine and hearing the stories of its many varied inhabitants, I’ve seen how groups of people without any ostensible similarities (people of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Greek, Czech, Khazak, and Turkish descent) can find common cause and community in resisting an external threat: in this case, Putin’s fascistic Russia. Ukraine is a country, now, in a way that it was not in 2010, and not in 1990. To say that Ukraine is not a country today is to be incorrect, factually, but also it is an act of violence against the Ukrainians who have made the place their home, together, regardless of the problems that come with the land and its government.
Ukraine could use a “nationalist” series about its own history, that stretches back to Scythian times, and moves forward through Kyiv Rus, through the Mongol occupation, through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the partition among Austria-Hungary and Russia, through World War I and World War II and the USSR, to the present moment. It is neither possible to write or produce such a work without diminishing individual narratives, nor can those individuals fail to take on a political or national significance that ends up functioning as propaganda. Nevertheless, for Ukraine to be its own country, it requires a national story, and that story should depend on the people who live there today.
This would require facing the Polish-Ukrainian wars of 1918-19 and 1944-46, one of which ended in defeat for Ukraine, and the other in defeat for Poland. It would require facing Ukrainians like Stepan Bandera, who sold out to the Nazis, and Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who sold out to Russia. It would require facing its anti-semitic history. It would require a great deal of fortitude and discipline, and (most difficult of all) it would require a serious, multi-year commitment from wealthy and obsessive backers, to do the story justice.
The alternative — that Ukraine continue to exist at the mercy of the nations and storytellers around it — should no longer be acceptable to Ukrainians. They have a nation that they’ve defended, that’s worth defending. They deserve the very best story to help people understand why.
Hybrid War, a controversial but memorable term to describe war in Ukraine from 2014-15, has finally arrived in the US. Whether it stays and grows into a full-blown civil war remains to be seen.
What is “Hybrid War?” That depends on whom you ask. But since you’re asking me, in the context of this essay, I’ll tell you what I believe it to be. Hybrid War, in my estimation, is a type of conflict where an attacker exploits definitional gray areas in a country’s understanding of peace and war to gain an advantage. It is a hybrid of “peace” and “war,” wherein a defender is faced with difficult or even impossible choices that force the selection of disadvantageous courses of action.
One example of Hybrid War was an episode in Ukraine, in April of 2014 in Kramatorsk, where a crowd of ostensibly unarmed civilians surrounded an element of the Ukrainian Army’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, disarmed it, and essentially morphed into a separatist paramilitary. Picture it: dozens or hundreds of civilians throwing stones and shouting at you. Your countrymen. You’re faced with three options—first, to retreat, suffering a defeat by failing to secure or defend your objective. Second, to open fire, and be complicit in the mass murder of dozens or hundreds of unarmored civilians, a clear violation of the law of war and human rights. Third, to permit oneself to be captured, disarmed and sent on your way.
I don’t believe that Hybrid War is some fancy new doctrine that incorporates different types of weapons platforms. I believe it is a well-designed threat with no good tactical solution, which operates by designing a specific type of confrontation to take place where peace becomes war before a unit can adapt and respond in a military context, where one set of logic ends and another begins.
Hybrid War was the very first thing I thought of when I saw video of police officers opening a fence barricade to allow a crowd of Trump supporters into the capital. The officers were faced with a series of bad choices, the most plausible were run or be beaten (they chose to run, and some of them were eventually beaten). If they’d had firearms, perhaps they could have been tempted to open fire—certainly (and thankfully) none did. At least, until protestors breached the Capitol itself, and attempted to penetrate an inner sanctum.
But this coming long weekend, MLK weekend, no less, is bound to see violence at some of the planned 51 protests (50 in state capitals, plus a larger protest envisioned for Washington, DC). The largest protest is likely planned for Washington DC—as can be surmised from the fact that leadership has supplemented law enforcement with 20,000 mobilized National Guardsmen. State capitols will be secured by state and local law enforcement.
The police certainly were not prepared to confront their fellow citizens with violence on January 6th. Have the National Guardsmen and their police allies prepared for that possibility? In the event that the promised “storm” or “krakan” or whatever the insurrectionists are calling themselves these days arrives, are the Guardsmen and police officers prepared (as the police were not, on January 6th) for violence? If not, it won’t matter if there are 100,000 guardsmen on hand, or 1,000,000.
Law enforcement in every state capital face this threat until inauguration, as well. It won’t last forever. At some point, “Hybrid War” either evolves into full scale war, as it did in Ukraine’s East in 2014, or it evaporates into ill intention, or low-grade insurgency. Either way, the spectacle of masses of civilians spontaneously but deliberately turning into a hostile military force is no longer there—all the civilians have become active insurgents, and are therefore valid targets, or all the insurgents are in the process of becoming civilians. The threat evolves, or vanishes.
When I originally learned about Hybrid War, in Ukraine, my first thought was for the NATO soldiers stationed in the Baltic region. I talked with everyone I could about the problem and phenomenon—I was terrified that US soldiers in Riga would be surrounded by “Latvian civilians” (in reality, Russian provocateurs) and forced into one of these impossible situations. This, of course, would either lead to some sort of black eye for American forces, or, if they made the wrong choice, a horrible incident that might create a state of war, and on awful footing.
The solution, I thought at the time, was to run units deploying to NATO countries and especially those to be stationed in Eastern Europe through “Hybrid War” exercises during JRTC or NTC training. Allow Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders to encounter this Kobayashi Maru style paradox, not to demoralize them, not to bully them, but simply to allow them to think through the scenario, lest they encounter it for the first time on the battlefield with real consequences.
As far as I understand, no such readiness exercises were ever incorporated into U.S. military training, either stateside, or in Europe, with or without NATO partners. This threat remains a strategy capable of being used deliberately by Russia, and other clever non-state actors, whether consciously or because they have intuited its potential.
For now, I’m hoping that it remains a possibility, and isn’t employed against US military or law enforcement units.
In the winter of 2014, protestors filled Independence Square in Kyiv. Upset that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, had refused to open the country further to European trade and commerce, hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately millions of people converged on Kyiv and rose up throughout the country, battling police and military units to have their voices heard.
Moderates stood side by side with radicals—neo nazis, anarchists, socialists, liberals, and conservative moderates, atheists and devout believers joined together in outrage, and united in common cause against their joint enemy. Yanukovych fled to Russia rather than face the consequences of his criminal attempts to subdue the protests. The effects of what’s called the Euromaidan Revolution are still felt today in Eastern Europe, and can be seen in the ongoing protests around Viktor Lushenko’s dictatorship in Belarus.
Ukrainians describe Euromaidan as a revolution, but it was really more of an uprising; a spontaneous explosion of dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s ongoing dependence on Russia and Moscow, and the brand of corrupt capitalism endorsed there. Ukrainians from all walks of life had become fed up with a government that wouldn’t or couldn’t listen to the priorities and problems of the people. Meanwhile the comparatively few who benefitted from personal proximity to Yanukovych were vastly outnumbered. This, of course, is a well-known historical flaw of governments centered around a narrow ideology or a specific personality, too many people get left out, and when push comes to shove, there aren’t enough of them to defend it against its opponents.
To return to the protests on Independence Square—its success depended on many factors, but among them, the cross-sectional composition of its crowds was probably the most important. Had only far-right or far-left protestors opposed Yanukovych’s administration, everyone else would have remained home, correctly seeing the crowds as partisan. If Yanukovych’s military and police had been fighting against some niche political movement, it would have been easy to dismiss the disorder as illegitimate, behavior to be avoided. But the crowds were not partisans, even at first, and the anger at Yanukovych was deep. And so when the military cracked down, people didn’t see officers beating fascists or anarchists, they saw them beating their sons, their daughters, themselves.
Partisans, as everyone knows, do not have everyone’s best interests at heart. Partisans have an intense belief in their own world view that excludes the perspectives of everyone else. This is why governments and systems imposed by the rare successful partisan insurrection are always brittle, and quickly fail—they don’t enjoy sufficient support to survive. Starved of the love and loyalty on which a nation depends, partisan-fueled movements ultimately end in violence and defeat, whether that’s on a scale of years, or decades, it is inevitable.
The storming of the US Capitol building by Trump supporters on January 6, as well as the promised “million militia march” of January 19-20, did not represent a broad faction of American citizens. People may have had various intentions within the crowd of January 6th—kidnapping, murder, vandalism (historical allusion intended), to engage in civic protest, or just accidental sightseers, pulled up the steps and over the line of police as though by some mysterious attractive force—they all shared one thing in common: hostility toward the current electoral process, and support for Trump’s negation of the results of the 2020 election.
The Trump supporters framed their actions as dependent on systemic reforms—a movement to transform and overhaul a government and leadership-system riddled with corruption and nepotism. The ostensible hypocrisy of supporting the corrupt and nepotistic scion of a real estate empire built on legally dubious maneuvers and precisely the type of insider dealing they find objectionable does not factor into this schema, because a hallmark of Trumpism is a willingness to overlook Trump’s flaws, and to see him as a means to an end.
The attack on Congress was made by the radical right. It’s not accurate to describe them as a “fringe,” as their desecration of Congress was supported by (according to polls) at least 45% of the people who voted for Trump, a number that’s somewhere in the region of 35 million people, or somewhere around 10% of the US population. This is a big number! It’s certainly large enough to support some form of insurrection or counter-revolution (the counter-revolution being a revolution against democracy and against the traditions of the United States). In the long run, it’s probably not sufficient for that insurrection to succeed.
Trump enjoys the passionate, even fanatical loyalty of some supporters, a fanaticism that led many to bet heavily on his victory, and to support him financially, and to do other illogical, irrational things that weren’t actually connected to his success. Everyone who voted for Trump is not a “Trump” partisan, many voters likely supported him out of loyalty to the Republican Party, or as a protest vote against the leadership team of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who do not inspire the same level of passionate devotion.
That passion is so powerful among the people who do love Trump (or consistently behave as though they do, which amounts to the same thing) that it blinds them to the fact that the high esteem in which he’s held by them is mirrored to an opposite degree by just about everyone else, who, if they have any position at all about Trump, dislike or even loathe him.
It should be obvious to anyone that a modern country cannot be led by someone who’s loved by 10% of the population, grudgingly accepted by a further 10%, and then disliked or hated by the remaining 80%. Certainly not a country with democratic traditions as old as those of the United States.
Only one question really remains: 10% might be able to seize power through swift and organized violence—they’ve been planning and organizing to do this for years, it’s certainly feasible—but how long can they remain in power? ISIS ruled large portions of Syria and Iraq for several years, before being overcome. The “thousand year Reich” promised by Hitler and his supporters lasted 12, though its demise was hastened by Hitler’s imprudently attacking every neutral Great Power possible. The Confederacy barely lasted as long as ISIS (and, counting the people they had enslaved to work on their behalf, were nearly as popular).
With a weekend of violence on the horizon at every state capital, and promises to disrupt the inauguration of the next president, the US faces a dangerous moment in its history. No help will be forthcoming from the federal government, as, obviously, the current president is disinclined to use his authority to do anything substantial to stop his supporters from seizing power on his behalf. Those state governments that have the vision and spirit to lay out aggressive and robust plans of defense should “protesters” again mysteriously transform into “hostile insurgents” (as many of them have said they will do on social media) will survive a furious but shallow assault. State governments that treat this threat unseriously may get lucky and avoid disaster—or something much worse could happen.
Come what may, what is happening in the United States is no “Euromaidan,” no broad, durable critique of the system at large. It’s a naked power grab by a minority of ideologically-motivated extremists who’ve gathered around a (to them) beloved personality. If they do follow through with their threats, they’ll either seize power through violence and lose it quickly thereafter, or fail to seize power, and ruin the peace known and enjoyed by Americans as their birthright for generations—one of the best parts of being an American, freedom from fear, freedom from want.
There are three completely separate versions of a battle in Ukraine. One version exists in the United States and western European countries, where it is popular among national security experts, officers, and military strategists. Another version exists Ukraine, where it is a well-known chapter in the history of the Russo-Ukrainian war. They agree on the fact that a battle occurred, but the circumstances surrounding that battle are remarkably different, as are the lessons that each country have drawn from it. The third, Russian version, doesn’t agree with either of the others.
The battle is named for the nearest town—Zelenopillya—and the version that has been popularized in the U.S. and western Europe goes like this:
Two battalions of Ukrainian mechanized infantry gathered during the predawn darkness of July 11, 2014, to seize the last separatist checkpoint along the Russian border. One day, maybe two, left of fighting and they’d have secured their border with Russia, cutting off resupply to the separatist movement. Roaring toward Zelenopillya in a fleet of Soviet-era tanks and armored patrol cars crewed by a motley mix of young, battle-hungry conscripts and grizzled Red Army veterans, the units were no match for a modern army, but more than sufficient for the demoralized Russian-armed separatists. Vehicles clattered by farmer’s fields, one by one down a battered road.
Despite being poorly trained and hastily equipped with vintage Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons, morale was high. The units tapped for this final battle had so far enjoyed nothing but victories in their long slog through the secluded hamlets and rusty coal-mining towns of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The advancing units paused to get their bearings in an open field several kilometers west of Zelenopillya. Soldiers spilled out of vehicles to nap or stretch their legs, while sergeants took inventory of fuel and ammo and officers congregated to go over the battle plan one last time. And then, quietly but unmistakably, came the buzzing sound of drones overhead. This wasn’t unusual—pro-Russian forces often flew drones to scout enemy positions—but the Ukrainians had been banking on the element of surprise. Then came another, more startling development: attempts to contact higher headquarters revealed that the radios were jammed. Electronic warfare was not a capability the separatists were known to possess.
Suddenly, shells shrieked down from the sky as if from nowhere, unleashing a maelstrom of fire and steel rain. Brand-new thermobaric warheads and top-attack shells took a horrible toll. Vehicles, some of them still occupied, burst into flames, while soldiers outside were torn to pieces. Within the space of a minute, the field was transformed into a boneyard of smoking wreckage, the quiet morning now sundered by incoherent screaming and shouts for help. The battle was over before it had begun, and Ukraine would never again come so close to securing their border.
This account of Zelenopillya is a nightmare scenario for any military. The Russians used drones to spot a mechanized force on the move. When the force halted, the Russians deployed electronic jamming to prevent the unit from communicating with superiors (or even individual vehicles from communicating with each other). Then, again, using drones for spotters, it used precision munitions to hit the force before it was able to move again—so precisely, in fact, that it “destroyed” the units, reducing their combat power by damaging or destroying vehicles and killing or wounding soldiers to the point where the units ceased to exist. Most American and western units would have difficulty accomplish this feat using drones—that the Russian military possessed this capability and were able to use it with such ease and effectiveness sent shockwaves through the national security establishment.
The version of Zelenopillya one hears from veterans and Ukrainian leaders in places like Kyiv and Kramatorsk is remarkably different from its U.S. counterpart.
In Ukrainian sources and according to veterans of the battle, a poorly-trained force that was unprepared for heavy artillery camped in a field. Vehicles were parked next to one another as though on a parade ground for inspection, and soldiers didn’t dig trenches. That encampment had been stationary for at least a day—some accounts have it there longer—making no effort to conceal itself. It was struck, and sustained heavy damage, mostly due to not having prepared for the possibility of being struck in the first place.
“Zelenopillya is a tragedy. It could have been a small tragedy, but it became a very large tragedy because of the negligence of commanders. Absolute negligence on a tactical and strategic level,” according to Sergii Mandalyna during an interview. Mandalyna, an artilleryman with the 79th airmobile brigade, was at the camp at Zelenopillya the morning of the attack.
In Ukraine, the artillery attack was primarily noteworthy for political reasons: prior to July 11, 2014, the Russian Army had never attempted to destroy a Ukrainian unit with an active duty unit from within Russia. Up until Zelenopillya, the Ukrainian military thought that it was fighting a Russian-led separatist moment—it didn’t occur to anyone that they’d be fighting Russia itself.
According to soldiers and officers present at Zelenopillya, the camp was more like the type of improvised depot for fuel, food, water, and ammunition that one might encounter in a peacetime garrison. It was used by units in the area as they battled separatists and attempted to secure their border with Russia—at the time of Zelenopillya there were platoon or company-size elements from the 24th & 72nd Mechanized Brigades and the 79th Airmobile Brigade, as well as police with a Border Police unit. There were no fighting emplacements; some veterans reported being ordered not to dig. Most of the vehicles were parked in rows, side-by-side, as if for inspection in a vehicle motor pool. And, according to soldiers interviewed, at least part of the reason the strike on Zelenopillya was effective was that many vehicles were loaded with supplies for operations; when struck by rockets the vehicles went up like roman candles.
“The reason it was so damaging was that the grads set off the Ukrainian ammunition,” said Mandalyna. “There was so much ammunition on the vehicles, there wasn’t room for people. That caused more casualties than the grads themselves.”
Ukrainian veterans of Zelenopillya said that there had, allegedly, been harassing fire from grads on July 10th, before the tragedy itself—possibly the Russians bracketing the camp. But single shots fired near or across the border weren’t taken seriously. Sergii Loskutov, a soldier with Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade at the time, said his unit had received pot-shots at night from BM-21s by the Russian border on the days leading up to the strike. “There were 5 grad cars that tried to hit us at night, you could see them with their headlights. 2-3 cars, moving across the border 100 meters, shot at us, and then left. The shooting wasn’t very effective. We had trenches and dugouts at our camp [not Zelenopillya], and when we heard grads fired, we knew we had about 45 seconds to hide. Almost none of our people were killed by taking these sensible precautions.”
While nobody was able to say with certainty when the camp at Zelenopillya was created—some said days before the attack, one veteran said as early as June 2014—all were clear that the camp existed for far longer than a few hours, a period of time that included a substantial amount of daylight. It had been scouted repeatedly by drones in the days leading up to the strike, and was known to the separatist-held towns in the surrounding area. Furthermore, at that moment in the war, some of the more senior officers in Ukraine’s military had suspect loyalties.
Loskutov had visited the camp at Zelenopillya the day before the attack. Mobilized in the beginning of March, when Russia seized Crimea, Loskutov had served in the Red Army as a paratrooper during the waning days of the USSR, seeing action with the Belgrade Division in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He described the camp as “big green tents that weren’t even hidden. Just in the middle of a big open field.” He had previously visited the camp twice.
“When I heard about the attack in Zelenopillya, of course I was sad. As a soldier, I thought more could have been done. The officers in charge of the camp must have thought that they were safe. But everyone who already had fighting experience all knew that the camp was a very unsafe place,” Loskutov said via translator.
Loskutov said that when his unit visited Zelenopillya, they would camp close to a treeline, to be away from the center of the camp, and closer to some cover.
Another veteran wounded in Zelenopillya agreed that the camp was dangerous. At the time a 19-year-old sergeant assigned to a BTR (a Soviet light tank) with the 79th Airmobile Brigade, Ivan Isaev’s unit had been fighting in the area when it stopped in at Zelenopillya for the first time for a meal. He was shocked by the lack of preparedness in the camp.
“I jumped down from my BTR, a soldier greeted me in shorts. I asked ‘don’t you have a war here?’ And he said ‘There’s fighting, but it’s far away.’ The feeling in Zelenopillya was that the war did not apply to them. It looked like an ordinary training camp, like something in the rear,” Isaev said.
The day of the strike, Isaev’s unit had returned for some sleep prior to moving back out on mission. They parked their BTR by the treeline, away from the tents of the main camp, in an effort to make themselves less conspicuous as a target. They were exhausted when they arrived at the camp, and didn’t dig shelters—it would have taken too much time.
“I survived only because I slept by a tree,” said Isaev. “I remember the night like it was yesterday. I woke up rapidly when I heard the blast of other shells in the camp, and understood I had no time to hide. I couldn’t protect myself. I thought ‘what should I do?’ Two seconds later a grad landed a few meters from me and my soldiers, behind a tree. All 7 of us were wounded, in and outside the BTR.”
Isaev feels that his life and limbs were saved when a medical officer—a veteran of the Red Army who had served in Afghanistan (in Ukraine they are known as “Afghantsi”) rendered first aid. Later, Isaev’s feet were amputated.
Another soldier who contributed information to the story was in Isaev’s BTR during the attack, and was blinded.
This version was seconded by Viktor Muzhenko, the Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the time. In an April 2019 interview he described Zelenopillya casualties as attributable to leader negligence and panic on the part of presumably ill-disciplined soldiers—not a sophisticated Russian super-weapons. Then, in a letter written in January of 2020, which will be published in the following essay, he confirmed that account in full.
The third version of Zelenopillya is the Russian version, which is that Russia was not responsible for the shooting at all, and has never directly involved itself with the war in Ukraine’s east. This account is almost certainly reduced to baseless propaganda; nevertheless, it is Russia’s official account, and therefore must be registered as such, if nothing else to provide a sad record of a period in history when the once-proud Russian people withdrew from their tradition of singleminded pursuit of truth, in favor of blind national propaganda.
The third, Russian version of Zelenopillya is easy to consider and dismiss. But the first two are more difficult to reconcile. Was Zelenopillya a demonstration of the lethal power of Russia’s modern artillery, synchronized with electric detection and attack abilities, using advanced munitions—a caution to the U.S. military? Or was it an opportunistic ambush using conventional capabilities that the Russians have possessed for decades, carried out against undisciplined and unsuspecting soldiers?
The evidence for the U.S. / western narrative rests wholly on a draft white paper, “Lessons Learned from the Russo-Ukrainian War,” written and published in the summer of 2015. Written by Philip Karber, PhD, President of The Potomac Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank focused on international relations and national security, the draft white paper was never intended for dissemination—instead, it was, according to Karber, more of a rough first assessment of Russian capabilities, intended to provoke consideration. The paper got out into the world, and is the sole piece of firsthand evidence that exists for the U.S. / western narrative.
Karber’s paper doesn’t even focus on Zelenopillya—it’s about the rest of the war as it happened between 2014 and early 2015. The battle of Zelenopillya appears in Karber’s account as an interesting anecdote, not a central episode in the story of how Ukraine was defeated by Russia. Zelenopillya’s importance to Karber and to doctrine and strategy emerges later, through repetition, and through application as a hypothetical to European and American formations.
Many subsequent essays, op-eds, blogs (like this one) and studies can ultimately be traced back to Karber’s draft white paper. Perhaps the most astonishing example of the narrative’s penetration into military thought is its appearance in FM 3-0, the Army’s field manual for doctrine. There, Zelenopillya (the U.S./western version) can be found as the ultimate example of Russian lethality: advanced detection, electronic jamming, drone-integrated spotting, and long-range precision fires linked with advanced thermobaric munitions.
The evidence for the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya rests entirely on Karber’s draft white paper, a piece of analysis compiled from a distance that rests on second- and third-hand reporting.
What are the weaknesses of this account? Apart from the lack of direct evidence, a weakness in and of itself, it gets key details of the battle wrong. The Ukrainians were not moving, they were stopped in a semipermanent location, for hours, a day, or days depending on the source. And while it’s true that the Russians might have used precision munitions to strike a large, stationary (mostly sleeping) target, they could also have used conventional munitions to achieve the same effects.
There are many other reasons to doubt the U.S. / western version of events. In the absence of Russian accounts or any direct evidence, there is no way to validate that Zelenopillya was the result of powerful new Russian weapons, though it might have been. More importantly, the achievement of striking a stationary target in the open (unfortified) with heavy artillery—pretty much a worst-case scenario for the target—has been accomplished at least as early as 1453, when the Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer used a giant cannon firing stone projectiles to smash down Constantinople’s long walls. If one is searching for an example of 21st century prowess to demonstrate lethality, there are probably better cases to be found in warfare than the modern equivalent of a turkey shoot.
Evidence for Ukraine’s version is more straightforward to come by—one can establish this version’s basic elements by interviewing veterans of the battle who were present there, and this account interviewed five veterans of Zelenopillya. Reading follow-up Russian-language and Ukrainian-language media accounts of the battle one finds ample secondary evidence corroborating the account described in this piece, complete with photographic evidence of the camp’s existence in daylight prior to the battle. General Muzhenko, the overall commander of the war effort at that time, attributed the battle’s outcome primarily to indiscipline (not digging in) and surprise (this was the first time a Russian unit had directly struck a Ukrainian target with such power).
There is also Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the most likely. In conversation with four U.S. artillery officers (one former Marine, a current Army officer, and two former Army officers), each of them said that striking a stationary target with artillery would be easy to achieve without resort to sophisticated targeting systems, and indeed was a mission that had been carried out routinely in warfare in WWII. One former artilleryman claimed that given a pencil, a protractor, a map, ten minutes, a battery of rocket artillery, and a target of two stationary battalions (or more) worth of mechanized assets in the open parked next to each other on a football-sized field, he felt confident that he could achieve destruction of the target.
In other words, there was nothing special, technologically, about Russia’s attack on Ukraine at Zelenopillya. The only thing unusual, from the Ukrainians’ perspective, was that the attack happened at all—that they’d been betrayed, as they saw it, by a neighbor that had sworn to protect them.
Each version of the battle of Zelenopillya creates a problem, and generates solutions. To the Ukrainians, the “problem of Zelenopillya” was twofold: untrained and undisciplined units that offered a large, stationary target to Russian spotters, paired with a fundamental misunderstanding of the battlefield (they did not think Russia would shoot artillery at them). Their solution to the former problem was to train soldiers and units, so that during movement to and at the front, they dispersed and took cover, digging in where necessary. Ukraine’s solution to the latter problem was solved once news of Zelenopillya spread, and commanders became aware of the risk of being pummeled by Russian artillery.
Both of these solutions were important because Ukraine continued its military presence in and around Zelenopillya and near its border with Russia for the better part of a month. Zelenopillya did not result in the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces—they maintained their strategic position, while maneuvering and maintaining dispersal so as not to be caught in another, similar strike. For the next month, they were not caught; though stationary units were hit heavily, dug in, the losses never approached those at Zelenopillya. There were two other places where artillery played a direct role in defeating Ukrainian forces—the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk airports—in both of those cases, dismounted infantry had taken up positions within buildings that sustained sufficient damage to prevent their fortification.
The problem of Zelenopillya as sketched out in the version that depends on Karber’s draft white paper is that Russia can quickly and precisely mass overwhelming heavy artillery at ranges exceeding those of western artillery platforms.
This assessment more or less assumes a battlefield similar to that of Ukraine, where neither Russian nor Ukrainian air power can be brought to bear for fear of unacceptable losses. Given that the U.S. relies on air power to support field units, this loss is far more damaging than to the Russian or Ukrainian militaries, and it is true; without an air force, the U.S. and western militaries are vastly diminished.
The solution that the U.S. has hit upon, having hand-waved away air power in this nightmare scenario, is to spend billions on expanding its military with more artillery—the M109A7 Paladin—and to invest in greater range for existing guns. To put that in other terms, the answer is buy more and better weapons.
In the final estimation, there are three versions of the battle of Zelenopillya. The Russian version seems certain to be a lie (though, interestingly, only the Russians know the truth). The U.S. / western version is probably not true, and even if some of its details are correct, it gets key details wrong, chiefly, the critical role played by advanced systems able to hit targets on the move. The Ukrainian version—which is that poorly disciplined troops exposed themselves to a risk of they were not aware, like a swimmer entering the ocean at dusk, unknowingly floating above some hungry toothed monster—is most correct, and, therefore, should be seen as such hereafter.
Establishing the “true” battle of Zelenopillya (or, at least, the truest currently accessible) resolves one paradox, but creates another, different problem entirely. If the Ukrainian version is “correct,” and fairly easily confirmed—a couple days of googling and fact-checking, as well as retaining a translator then tracking down living veterans of the battle is sufficient to debunk the U.S. / western version—readers are left with evidence of an astonishing, almost unthinkable situation. The U.S. military and ostensibly nonpartisan think tanks such as RUSI cannot, apparently, objectively interrogate their own analysis. As things stand now, a baseless rumor is being used as fact in U.S. Army doctrine.
Billions of dollars in procurement and R&D money has been and is being committed to address what the U.S. and western militaries have decided is the problem of Zelenopillya. Thousands of young men and women are being trained or instructed to address this same essentially imaginary problem. If an unsupported hypothetical is capable of setting a system in motion—if, on a certain level, that system must be on autopilot, as seems to be the case, isn’t the real problem of Zelenopillya an inability to self-critique? Isn’t the real threat that the U.S. and western militaries may no longer possess the capacity to perform meaningful self-diagnosis?
The next piece about Zelenopillya, which I will publish in the coming weeks, will attempt to delve further into how and why the U.S. system might operate this way, examining in greater detail why and how the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya came to be endorsed at the highest levels of the military and congress, who has used that narrative, and to what purposes.
Medlyn’s Farm, a fixture of my hometown of Branford, Connecticut, went on the market for $2,000,000 early October of 2020. A lightning rod for political opinion after some of its fields were damaged in flooding, the farm had struggled in recent years to turn a profit. But their fresh produce and eggs were coveted in the town—I and my wife would stop in on weekends when travel or leisure took us to Guilford, and we had opportunity to pass its stand. Customers paid in cash, depositing the money in a basket and taking change as appropriate. Nobody tended counter, nobody looked over one’s shoulder—transactions were carried out using the honor system.
The sale of Medlyn’s Farm marks the end of an era in Branford. One of the last farms to sustain itself using an old business model will be gone, and given climate change and its proximity to the ocean, it’s unlikely to continue in its current form. Whether developers purchase the land and turn it into condominiums or a subdivision, or the town finds a way to scrape together the money to return it to its natural state of coastal wetlands, or some enterprising entrepreneur decides it’s worth rescuing in its current form, Medlyn’s Farm, a family-run business, will likely disappear.
Even if it remains as a farm, there will be changes—the entrepreneur will change the price structure, and one will no longer be able to walk into a room alone, leave a $20 bill, and take 2 dozen fresh eggs and some greens and herbs. It will be necessary to interact with someone at a cash register. Books will need to be kept, money accounted for. Produce will become “merchandise,” with a code in the system for each type (4470: Broccoli. 4480: Cauliflower. 300: Egg, chicken, large).
Although I know that there are good reasons to permit the farm to return to its natural state (saltwater marsh)—ecological health, coastal resiliency—part of me feels sad to see another farm disappear from Connecticut’s landscape. Especially at a moment in human history characterized by a backlash against the type of conglomeration and globalization that has replaced smaller farms with industrial-size multi-national ranches, farms, and dairies—the kind one finds sold in places like Stop & Shop and Costco—the end of Medlyn’s Farm is a small tragedy. Branford, population 28,000, was never going to be supported by the handful of independent farms still growing corn and lettuce. But Branford and Connecticut are less resilient for the loss of Medlyn’s Farm, and those farms like it that have quietly gone out of business, been sold piecemeal, or been turned into homes sold for $350,000 or $500,000 to upwardly-mobile middle-class families looking to escape to the suburbs. To what end?
The New York TimesMagazine At War section, too, is folding up. It will continue to exist in some form as a newsletter, but a promising place for veteran journalist and nonfiction voices to debut is gone, one of the casualties of a changing media business model. In similar news, “Task and Purpose” has been sold, and whether it continues its existence as a site dedicated to military journalism is similarly questionable—it had been championed steadily by its owner, Zach Iscol a veteran, and when ownership changes, content often does as well. The leaders of“The War Horse” have been furloughed due to expected donor funding not coming through in the pandemic. Stars and Stripes remains a political target subject to budget cuts, as do Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Liberty, two channels that often cover war and the military.
This isn’t something that a lot of people probably care about. “At War” aspired to be a publication that could be read by every New York Times reader, and I loved it, and many of my friends loved it, too. I published in it, years ago; it’s difficult to overstate how significant it is to be a young writer and get a New York Times byline. It’s everything, and “At War” didn’t limit its scope to writers who looked like me, they brought in as many stories as they had time and space for. “Task and Purpose” is somewhat niche, but fills an important role when it comes to reporting and commentary on veteran and military issues that would otherwise be “too far afield” for other publications—similar with “The War Horse.” “Stars and Stripes” does reporting on the military that other publications cannot or will not underwrite. And in spite of the distaste with which the left views VoA and RFERFL, in authoritarian countries they actually fill an important role. People read and watch VoA and RFERFL with enthusiasm and it offers pro-democracy dissidents a space to connect, intellectually and politically. So long as those are ideals that animate the U.S., one would think that those outlets would be funded and appreciated. And the value of media institutions covering the military, and veterans affairs—a combined 8-9% of the federal budget—would, one imagines, serve the national good, regardless of whether many readers found it interesting.
Medlyn’s Farm brings a kind of value to the community of Branford that obviously doesn’t stand up to the test of the free market—it can’t make enough money to be profitable (or sufficiently profitable), especially in the face of climate change. Similarly, journalistic coverage of the military and the veteran world are not sufficiently profitable, according to who determines sufficiency in this type of scenario—but they have value within the culture. Citizens “profit” by sharing in the experiences of military veterans and especially combat veterans (the choice to enter war being necessarily informed by those who have practiced it, those who have studied it, and those who have experienced it). Citizens also profit from a critical examination of the military itself—especially in our culture, civilian oversight of the military, combined with a tradition of military nonpartisanship, is one of the strongest guarantees against dictatorship.
But the utility of military or veteran focused writing and journalism, like the utility of a single farm, is not enough to outweigh whatever financial requirement that writing or farm is being asked to meet.
Once “value” is introduced to a discussion about a business or institution, you can be sure that what will actually be accomplished is the destruction of something important and vital. In the case of Medlyn’s Farm, the destruction means a small part of the fabric of my home community will be unraveled. I probably don’t agree politically with the Medlyn’s Farm owners, whose difficulties with climate change were weaponized by individuals who did not believe in “global warming” (and who have resisted efforts to adjust to what is now unarguably occurring). I do know that Medlyn’s Farm’s owners gave the town something more than a market at which to buy food grown locally. They gave us accountability, they were part of a history and a way of life that’s already essentially gone, and, moreover, is now being erased. They were part of a model that should be viable, not just because we want things to appear a certain way, but because to have things operate in a particular fashion means on a certain level that they are that way. Because a Medlyn’s Farm has value.
I’m going to miss Medlyn’s Farm. I’m going to miss the military journalism and veteran writing that doesn’t have a sufficient readership (small outfits like the Wrath-Bearing Tree, which I and some friends run based on a value proposition that does not depend on profitability, are doing fine). And I wonder if I will ever see a moment when responsible adults will be capable of seeing the wisdom of continuing a project for its own sake—evaluating the project on its merits—rather than because it is profitable to do so.
Nobody expected it to happen in the city of Donetsk. One of the hosts to the European Football Championships in 2012, the city boasted a modern airport, and state of the art infrastructure. Its economy wasn’t as healthy as in times past, due to reduced demand for coal and steel, but the city still had a lot to be proud of. Sure, there had been reports of checkpoints manned by pro-Russian paramilitaries in villages, and smaller cities—cities like Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. But the police or military would surely take care of those issues.
In May of 2014, the city erupted in violence. Within weeks, loyal policemen and members of Ukraine’s security service were run off or killed, and before long, those armed men wearing balaclavas were setting up checkpoints in and around Donetsk, stopping anyone with a Ukrainian flag on their car, rounding up the opposition for intimidation, torture, or worse. They robbed banks, occupied government buildings, and before long, declared a “people’s republic of Donetsk.”
Ostensibly tied to laws mandating the use of Ukrainian language, this violence began before the law entered effect, and was, in fact, part of a broader attempt to destabilize Ukraine, seize as much land as possible, and turn it into a small rump state in order to punish it for spurning Moscow. The Russian-led and Russian-funded operation found adherents in all the places such violent and destabilizing insurrections do—the desperate, the unemployed, the criminal cast-offs, the traitorously-hearted. All those to whom the idea of a sovereign Ukraine and Europe were anathema—all those, in fact, to whom law and order and civilization were anathema.
These events played out just a month and a half after Russia had seized Crimea, and illegally annexed it. Surely if ever there was a time to view Russia with skepticism and suspicion, it was after March of 2014. But the action was viewed as a fait accompli—a tragedy that was complete and total, and not some kind of preparation for further violations.
The invasion of Eastern Ukraine was something different—an exponential expansion of the potential scope of hostilities.
Five months later, in September of 2014, active duty Russian army units were maneuvering on the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine. The ensuing conventional war and the cold war that followed a cease-fire in March of 2015 cost both sides thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded, and led to over 2 million civilians displaced or fled.
It could never happen here
Poor Ukraine! Luckily, that country is far away, and has nothing in common with the U.S. They speak a different language, their customs and architecture are different, they’re right next to Russia, which has owned Ukraine outright for large chunks of the recent past. The types of things that happened there could never happen in the United States.
The fact that such behavior in the U.S. is unthinkable made it so interesting to see what amounted to reactionary paramilitary groups organizing in Oregon, and setting up checkpoints to detain ANTIFA and BLM arsonists. Rumors, quickly (and unsurprisingly) determined to be unsubstantiated, started by far-right provocateurs and spread by credulous and alarmed citizens, indicated that ANTIFA and BLM demonstrators had infiltrated the suburbs and were setting fires so they could loot homes. Social media facilitated the spread of these rumors, especially Facebook. A certain type of social media consumer and gun owner, who as a rule hates ANTIFA and BLM and respects the thin blue line, took matters into their own hands.
In Ukraine it took a few weeks to get groups of separatists organized. They had to be recruited—taken off the street and sobered up, released from prison, and then bullied or intimidated into holding guns to point at surprised Ukrainian families. It takes time to organize an insurrection in a place that is not prepared to rebel. Bribes need to be paid, examples need to be made.
It took a couple days for the men holding shotguns and rifles to set up checkpoints in the U.S., no organized leadership beyond motivated “patriots” at the local level, and a single flimsy rumor.
There are a few reasons why it was so easy, in the U.S., to turn vigilantes (if you want to be generous) or reactionary paramilitaries (if you want to be honest) out onto the streets to take the law into their own hands. The first is that in America, there is a proud culture of gun ownership, that exists mostly on the right, so if one is interested in starting a right-wing insurrection, one doesn’t need to “arm” anyone. Second, in America, there has been a decades-long effort on the right to undermine government and seed the idea that “leftists” are conspiring to infiltrate and seize power in the government, and that loyal American patriots will therefore be needed to stand up as individual citizens to resist illegal and unlawful orders, according to their assessment of whether a thing is illegal or unlawful. Ukrainians, by contrast, had almost no warning from Russia that they would be invaded and annexed or “liberated” as the case was in Ukraine’s east, it took time to adjust to their new reality. Third, the current president, Donald Trump, and those associated with him, have been doing their utmost to frame that decades-long animus in specific terms, tied to the demonstrations and protests that have unfolded since the summer of 2020. ANTIFA and BLM are the chosen targets—whether Trump or any of his associates actually believe what they say is a different question entirely (surely if they actually believed the groups posed a real threat, nobody affiliated with them would be permitted to roam free). It is indisputable that “leftism”—Marxism, ANTIFA, BLM, socialism, communism, The Democratic Party—have been fused into one amorphous and objectionable mass, for political purposes.
Insurrection, counter-revolution, an uprising of loyal citizens pushed too far—whatever one’s political persuasion, whatever one’s perspective, whatever one wants to call the thing that could happen, what’s indisputable at this moment in history is that a large, heavily-armed group of people in rural and suburban America have been primed to detonate in mostly the same way that groups were compelled to detonate in Ukraine. They are waiting for the order—any order, any pretext—and keeping their eyes peeled for the signal. When they receive it, they will issue out from their suburban homes and mansions, pulling balaclavas over their faces or wearing COVID masks as a subversive gesture of compliance with rules they see as illegitimate, and carrying rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Many will be wearing body armor and helmets. They will establish checkpoints, looking out for BLM subversives and ANTIFA infiltrators. They will occupy town halls and city halls to defend the rights of—whom or whatever, the president, their congressman, a charismatic local grifter, the constitution. Hostile politicians and individuals, as well as their families, will be intimidated into compliance or driven away if they’re lucky, and worse if they’re not. Law and order will be imposed with extreme violence, and at the expense of America’s democracy.
That is a likely outcome to Trump losing the presidential election in 2020 and refusing to leave office, or contesting the result of a “close” election. Of course, it could never happen here.
Okay I’m scared. Now what
All is not lost. The case of Ukraine’s east is significant both because it shows what is possible when a nation fails to respond swiftly and decisively to destabilizing acts, and also because there were days and weeks when Ukraine’s local, regional, and national government agencies could have responded and did not.
What needs to happen, in the U.S., is that elected representatives of both political parties—Republican and Democrat—must make it clear through statements and personal posts on social media that groups establishing checkpoints or attempting to seize power will be imprisoned and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law by local or state police, or, if it comes to it, national guard units activated for the purpose. Under no circumstances will armed groups be permitted to selectively enforce laws according to their discretion.
This does not mean that people will not be permitted to own or carry firearms, according to local or state ordinances. There is a clear and obvious difference between 4-6 men wearing armor and balaclavas, carrying firearms, manning blockades on the road or securing government offices on their own initiative, and someone walking down the street, face naked to the world, with an AR-15 strapped to their back in a state that permits such things. The latter says “I am a citizen and neighbor who has a right to carry a weapon, and that right is protected by law” (and presumably a permit where necessary). The former says “I am functionally equivalent to the police or national guard.” The former poses an existential threat to the state and must be dealt with quickly. The latter is making a tedious point about the second amendment.
Dealing with the threat of paramilitaries in November requires action and planning now, in the present. It requires, most importantly, that people and leadership take this threat seriously, as Ukraine’s leadership failed to do until it was too late and the situation was already out of control. The advantage that the U.S. has over Ukraine is that no hostile national neighbor is capable of biting off a chunk of territory without reprisal. The disadvantage is that actual neighbors—friends, relatives, you know them, you see their posts on Facebook and Twitter, they’re talking about what they want to do—will, left to their own devices, go down this dark, destructive path themselves.
There is an insidious story about WWII that concerns the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian identities. The story has a few moving pieces, but basically goes like this: (1) the USSR did so badly in when Hitler invaded the USSR because traitors in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus collaborated with the invading Nazis. (2) Those same anti-Soviet, Nazi collaborators were also primarily responsible for physically carrying out the Holocaust in those countries—they were the camp guards, the paramilitary units. (3) There is something essentially reactionary and anti-semitic about these three places and peoples.
The conclusion one is intended to draw from the narrative, depending on how it’s employed, is either that this area and these peoples are best avoided and distrusted because they’re inherently immoral, or that they are in need of a brutal central authority who can rule these “barbarians” —an authority such as Moscow.
Not an Excuse, an Explanation
Much has been made of this narrative over the years, by apologists/propagandists from two countries (Russia and Germany), and also a little by those from other European countries and Great Britain. Because the way these people use the narrative is simple, it’s useful to address the European side of things first. In Germany, they use this story to let themselves off the hook for the Holocaust, pinning it instead on some “bad Nazis” who planned and supervised it – instead of “ordinary” Germans. The “ordinary” collaborators with the Nazis were the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian citizens who enthusiastically carried it out in Eastern Europe. It is a comforting fiction, one that allows individuals to take some responsibility for WWII, for somehow permitting the Nazis to come to power and for enabling them to wage war – but the very worst of the war’s consequences are displaced onto the shoulders of others—the local residents of the countries, who had to be held back in their indiscriminate fury against Jews. Perhaps, the implication sometimes goes when anti-Semites tell the tale, locals held a deserved resentment against their Jewish neighbors.
Ask most Germans about the Holocaust, and they—alone among residents of countries who have performed outrages against others—will start out by pointing the finger at themselves, at Germany. This is the painful lesson that defeat taught them. They will still, however (and few will contest it) add that there were other assistants, willing and excited to pitch in—and this expansion of the world of responsibility makes it a little easier to bear the burden of guilt. The place where their assistance invariably comes from is the land of the savage, lawless Slav.
The European narratives of WWII vary by who tells it (obviously the Italian version is different from the French version, or from the Yugoslavian version), but most resemble the German version with an important twist. As Germany was responsible for WWII, the Germans are primarily to blame, with individual local collaborators (criminals, bullies, the scum of society) assisting in secondarily as German soldiers and foreign SS conscripts carried out the Holocaust. Furthermore, these European versions essentially validate (or do not question) the German addendum that it was the Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who did much of the physical butchery on the ground, in the camps, and in person in the forests. This tacit admission stems, no doubt, from the facts that Germany is a neighbor, in Europe, and to think that one’s neighbor systematically constructed and carried out genocide would make it difficult to live with them peacefully. Also, anecdotal accounts of Holocaust survivors do single out vindictive guards and paramilitaries from those countries. Finally, when most of these stories were being told, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the USSR was an enemy of the states of Western Europe, and so there was an added incentive to assign a large portion of the blame to Soviet Republics.
Along with the German narrative, the broader European narratives invariably end up exonerating the country that the story is about—the real enemies are the bad Nazis / Germans, and those slavs on the other side of the train tracks. Let’s put it this way: the guards at Auschwitz didn’t always speak German, but they never spoke French.
A variation on this theme can be seen recently in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Previously unable to formulate or interrogate a coherent national or individual narrative about their experiences in WWII as both victims and perpetrators, these European countries have begun to ask uncomfortable questions about the role they played. Their versions of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” tend to take (as the German narrative) limited responsibility for events such as Baba Yar in Ukraine, while displacing responsibility to Germany and neighboring countries—but are still remarkable in their efforts to grapple with what some of their citizens did, and why. It takes a kind of confidence in one’s culture, a belief in civilization’s capacity to heal and move forward even to attempt what Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian playwrights, documentarians, and filmmakers have done, and it speaks highly of those countries’ capacity for arts and culture.
Nevertheless, most Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, while aware of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” in basic terms, have no idea how important it is to Westerners’ understanding of their countries and culture. They understand their countries’ past primarily through the lens of the USSR, and are usually shocked to learn that their countries are viewed in the West as allies and executors of the Nazis’ villainous plans—the less-intelligent thugs who did what refined, Germans could not. It is inconceivable to them that the people whose countries were invaded twice or three times over by the Nazis and USSR could possibly be “the bad guy” in the WWII movie. How could the victim be at fault?
And yet, the victim is often at fault, when one reads stories about how Belarusian independence is a Nazi plot, or that Ukraine’s government and military are full of neo-Nazis and fascists. These stories depend on half-truths and exaggerations, and are often created and spread by Russian nationalists and the Russian government.
Russia’s Nazi Collaborator Narrative
Germans and Europeans benefit from perpetuating the Nazi Collaborator Narrative indirectly, and emotionally—as a way of helping them cope with the embarrassment and shame of having attempted to erase Jewry from the earth or not tried sufficiently hard to stop that erasure from happening.
Russia benefits far more directly from the narrative. As the inheritor of the USSR’s legacy, Russia gets to view Nazi Collaborators as enemies, and replay a version of history in which the USSR is the protagonist (for who are Nazis and Nazi collaborators but antagonists). Countries and peoples who were Nazis and Nazi Collaborators have no right to self-defense, no right to external assistance, no right to sympathy.
Another way in which Russia benefits from the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is similar to the way in which European countries conquered by the Nazis benefit—which is to say, it takes them off the hook for hard questions that are better left unasked. So long as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland are no more and no less than Nazi Collaborators, and don’t have any right to ask for understanding or empathy, have no right to their own history, Russia doesn’t have to answer questions like: why did many Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians (and Russians, in fact!) actively help the Nazis? One will have trouble occupying a country for months, let alone years, if the population is hostile—and in spite of active ethnic cleansing and initiatives that bordered on slavery, many people were, in fact, still willing to help the Nazis even in 1944. What had been so bad about the USSR in Ukraine and Belarus that anything, even a monster like the Nazis, was preferable to returning to the Soviet fold?
The history of Nazi collaboration has distinct anti-semitic elements that reach back to the pogroms of the early 20th century and earlier, the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries. The specific context of these pogroms taking place overwhelmingly in these countries and few other places involves the anti-semitic settlement policies of Imperial Russia—who was allowed to settle where, and for how long. Those policies laid a firm groundwork for what happened when the Nazis invaded, and help explain why things unfolded the way they did in those areas.
To reckon with the consequences of the USSR’s actions before WWII, or, further back, its immediate loss of Finland, Poland, the Baltic States, and near-loss of Belarus and Ukraine after WWI, is beyond Russia’s abilities at the present moment. It does not suit its government to dwell on past failures, even when to avoid doing so means future defeats, and further territorial losses.
On top of that, the Nazi Collaborator Narrative sets Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine out as distinct from polite, civilized Europe—it pits them against one another as nations and isolates them from each other and from European assistance. In other words, it’s the perfect mechanism by which to keep them under Moscow’s thumb.
For these reasons and more, Russia goes out of its way to deliberately perpetuate the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, in Europe as a way of undermining the national credibility of countries, in the US as a way of turning different groups against one another (Ukrainian-Americans versus Jews, in one recent example), and against the countries themselves as a way of isolating them from each other and from the West. So long as the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is dominant, there will always be a group of people who are disincentivized from rendering assistance to Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. There will always be fewer people on the front lines fighting and demonstrating for freedom.
A Bad Tactic Taken Too Far
Since the fall of the USSR, Russia’s dined out well on this arrangement. Russia isn’t the USSR, but inherited its legacy, so it can selectively embrace components of history that it wants or feels are relevant. The parts of the USSR that are inconvenient, such as its alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939, or its post-war anti-Zionism, are quietly retired from active discussion. The parts that are convenient—dignity, victory over the Germans, scientific and technological advances—are retained. Russia has wielded Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus’ unfortunate proximity to Germany and Europe like a cudgel, painting them as fascistic relics, anti-semites, and traitors. Rather than taking a leadership role in the region and attempting to guide the post-Soviet space into a new détente with itself and with Europe, Russia has hectored and hassled its neighbors—in the case of Ukraine, it has invaded and annexed a piece of its territory. The Nazi Collaborator Narrative is what partially justifies this behavior to Russians internally, and to some small and disaffected groups in Europe and the United States who have a tenuous grasp on history.
This cynical employment of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative also creates tensions and plays havoc on good-faith educational efforts of Holocaust memorial initiatives. Impoverished Ukrainians and Poles migrate to places like London and Milan for employment while Belarusians protest for democratic representation and Ukraine continues to fight a war of defense against Russia—dragging them into conflict with well-funded Western institutions helps divide people, and also undermines the anti-authoritarian, humanistic goal of Holocaust education by putting it to service on behalf of an authoritarian power.
But Russia has been overplaying their hand. If the goal is to bring Ukraine, Belarus, and perhaps one day Poland back into Russia’s orbit, and maybe reclaim some or all of their former Imperial territory, Russia’s continued dependence on the narrative to isolate the countries also ensures that the countries see themselves as separate and distinct from Russia. If they are separated from Russia by their experience of WWII, and Russia sees itself as the protagonist in the conflict, on a certain level that must mean there is no “joining” the Russian project. If one is not Russian, or part of Russia, one cannot be a protagonist—furthermore, by the logic of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, the Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Baltic citizens are essentially and definitionally not Russian, nor can they be Russian. And they can be ruled by Russia—as evidenced by history—wisely and unremarkably, or unwisely. The latter has been more the rule than the former.
This logical problem for Russia was less important when memories of what former Soviets call The Great Patriotic War were still fresh, and when there was an ideologically inspiring story (communism) to replace the shame of having picked the wrong side. To be part of the USSR was not to be Russian (although Russian language and nationalism did become parts of the heart of the project, as the project failed), it was to be anti-fascist; a worker, a comrade, part of a trans-national movement in which anyone could participate.
That is not the case that is being made to Russians now by their president, nor is it the argument being used to forward Russian interests and thwart the interests of Eastern European countries. The argument is that Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland are fascistic Nazi Collaborators, and Russians aren’t (although of course, many were, and Putin’s Russia is the most openly authoritarian and fascistic major country today).
There is another threat in Russia forwarding a simplistic version of events that excuses them for responsibility—it encourages Polish, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Baltic citizens to view negative but true information about what their people did in WWII as just more Russian disinformation. The long term effect of this campaign will be to actually help foster anti-semitism in those communities, and reduce the incentive of Eastern Europeans to reconcile with their past. And this type of lie, left unaddressed for decades or centuries can lead to—what else? Pogroms and violence in the future.
As memory fades of WWII, it is replaced by one’s lived experience of the present. The war becomes just another titanic struggle between East and West, and the emotional power that it held over participants and victims slowly vanishes. Russia’s attempts to keep their memory of it fixed in the present, for diplomatic advantage, is doomed, because most people don’t care about what doesn’t affect them directly. Some people don’t even care about things that do affect them. And the events of 75 years ago, while important and relevant to today’s world, don’t hold the same personal urgency they once did as means of coercing behavior.
Russia’s use of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative to explain events that are negative from their perspective has been very useful for them up until the present moment, and it’s a narrative that still holds power for some people. Because it is used by Russia to separate and bludgeon Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, however, there is an increasing backlash against it—to view it as a kind of Russian lie, a malicious distortion of the truth. Russia’s reliance on it may satisfy its own government, and some of its more nationalistic citizens, but it will only serve to further alienate neighboring, implicated countries from Russia; to set them off as different, essentially apart from Russia, essentially independent. This cannot be what Russia wants—but it may be too difficult for Russia to see another path forward.
Ukraine has gone through many transitions. From the great steppe-empires of ancient times, to mighty kingdoms in the middle-ages, to its partition and occupation by various empires, to its status as a modern nation-state on the periphery of Europe, Ukraine has maintained key aspects of its identity while never quite “making it” as an agent of its own—until its most conspicuous struggle to date, the ongoing fight for independence from Russia.
This modern and independent Ukraine is what I observed while traveling and living there between 2015-17. This information is, as previously stated, being written a year or two after I left, which means some things must be different. I departed from a Ukraine that was just beginning to seriously discuss issues that led to fateful 2019 presidential election. The process of evaluating potential contenders for the presidency was just beginning. I left while the war was grinding on with quiet ferocity—that may no longer be the case by the time one reads this. I suspect that many of the same trends I saw have not changed, that Ukraine is about the same as it was when I left, in spite of the declaration of martial law, in spite of their religious split from the Moscow Patriarchate. Every “legal” or official recognition of war, or rift from Russia, is simply an admission of the state of affairs since 2014, rather than some dramatic new development.
Each Ukrainian contains multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman. The history of Ukraine—its lengthy background as a crossroads for Europe, its period under Polish and then Russian colonization, the lows and the highs of the USSR, the lawless barbarity of the 1990s, and the uncertain but exhilarating pride of standing toe to toe with Russia since 2014—are all reflected within towns, families, and even within individuals.
Ukraine means “borderlands,” in Russian, but to Ukraine’s people, the word means (broadly) to be accustomed to enduring great suffering. Sometimes the people struggle with a common enemy, and sometimes against each another. All over the country, people acknowledge this truth—in the port city of Mariupol, in Odesa (another port city), and in Kyiv, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Khmelnitsky. In all these cities and more—Dnipro, Mikolaiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Sumy, there are people who understand themselves as Ukrainian. Most of them speak Russian, some speak Ukrainian. Many have Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian grandparents. Some have Greek or Jewish grandparents, about which they’ll talk about with friends.
Ukrainians are generous and hospitable, but also have a superstitious and conspiratorial streak in spite of their strength in STEM education, perhaps owing to the low esteem in which religion was held in the USSR and the corresponding attention paid to it by generations of authority figures. Living in a country with low rule of law or institutional credibility, spiritualism and hokum hold a powerful and natural attraction to those who seek a measure of control over their lives. Moreover, conspiracy is a kind of widespread social defense mechanism; it is easy to spread rumors in Ukraine, as in Russia, but no single rumor or conspiracy is generally granted much weight. People are quick to believe even the most stupendous fabrications, but act no faster on those than on credible information. Then, there is the lived experience of people in their fifties and older of the conspiracies that felled the USSR, and the memory of the conspiracies that created it, mapped onto the oligarchic inheritors of the businesses and endeavors that stretch, interconnected across nations, across the vast breadth of the land from the Carpathians in the West to the Bering Sea in the East.
Citizens are welcoming and curious, and willing to engage with foreigners. There are some places (Kyiv, Lviv) where it is common to find people who speak English and not difficult to navigate important landmarks; outside those cities, one needs a guide. This is due in part to the prevalence of Cyrillic signposts, and in part to the Soviet-era legacy of addresses being counterintuitive and hidden. One can wander for an hour seeking what ought to be an obvious address or landmark, only to find one’s destination through an archway, down an unmarked street, and between two dilapidated buildings.
Mystery and romance are at the heart of Ukraine’s society. While Ukrainians themselves dislike the name “borderlands,” as it sets them down as a referential, defined only in terms of something else (their neighbors), they also own their status to being in-between place, a space where fortunate meetings and collisions occur without scripting.
Many people are nationalistic (and here I do not mean patriotic), but they do not connect to their nationalism in the way that people might think (let’s say it—the bad way). They are nationalistic in the sense that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in politics, seizure of Crimea, and ongoing threat of invasion all put “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian identity” forefront in the imagination of Ukrainians. At a time when politics has put nationalism in the spotlight for the usual, bad reasons in Europe and the United States, it might be strange to hear that there could be a kind of nationalism that isn’t irrevocably and irredeemably compromised. But I’d say the type that springs up organically as a response to an actual (rather than fabricated, as in the case of invented “migrations” to Europe and the U.S.) threat has some basic utility.
That nationalism manifests itself in different ways, from public wearing of traditional clothes like ornate, hand-stitched “Veshivanka” shirts, to the flying of Ukraine’s flag, to less visible means of support. Ukrainians are unusually interested in Ukrainian history, perhaps in some measure due to its relative novelty per se (this essay presumes a novelty in discussing Ukrainian history). Their art, language, and poetry, are all subjects of conversation outside educated circles.
Nationalism conjures horrible images from history, and patriotism, despite Boswell’s (or Johnson depending on how credible one finds Boswell’s accounts) negative framing of the term, doesn’t do much better. In the best circumstances, nationalism is a poison, and that must not be lost in the conversation. Much as a steady course of adrenaline in the athlete’s or warrior’s bloodstream could lead to a much shorter (and violent) life than otherwise, nationalism, unadulterated and in the wrong country, will lead it to criminal activity in and outside its borders, and, ultimately, to collapse.
Ukraine has an unusual relationship with nationalism, historically and in the present (of course the two are related). It’s more complicated than “Ukrainians are nationalistic.” On the contrary, the pride of local citizens in their history, and that history which their families have been able to preserve against the storm of the 20th century, is refreshing and instructive. Although it will seem paradoxical, Ukrainians who are nationalistic or patriotic (not nationalists) nevertheless do not understand themselves as such, because the idea of Ukraine is still so young there is nothing, bad or good, to guide the sentiment.
The long experiment with socialism and centralization left a number of marks on the place. One is that Kyiv is a massive city with a proud educational and social legacy. There are slums, of course, like Moscow, Tokyo and New York, but people find a way to get by. Public transit is heavily subsidized and more dependable than the DC Metro or NYC Subway (not that that says much anymore). Ukraine is crammed full of engineers, technicians, and IT experts—the product of the USSR’s focus on building engines, rockets, and machines in order to increase industrial and agricultural productivity. Many people who were in their 40s when the USSR fell would be retiring now; because of decreased life expectancies due to stress, environmental factors, and a dilapidated health care system, they’re dying instead of enjoying retirement (this is true of many countries that used to be members of the USSR, with the notable exception of the Baltic states). With help from Putin and his political apparatus, the same phenomenon in Russia has produced nostalgia for a nonexistent Soviet past. In Ukraine it is a source of frustration, confusion, and malaise.
There are some recent buildings that are more or less built to European standards, but most of the buildings still date back to Soviet times, and their quality varies with the era in which they were built. Housing from the 50s is grim, if functional; 60s tends to be sturdy and durable (while retaining the spare functionality of earlier buildings), and buildings from the 70s, 80s, and 90s are miserable and worn. Little of Kyiv or other front-line cities survived the 40s, though there are many buildings that date from the last part of the 19th century, or the first part of the 20th.
Ukrainian society is organized very tightly around family and friends, in large part because it’s the only institution that has had any staying power. In opposition to that organization—which has survived in spite of organized attempts to destroy it by the state, and by political parties—is the mobility made possible by economic opportunity in Europe, and social media (5% of Ukraine’s economy was made up of IT workers, many of whom were working as subcontractors for American or European companies). Ukrainian towns are dying, and a way of life is dying with it.
That opposition of urban to rural, or modern to traditional, is a major fault line within Ukraine. It’s such an antiquated conflict from modern American perspectives that it’s almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the closest analogy would be films from the 1960s or 70s about Western towns being dismantled for interstate highways, or neighborhoods destroyed by a bridge or a connector (this happened in New Haven and Hartford, two cities with which I’m better acquainted than most owing to my proximity to them growing up). The “urban versus rural / blue versus red” political explainers today would have readers believe that this is a divide that animates American voters. But when one visits Ukraine and sees the difference between a place like Kyiv where people routinely travel to other countries, and a town just two hours outside Kyiv where horses pull wheeled carts full of crops and plow fields, one sees measurable and comprehensible distinctions. Yes, rural poverty exists in the United States, and income inequality, but while hookworm in the rural South centers around bad plumbing and sanitation, in many parts of rural Ukraine there isn’t plumbing at all, but outhouses. As of the most recent reckoning, 81% of the US lives in an urban or suburban area, while 19% lives in rural areas; in Ukraine, not only is that split closer to 70%/30%, but the gulf between those two places is far greater.
Urban/rural isn’t the only way to tell the story of Ukraine, but it does a pretty good job, and better than many other models. Traveling to the East to report on the war there in 2017, I found myself in a small, old town. The residents there spoke Ukrainian, and had, presumably, for centuries. I was shocked to hear Ukrainian in the heart of “separatist” territory; the East is spoken and thought of as a “Russian-speaking” and culturally Russian. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the beginning of the industrial age. Prior to the development of coal and mineral deposits there, and widespread migration of Russian-speakers to the area for that industrial work, the East was sparsely-populated and agricultural/pastoral. Owing to those mineral deposits, the land wasn’t fertile—brackish, polluted water sources were common before men started taking coal out of the earth—and farming was less easy than in other parts of Ukraine. I have verified this with my own eyes (and nose). To give one a sense of how Ukraine was for much of its history, as recently as 1897, nearly 53% of the region identified as ethnic Ukrainian, and 29% Russian. While in the 20th century the numbers shifted such that ethnic Russians dominate the east today, many of those “ethnic” Russians identify politically as Ukrainians; once again, the split depending on a complex web of familial, economic, and cultural affiliations.
This isn’t to say that language determines identity, certainly not on a national level. I met plenty of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots throughout the country. Speaking Russian doesn’t give people any special affinity for that country or culture, any more than speaking French gives people a preference for France and French things. I’ll use myself as an example here; while I love Paris, and appreciate French culture, if I had to choose on a country-by-country level between France and Germany, or France and Italy, or even France and Sweden, I’d choose any of those other countries over the one country where I can make my preferences known in some fluency outside English. Another example: of the dozens of people I spoke with at length in Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv, most spoke Russian primarily or exclusively. Nevertheless, these were people who went out of their way to emphasize that they identified as Ukrainian, and felt themselves not just part of the national Ukrainian project but an essential part—full citizens, and part of the exciting new national project on which their people had embarked. They viewed Russians as outsiders, who (after 2014) meant them harm; the invasion had put to bed any notion of Russia as a cultural “brother” or even cousin. I suppose this makes sense; if one’s brother wields a knife against you in an attempt to kill you, familial considerations take a back seat to the drama of existential struggle.
If in the center and parts of its West, Ukrainian language competes with Russian at an advantage, in the East, Russian is the dominant language (and again, independent of ethnic or political considerations). This, however, tells a different story than one might think—a story about Industrialization, urbanization, and patterns of migration rather than cultural hegemony. Throughout Ukraine, this is most visible in those hundreds or thousands of towns and hamlets that dot the landscape as they have for centuries, in which Ukrainian is still spoken as the primary language. This is the case in places historically settled by Ukrainians that are currently part of Russia, too, like the region in which Mikhail Gorbachev was born to Ukrainian and Russian parents.
A powerful cultural legacy helps underpin the ongoing influence of “rural” Ukraine. During the aforementioned experience with Soviet collectivism—an experience, for Ukrainians, that is indistinguishable from the famines of the 1920s and 30s, and which was passed down verbally from generation to generation—loss of the legal right to land was one of the most bitterly-felt blows. Land that had been owned and farmed for generations was expropriated by the State and redistributed for collective use. In some cases, that expropriation accompanied the exile of some or all of the former owners to different parts of the then-USSR, including the Soviet Far East, and Siberia. When Ukraine declared its independence in the early 1990s, one of the most anticipated changes was a key land reform that accomplished two things at once: the return of collective land to private ownership, and a contentious law that prevented the sale of farmland to foreign individuals or companies. The EU hates the law, because it frustrates investment and development. But given the country’s history, and the relationship many still have to private land ownership, it’s unlikely that the law will change; this will mean the continued habitation of rural areas of many Ukrainians, and therefore ongoing rural culture.
Another thing worth considering when it comes to the question of whether Ukrainians ought to hang onto their rural heritage—having friends or family with land, or access to land, has been a godsend for even the most affluent Ukrainians seeking to survive during war and revolution. Within living memory, there have been times when food was either unavailable or hopelessly expensive—Ukrainians have learned the value of a resilient economy in which one always has recourse to one’s own garden, if more robust systems fail (as they have).
On many issues, analysts are tempted to characterize national or local disagreements in terms of identity (Russian/Ukrainian based on history) or language (Russian/Ukrainian). From what I saw in Ukraine, and knowing what we do about its history, I think the clash between city and country is the best single way to understand how people think about various issues.
What will become of Ukraine, tomorrow? It’s impossible to know. So much depends on the interests of the countries around it. In concert with Europe as part of the EU and with the military guarantee of NATO at its back, it’s possible to imagine Ukraine growing into a strong and dependable country of commerce and laws, a valuable and important member of a community of developed nations.
Left to its own devices, the country will likely descend into dictatorship, nationalism, or even fascism, as a prudent mechanism by which to defend itself against neighbors that have, historically, invaded and seized portions of its territory (or, in the case of Russia, are actively involved in doing so today).
In the event Ukraine is left to fend for itself and slides toward dictatorship or fascism, it will eventually almost certainly return to some sort of agreement or accommodation with Russia. The energy and attention needed to keep Ukraine independent and aloof from both East and West is tremendous, and while such an exercise has been possible for a time in the past, for a hundred or two hundred years at a time, the allure of participating in some shared community, even one as toxic and unidirectional as one dictated from Moscow, is probably more palatable than solitude. Imagine having to endure both insulting jokes and condescension from Russia, and low-grade racism and cultural superiority from Europe. Either one is frustrating and annoying, but both together will, over time, push Ukraine in one direction or the other.
The journalists, advocates, civil society volunteers, veterans, and middle class aspirants in Ukraine are doing their utmost to pull Ukraine toward Europe, but tradition and the disappointed, impoverished poor are satisfied with an oligarchic or dictatorial status quo. The most clever, energetic, and best-organized side will likely determine Ukraine’s future. Until that time, the country is worth seeing for oneself.
When a traveler or journalist from the West arrives in Ukraine, most of them do so at a disadvantage. Mainstream culture has likely furnished little analysis, save for reductive imperialist narratives that define Ukraine vis-à-vis war and its neighbors. When that traveler or journalist spends time there, though, they begin to learn of the place’s fascinating history, and, if they’re like me, they fall in love.
People often use the adjective “rich” to describe a place’s history; Ukraine lives up to that billing. Surprisingly so, to people unfamiliar with its background. Almost every step is one of discovery, every friendship forged an act of learning lived history within one or two generations of totalitarianism, extreme poverty, and revolution unlike anything experienced within America since the 19th century, and Europe since the mid-20th.
But what is history, especially as it applies to an entire country? In broad terms, it’s a series of choices made by popular storytellers and citizens, on the one hand the choice to emphasize certain facts, and on the other hand the choice to receive those facts. History, on a national level, is a consensus, based on the faith that readers have in the people writing the history, and their willingness to receive a given narrative about how a country developed, which people were vital to its development and in which way. At the present moment, for example, the history of The United States is being contended. One could argue that the war in Ukraine is a conflict between Ukrainians and their neighbors over Ukrainian history, and Ukraine’s right to determine who tells stories about its people and its land.
The point of the following section is not that Ukrainians are related to the Scythians or Sarmatians or Huns or any of the other groups who’ve moved through the area over the centuries, any more than Germans are related to Arminius, or Italians are descended from Romans. The point is that Ukrainians have just as much irrational history on which to draw to create a story about themselves as anyone else.
The traditional, Eurocentric version of history with which most Americans and Western Europeans born before the end of the Cold War grew up goes something like this: a causal line between the Europe and America of today exists that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Israel of the Bible. This line goes through Great Britain, and Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and Ancient Rome. It features figures like Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther, and Richard the Lionheart. It is the perspective of a person looking north toward Germany and Scandinavia, and east toward the steppes that produced Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun.
Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian history carries within it this necessary and understandable bias. Rome, the Greek city-states, Great Britain and other civilizations, were all places that competed with their neighbors. We remember them now as mighty empires, but they were always a couple bad harvests away from famine, invasion, and widespread death. It’s easy to look back on the lives of our ancestors from the vantage of today and judge them harshly, when so much is assured by technology, science, and medicine. The idea that one should expect any children to grow unharmed to adulthood would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. The empires that stand as protagonists in America and Western Europe’s history all share this in common: at the time, they were uncertain propositions that survived in spite of the power and potential of those empires around them. At no point was anything secure, and the same time that Roman authors were describing Rome’s eminence in the world to their Emperors and patricians, Chinese and Persian authors were doing the same about their empires for their leaders.
Although “Western civilization” has come to include Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia in recent years, that picture tends not to include places like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and the former constituent countries of Yugoslavia. Some of this has to do with language; much, up until the 17th or 18th century, with the Catholic-Orthodox and alphabetical divide in Christianity; some, with the political and cultural isolation imposed by the USSR after the first and second world wars. An exacerbating element concerns the proliferation of broadcast media that spread cultural stereotypes at a time when emphasizing national differences between east and west (the aforementioned struggle with the USSR) was seen as necessary.
All of this combines to obscure Ukraine. Uncovering the nation and peoples’ history may be a daunting task, but it is not insurmountable. Once one accepts the proposition that Ukraine is a part of history, “Ukraine” starts cropping up all over the place. This could be the case with any other country, too, but that’s exactly the point—traditionally, it isn’t the case with Ukraine. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time and instrumental to the choreography of Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” was born in Kyiv at the end of the 19th century. Hasidism was born in Ukraine, too, through Baal Shem Tov, at the end of the 17th century. The Polish-Lithuanian expedition to rescue Vienna and Europe from the Ottomans occurred in the 16th century. The destruction of Kyiv at the hands of the Golden Horde in the 13th century may have disrupted or delayed the development of Ukraine as a country, but without the Kyiv Rus fighting against the Mongols, it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine the Mongols reaching further than they did, and wreaking worse havoc in Central and perhaps even Western Europe. Kyiv itself was settled by Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries. Further back still, Ukraine was the homeland of those two Gothic tribes that first sacked Rome in the 5th century; earlier, the Scythians made that land their home. In pre-history, northern horsemen mentioned as allies of the Trojans in Homer’s Iliad almost certainly originated in what is now Ukraine, and accounts of female horsemen known from archeological digs around Kyiv suggest a possible template for the Amazons of legend. According to archeologists, Ukraine is likely where the horse was domesticated. Human habitation has been established there dating back tens of thousands of years, back to when man hunted megafauna, and fabricated shelters with mammoth bones.
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to Ukraine’s importance to Europe’s development. Nevertheless, this evidence is easily dismissed, and has been for decades, at least. Ukraine lies outside the conventional historical narrative as taught in schools, its facts consigned to a secondary importance assigned by virtue of their relationship to Europe’s development. Ukraine is not the central character in its own story, let alone a central character in the story of Europe. It certainly could be.
In spite of millennia of events and experiences on which to draw, few people in the West view Ukraine (alongside Greece, Italy, or Turkey) as part of European history and civilization. Rather, Ukraine and its neighboring countries are seen as the source of menacing historical accidents like the Huns and the Mongols, occasionally pacified by strong rulers, hospitable to barbarians adjacent to the crucial transformations unfolding, inevitably, elsewhere. Inferior to the Western civilization that these ruinous savages periodically threaten.
Institutional storytelling refers to the tendency of institutions to privilege or prioritize their own perspective and diminish those of others. An early and obvious example of this is The Iliad, or, the Greek account of the Trojan War. In this telling, Troy and its allies were antagonists, while Greeks and their allies were protagonists. This cultural epic or myth reinforced a sense of “Greek-ness” originating in the former territory of Mycenae and those cities or islands like Sparta and Ithaca that allied with it, and dated back to the 9th century, BC. 500 years later, the Iliad was used again to understand the struggle between Greek city-states and their Persian neighbors. It has been used many times since, but always within the framework of rivals competing for power.
The nomadic tribes of Ukraine, to the extent that they were involved in the Trojan War, were unquestionably allied with Troy. And during the clash between Greece and Persia between 490 and 480 BC, they were a nuisance to both sides, appearing indirectly in Herodotus’ account as a cautionary tale offered to Xerxes by an uncle, Artabanus, who said of invading Greece:
“I warned your father—Darius, my own brother—not to attack the Scythians, those wanderers who live in a cityless land. But he would not listen to me. Confident in his power to subdue them he invaded their country and before he came home again many fine soldiers who marched with him were dead. But you, my lord, mean to attack a nation greatly superior to the Scythians…”
Herodotus, a Greek, portrayed Greece as superior to Persians, and to Scythians, because it was in his interests. It made for a good story and solidified the (Greek) reader’s opinion of him or herself. It was primarily directed at a Greek audience, and secondarily at a Persian audience. From Herodotus’ perspective, Scythians were illiterate barbarians, useful only as a way of demonstrating Persian vulnerability and fallibility. They served as a foil to emphasize Persia’s overestimation of their own military strength.
That was the Greek version of Scythians. The historical and archeological Scythians lasted almost 600 years, from sometime in the 8th century BC until the mid-3rd century BC. Although defeated by Philip of Macedon, the Scythians were not destroyed, and they managed to exert power over much of Ukraine until Celtic, Thracian, and Sarmatian migrations displaced the people who had originally settled there.
This template reasserted itself periodically. Following the Fall of Western Rome over the course of the 5th-6th centuries AD, the situation in Western Europe deteriorated greatly. By the time Anne of Kyiv married the King of France in the late 11th century, the relative development in Kyiv and Paris had reached such a point that she sent letters home describing the squalor of her new surroundings, thereby emphasizing the difference in strength and culture between the places. Granted, Paris had recently been sacked by the Vikings, and Europe itself was at an historical ebb, relative to other regions of the world, but at that time Paris was still considered a gem in the West. At this precise moment, though, Kyiv was a place of learning and commerce, a diverse and bustling neighbor of the Byzantines. Paris, a savage backwater.
Nevertheless, the destruction of the Kyivan state at the hands of the Mongolian Golden Horde returned much of Ukraine to barbarity at the very moment the West was dragging itself out of the Dark Ages. Centuries passed while the Rus people struggled against the Mongols and against each other. By the time Jan Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania rescued the Austro-Hungarian Empire from invading Ottoman Turkey in the late 17th century, Ukraine had been relegated to a sort of cultural backwater, mentioned only as a footnote in those secondary texts that decided to refer to it at all. One reason for this is that the audience for the writing and cultural output of Ukraine was Orthodox Christian communities, of which there were few in the West; Ukraine was producing religious literature in a language and with an alphabet that was almost as inaccessible as Japanese at the very moment that print was making books more accessible and widespread.
From Polish footnote in the 15th-17th centuries to Russian footnote after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukraine remained hidden. In spite of their lacking a king after the Mongols galloped through, in spite of not developing a nation to go along with its distinct cultural identity and language, Ukraine persisted among the peasantry and smaller landowners, the great anonymous masses that make up history as it’s lived, rather than a certain type of history written and preferred by the wealthy and influential. This is similar to other places in Europe that were never fully colonized by conquerors—English, Lapps, Sicilians, Basques, and so forth. Look for Ukrainians in literature—you will find them in Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Look for Ukrainians in poetry and art—they are present, most conspicuously so in the works of Taras Shevchenko, a 19th-century romantic painter and poet who helped formalize the idea of “Ukraine” as a place apart from Russia or Poland. Ukrainians are everywhere in the literature of the countries around them, as well as those countries that claimed portions of the territory as their own. It can be complicated to trace their history at this moment because they were given many different names by the people who interacted with one portion or another of the group—Cossacks, Ruthenians, Galicians—in all cases, words assigned to Ukrainians by outsiders, rather than generated internally.
Things stayed this way for the most part through the beginning of the 20th century, when leftist and anarchist movements competed with nationalist movements organized around ethnicity for primacy in the region, while monarchs like Emperor Franz Joseph and Tsars like Nicholas II attempted to hold onto power. The same powerful forces that had aligned to disrupt the European status quo through revolution and war spread slowly eastward.
One tendency during the late 19th century helped accelerate the process of nationalism: Russia’s attempts to describe Ukraine as “invented.” This was connected to Russian attacks on Polish language and identity, and Belarusian identity, as well as their attempts to encourage ethno-nationalist movements in the Balkans and Central Europe. This was part of an ongoing struggle with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Tsar saw non-Russian identities and languages as liabilities. Russia’s government therefore characterized nationalist movements as schemes to destabilize Russia. Russification became a viable path, through resettlement, the outlaw of non-Russian language to be taught in schools, forbidding non-Russian culture, and politics. People like Shevchenko, who wrote in Ukrainian about Ukraine in the early-19th century, were punished and made into pariahs for “agitating.”
It’s worth taking a moment to pause, here, with the assertion that “Ukrainian” is an invented identity or language—a fictional product of professional agitators—because that assertion, which has been employed variously by Polish, Austro-Hungarian, German, and a variety of Russian groups over the years, has ramifications for the present and the future. There is no more persuasive argument against viewing Ukrainians (or anyone) as equal or important than the notion that their culture, their history, their language is a political trick or a con. If that assertion is true, what you’re reading right now isn’t an essay, it’s fiction. One can easily justify annexation or partition of an invented polity.
But that is not the case. Ukraine is a country that developed organically over centuries, and the various peoples who live there coexist, for the most part peacefully save in those places that they are actually and actively being supported by external powers. True, Ukraine in its current form bears little resemblance to Kyivan Rus; but then, modern France is quite different from the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Russia’s own history is a long and slow evolution from the principality of Muscovy in the 17th century to the Russian Empire in the 18th century and, ultimately, to the current post-Soviet state; surely, if Ukraine is an “invented” country, it is not any more so than Russia, a political entity that did not exist on medieval European maps and was utterly unknown to ancient Rome. But this essay is not intended as an attack on Russian identity—it is intended to point out that the creation of every nationality or national history is an imposition, an invention, on a certain level. How, if the principality or duchy of Muscovy does not predate the 12th century, did people come to live there? How is it that those people ended up speaking a language similar to that spoken by the Poles, and to the Kyivan Rus? These seem like obvious questions, the type an eight-year-old might ask, but are often left unexplored or even unposed.
As much is the case in France, England, Germany, Italy, and Russia, Ukraine is a country with a history, and a distinct language, and culture, and people. Stating this is neither an endorsement nor repudiation of E. J. Hobsbawn—if the contemporary nationalism of Ukrainians today is invented, then surely it is no more or less invented than the nationalism of England, Germany, Italy, or Russia.
Back to Ukraine’s history! At the end of the First World War, a war in which Poles and Ukrainians had fought on both sides (German / Austria-Hungary for those living in Central Powers-aligned areas, Russia for those living in Allied areas), the world had changed dramatically. The two promised revolutions, economic and ethno-nationalist, arrived at the same time, in different places: Central and Eastern Europe were “emancipated” from Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian dominion (though not, unfortunately, domination), and a bevy of states were created based on “self-determination” and/or reconstituted and recognized. Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary benefitted from autonomy and self-determination, enforced or enabled by the victorious Allied powers. The Ottoman Empire was partitioned and colonized, and of the former Ottoman territories only Turkey was able to organize an effective defense against a disorganized and badly led Greek force (which nevertheless nearly succeeded in reanimating the long-dead corpse of the Byzantine empire).
Ukrainian and Belarussian ambitions for nationhood were ignored, though both appealed for recognition and formed leadership constituencies. The Poles were able to occupy parts of Belarus and what is now western Ukraine with help from their allies in France and the United States, both of which sent units and equipment. Belarussian and Ukrainian militaries mobilized to resist Poland, were defeated, and their lands annexed. Meanwhile, the center and east of Belarus and Ukraine were overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks, and forcibly incorporated into the USSR—technically through their own republics but subordinated in fact to Moscow and subject to Russification.
It’s worth underlining that point: almost every other European country’s claims to ethnic legitimacy were acknowledged and honored by the Western Europeans negotiating the Armistice in 1919. Ukrainian and Belarussian claims were overlooked, yes, but also they were actively opposed by Polish soldiers equipped by France (in the case of Belarus) and Polish soldiers fighting alongside French units, and under air cover of planes flown by the United States (in the case of Ukraine). To this day, a memorial to United States bomber pilots who fought for Poland in WWI stands in the Lviv cemetery—built in WWI, defaced by communists after WWII, and rehabilitated after Ukraine’s independence.
Ukrainian and Belarussian claims for independence in the East were also opposed by Bolshevists, but on different terms; their project, in 1919, was still the creation of a classless, worker-led, global socialist society, pitted against states built on ethnic, capitalist, and nationalistic foundations.
In the end, Ukraine and Belarus were treated like the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. They were places that could be colonized and occupied, rather than liberated, to be dealt with as means to a variety of ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. The source of the problem. The outsider, the Hun, the Mongol.
Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, too, has its roots in history. When Ukraine declared itself independent in 1917—the East and the West, separately—Ukraine laid claim to an area that included Crimea, and extended into Russia encompassing parts of the Caucases and steppe territories east even of Volgograd (the city formerly known as Stalingrad). Ukraine, in 1917, laid claims to all historical Cossack lands, heavily settled by Ukrainians. This specific idea of “Ukraine” as such was, like many ethno-nationalist visions in the early 20th century, part half-baked history, part aspiration, part pseudo-science, but there wasn’t any reason not to include Crimea and those parts of Russia long settled and farmed by Ukrainians, any more than to mark out a part of Germany and Russia as Poland based on a certain snapshot of history and the linguistic preferences of its inhabitants. People fought and died for this vision of Ukraine, and endured prison and political exile; the fact that it ultimately did not come to pass doesn’t repudiate its importance to many, and underlines why Soviet leaders like Stalin treated Ukrainians with unusual ferocity.
The subjection of Ukraine by Soviet formations and its incorporation into the USSR was a fractious affair, characterized by periods of peace, and periods of conflict. After the wars of 1919-20 between Ukraine and its Polish and Bolshevik neighbors, Poland and Russia approached the problem of Ukrainian nationalism differently. Poland worked against it, viewing Ukrainian nationalism as a threat to its security. At first, the USSR took the opposite view, recognizing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (The U.S.S.R.’s own U.S.S.R.) as its own state and offering the country much latitude and autonomy. In the 1920s, beset by external foes, engaged in a fight against countries on all flanks, Vladimir Lenin encouraged Ukrainian poets, artists, authors, and politicians to view their country and language as distinct, and the country experienced a creative renaissance that was largely overlooked in a West that assumed everything happening within the impenetrable red swath of territory controlled by Moscow was an oppressive gray horror. Volodymyr Sosiura, a Ukrainian lyrical poet, had that patriotic Ukrainian renaissance to thank for his ascent to prominence in the 1920s—between 1930 and 1931 he spent two years in a Soviet re-education camp. Pavlo Tychyna was a major Ukrainian poet, interpreter, academic and statesman; like Sosiura some time in prison changed the tone of his poetry from patriotic to pro-communist party. Mykola Kulish and Mykola Hvylyoviy were both writers whose popularity during this time, to name two others. Many other individuals were part of the movement, and many of those individuals were veterans of WWI and the Red Army.
By the late 1920s, though, as Joseph Stalin consolidated power, Russia had regained enough strength and settled with its neighbors sufficiently to focus on internal matters. And internal matters, for Ukraine, meant cracking down on their language (outlawed in favor of Russian), literature (outlawed in favor of class-appropriate authors), politics, and economy. These efforts led to widespread resistance, and by 1930, nearly 1 million Ukrainians were estimated to be either actively or passively resisting Moscow. Stalin’s solution, an engineered famine, which was applied in other areas of the USSR as well for similar purposes, sought to destroy perceived Ukrainian truculence once and for all. Between 1932 and 1933, what has come to be known as “Holodomor” resulted in the deaths by starvation of between 2 and 10 million people (contemporary Western scholars put the number in the high 4 millions), and the usual outrages that accompany famine: crime, cannibalism, and shattered communities.
The Ukrainian experience of Holodomor, successfully buried in the West by a combination of inattention and initial enthusiasm in academia and media sources for the Soviet experiment, is an experience that resonated with special power through the years. This is how lived history often works: overlooked or ignored by the academic, political, or professional writers of an age, a trauma works its way down from generation to generation, or within a family, until an opportunity for vengeance presents itself.
So with Holodomor, which helped frame how history played out over the next decade, even contributing to the early and astonishing defeats of the Red Army during the opening chapters of Germany’s war with Russia. Part of this has to do with to the immense and unforgiven insult offered to Ukrainians who, remembering having to watch family and friends die, and in some cases eat their bodies to survive, happily and even enthusiastically assisted the Nazis in destroying the Soviet military and political apparatus. Part of that was the unfortunate accident of Holodomor’s most conspicuous architect and advocate, Lazar Kaganovich, having been Jewish (more on the specific history of anti-semitism in Ukraine later).
Kaganovich was also Ukrainian—as were Nikita Khrushchev and Mikael Gorbachev, though both identified primarily with their Russian roots. Ukrainians were woven deeply into the fabric of the USSR, and they and their nation were seen as essential to the success of the Soviet project. Ukraine’s farmland, its industrial base, and European population were all viewed as indispensable assets to the USSR. Much more than Belarus, or many of the far-eastern satellites, a powerful and confident Ukrainian ally made the United Soviet Socialist Republic feasible. And yet, the moment Ukraine had an opportunity to separate from Moscow and the USSR, many of Ukraine’s citizens took sides against the USSR, carrying on a vicious insurgency that lasted from 1941 until 1954, after Stalin’s death. Less a matter of defeat than a détente, the end of the Ukrainian insurgency happened alongside the elevation of a Donbas Ukrainian (albeit one who identified as Russian) to the most powerful position in the USSR, as well as his elevation of Ukraine to a position of prominence, a position from which it more or less happily cooperated with the Soviet project until its total collapse in 1991. This is worth saying because it illustrates how to treat one’s neighbors—badly and they will meet violence with violence, well and they will provide useful labor for you, for free.
History has not been kind to Khrushchev, but he was a capable leader, and a staunch Soviet. From the perspective of the USSR, in fact, he was a godsend. Stalin, who managed to avoid being defeated by an inferior opponent in Hitler, made major errors throughout the 1930s and 40s that nearly resulted in the destruction of the USSR in his lifetime and may, in fact, have ultimately doomed it. Without some grand gesture, Khrushchev felt, the blood-debt incurred by Stalin in Ukraine meant that a country and people who could make the difference between success and failure would always be on the outside, a reluctant participant in the Soviet experiment. In giving Crimea to Ukraine, Khrushchev managed to effectively bury the hatchet, and helped ensure Ukraine’s loyalty throughout the remainder of the USSR’s existence.
Historical Anti-Semitism in Ukraine
Before galloping onward to Ukraine’s independence from the USSR—the next meaningful thing that happened to the country in the 20th century—it is necessary first to take step backward and address a longstanding point of contention, and one of the chief avenues of criticism for the country and its people: racism and anti-semitism. A brief note: I am using the published advice of Tim Snyder and not capitalizing the “s” in anti-semitism.
Ukraine has a reputation for being a country that is especially racist and anti-semitic. There’s no way around this criticism, or its historical basis. Modern anti-semitism is the heart and soul of serious moral opposition to Ukraine as a country, as well as the country’s culture. And while its anti-Jewish, anti-minority reputation goes back centuries—anti-semitism is the only history many people concede to Ukraine—it is Ukraine’s relationship to the Holocaust that inspires the most horror and opposition. This factor cannot be overlooked or bypassed.
The first genocidal pogroms against Jewish people are generally said to have taken place in Ukraine, in the 17th century. A “Cossack” nation led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky, in the process of establishing independence from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, focused attacks on Jewish civilians and Roman Catholic clergy, killing tens of thousands of Jewish civilians over ten years. Other, less widespread but similar pogroms happened periodically in the area until WWII, when Ukrainian paramilitaries cooperated with invading Nazis to participate in the Holocaust. Memories of the Holocaust, as well as the periodic brutalizations that occurred before, were carried by Jewish survivors fleeing Westward, to England and to the United States, and those firsthand accounts of murder or savagery invariably singled out Ukrainians (rather than Croats, Romanians, or even French) as perpetrators of the most degenerate attacks, criminal outrages remarkable for their cruelty and callousness.
This is so much the case, that Ukraine is almost indistinguishable from “anti-semitism” in Western European popular culture. Watch any movie about WWII or that touches on Ukrainians, and the role of the Ukrainian character or characters will be to murder or oppress minorities or specifically Jewish characters with as much animosity as possible, and in some suitably shocking manner. Either that or demonstrate their potential for doing so. They act as savage accomplices of the refined but amoral Germans, thinly-racialized caricatures of a perpetual lower class that can only be organized for violence or spite.
The idea of Ukrainians as essentially anti-semitic thugs (we’ll focus on this rather than racist, homophobic, xenophobic, because all of those other negative attributes are subordinate to the anti-semitism) has been very effective at marginalizing or “othering” Ukraine as a national idea. The smear occupies a small corner of everyone’s imagination, whether they’re aware of that corner or not. It influences attitudes toward Ukraine, and affects what people believe is possible in the country, and with the country’s citizens. Ukrainians themselves are often unaware of the external bias, or how it affects how they think and write about their own country. Sometimes this creates a vicious feedback loop in which Westerners read articles or watch cinema created by Ukrainians who have been colonized by this idea of themselves as specially guilty of anti-semitism, similar to the phenomenon of Black Americans echoing racist ideas in their own language and literature, re-capturing themselves through an internalized dialogue that exists everywhere outside them, and lives inside them as well. This phenomenon is most capably described by Ralph Waldo Ellison in Invisible Man and by Richard Wright in Native Son—the greatest violence of a stereotype being perpetuated inside an individual who is subjected to the stereotype’s definitional weight.
The myth is common and easily-perceived in articles written by Ukrainians themselves, like this piece in The New York Times, “Attacks on Roma Force Ukraine to Confront an Old Ethnic Enmity,” in which a journalist actively (and, tragically, without awareness) perpetuates a certain type of Western myth, abetted by years of Russian propaganda, about Ukrainians. Western readers are conditioned to accept such articles at face value and without additional context; from this perspective, articles of this sort are kitsch at best, and propaganda at worst.
The Ukrainian’s relationship to anti-semitism today manifests itself similarly to that of the African-American’s relationship to racism, with some important differences. Most conspicuously, Ukrainians do not “appear” to be much different from any other Caucasian group, due in part to the area of Ukraine having been traversed and colonized for centuries by the same invading forces that shaped the rest of Eurasia. Most African-Americans are visually distinctive. The African-American’s relationship to racism is based on the imposition of an ahistorical and spurious definition of capabilities in which the African-American was, by dint of slavery, subsequently described as intellectually and morally inferior to whites. African-Americans were deliberately trapped in a system that was not designed by or for them (more accurately, was designed to exploit them), this definitional inferiority proceeded from that system, and the imposition of identity by external forces was facilitated by visual cues (it is still imposed, today).
While there is something to be said for Ukrainians’ inferior status under those countries that governed their territory, from the Poles to the Austro-Hungarians to the Russians, that does not fully explain their relationship to the Jewish residents of those same areas, and it certainly does not excuse their participation in the Holocaust. A crime was perpetrated against African-Americans, the crime of slavery, and that crime was doubled by the crime of institutional racism that has since followed the original crime; similar crimes were perpetrated against Ukrainians, but the Ukrainians also committed great crimes against their neighbors.
One must be an ethno-nationalist to believe that there are traits fundamental to certain cultures, and therefore it is difficult to find ethno-nationalists on the left, or in the United States (a country filled with many different nationalities, and therefore absent a native “nationalism” based on ethnicity, save the aforementioned categories imposed by racists and religious exceptionalism and extremism, which is different from nationalism). Ukrainians are not born with some special anti-semitic gene, nor is there something about Ukrainian culture that predisposes Ukrainians to anti-semitism. But there certainly were material and legal conditions that made anti-semitism especially likely in Ukraine, and there have been political leaders for whom it was occasionally advantageous to scapegoat Jewish people.
The first genocidal “pogrom” mentioned earlier, intimately connected to the Khmelnytsky Uprising, was itself a populist rejection of exploitative rent-seeking that occurred in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The most influential nobles, who had amassed great power through the acquisition of farmland, had, by the 17th century, set high rents for tenant farmers (many of whom were Belarusian and Ukrainian), and insulated themselves from direct appeal by relying on Jewish employees to manage the occupation and rent collection on those lands. Jewish managers therefore became the human face for distant Polish aristocrats, and when Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks rebelled, Jewish civilians were the unsurprising (if unwarranted) targets for the brunt of that rage. Leftists might say that a more proper target of Cossack and peasant (in this case, Ukrainian) anger might have been those Polish aristocrats responsible for imposing unreasonable terms on the peasantry, and that the Jewish managers were as exploited and victimized by the system as anyone. That evaluation, one in which the aristocrats are the real genesis of the injustice that led to the uprising, doesn’t seem too off the mark for that specific pogrom. But there were others, and they took on a certain brutal tinge in 19th and 20th century Russia.
By then, the area that is currently Ukraine was governed by Russia, as was much of Poland and all of Lithuania. And the Ukrainian peasantry was still anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual, and anti-Jewish, feeding the military and the Cossack ranks with people eager to enforce laws through violence, eager to wage war on populations within the Empire. Hostile to the Empire itself. From 1791 until 1917, Russia, in a quirk of fate, permitted Jewish citizens permanent settlement only in “The Pale of Settlement,” an area that encompassed much of Ukraine, all of Belarus, all of Lithuania, and Eastern Poland. It was most likely, in the Russian Empire, that one would encounter Jewish people in this area. An excellent reason that one doesn’t read about massive historical pogroms occurring in Moscow or St. Petersburg is that for much of the 19th and early 20th century those populations were tightly controlled and limited to thousands, and the mechanism for venting Russian anti-semitism under the Tsars (which existed, as is obvious from their carving out a space outside Russia’s “home” territories and cities) was to expel Jewish residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This happened periodically, the most recent example occurring during the end of the 19th century when, as Jewish residents amassed wealth and prestige, the tsars evicted most of them and confiscated their property. Those who lost most or had little to begin with were sent to live as outcasts in the Pale of Settlement among Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians.
Baba Yar and Anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Eastern Europe during WWII
Ukrainians, largely rural, lived side-by-side with Poles, Jews, and other nationalities starting in 1791. Alongside the dislocating experience of industrialization and leaving their rural roots, Ukrainians saw their own nascent nationhood squashed by Western powers, and then over a decade beginning in 1930, brutally repressed by the USSR. When the Nazis entered Ukraine from the West in 1941, they brought with them a convenient answer that seemed designed to find an audience in Ukraine.
Almost as soon as the Germans entered Ukraine in 1941, they began killing Jews. This was not the case in Western European countries, and many Central European countries, too (Eli Weisel’s Night describes Jewish residents of a Hungarian town who avoided the Holocaust until mid-1944). This chapter of history is extensively documented both by the Nazis and by those victims of theirs who survived. The single most horrific moment arrived shortly after the capture of Kyiv, when the Nazis rounded up as many Ukrainian Jews as they could lay hands on, and between 29 and 30 September, massacred over 30,000 of them in a series of ravines called “Baba Yar” (now, a picturesque memorial park). Crucially for the history of Ukraine, this butchery was aided and empowered by local Ukrainian paramilitaries or “auxiliary police” who had been organized previously by a hyper-nationalist organization called “OUN.” Over the course of the war, these auxiliary police helped the Nazis kill another 70-120,000 Ukrainians, Jews, and Roma at Baba Yar for a variety of reasons; this original bit of ethnic cleansing is notable for its scope, immediacy, and (from the point of the Nazis) effectiveness.
Of course, the Nazis were aided in their efforts to extinguish “Bolshevism” and “Jewry” by local allies in every country they invaded; Italians, French, Poles, Lithuanians, Dutch, Latvians, Russians, Belarussians, Croats, and Hungarians to name some.
There is no question that Ukrainians assisted the Nazis in ethnic cleansing against their Jewish and minority neighbors, and this essay is not intended to minimize that horror. It is important, though, to understand the distinction between a group committed to genocide (the Nazis), and a group interested primarily in vengeance and settling personal grievances, in a local context (the Ukrainians). The Ukrainians’ participation in Holocaust activities such as Baba Yar helped cement their external reputation as among WWII’s great criminal groups, but their crimes, coming as they do from a position of weakness and exploitation vis-à-vis their position between Western Europe and Russia must be viewed with some circumspection. Eight years before Baba Yar, the country had been subjected to Holodomor, which was led by a Jewish Soviet bureaucrat, and carried out by people recruited and trained in urban areas by the USSR—many of the soldiers, secret police, and Soviet functionaries, were Jewish. This has become a talking point for ethno-nationalists and anti-semites interested in justifying their world view; I trust that readers will not impute that motivation to me, Here, I am pointing out the sad cycle of violence in which two groups of people were trapped—Ukrainians hoping to take control of their own destiny from Russia and the USSR, and also, in the very specific case of those Jewish intellectuals enthusiastically participating in the USSR project, Eastern European and Russian Jewish citizens hoping to emancipate the global working class from capitalistic exploitation, thereby destroying the harmful and divisive identity-driven conflict that had been the root of so many historical pogroms.
The collectivization and famine, then, made it easy for German propogandists of the time to distort the significance of those events and use them for their own purposes, pitting (once again) different exploited and oppressed groups against one another. This propaganda is still alive and well today among certain groups in whose interest it is to mischaracterize Jewish people and distract from their own misbehavior.
Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Poles also have a reputation for anti-semitism, though not quite so assertively as Ukrainians—mitigated, no doubt, by western ignorance of Belorusia as a country, and latent sympathy for Poles and Lithuanians, who are as a rule viewed more favorably than Ukrainians, as seen in the reflexive impulse to grant Poland its own nation in the wake of WWI. In the German WWII series “Generation War,” anti-semitic paramilitaries working alongside SS Einsatzgruppen in Russia have blue-and-yellow armbands, a subtle nod to their nationalist affiliation (Ukrainian). A Polish resistance group fighting against the Germans reserves their worst contempt for Jews, but even so, are afforded a measure of redemption owing to their hostility to the swastika—redemption denied to the Ukrainian paramilitaries.
Elie Wiesel’s Night is filled with cruel Eastern European characters, from the neighbors in the Hungarian town of Sighet where the action begins, to Franek, the Polish foreman who insists on stealing the gold crown from Wiesel’s mouth. In the beginning of the book, a Jewish man named Moshe survives a massacre in Ukrainian Galicia in 1942, then returns to Sighet to warn residents of German intentions. On the other hand, one of the very few positive characterizations that occurs in the concentration camps is a leader identified as “the Dutchman.” Goodness is possible from Western Europe, and mendacity, evil, and cruelty occur in Eastern Europe, and is perpetuated by Eastern Europeans.
Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors looks at the doctors who betrayed their Hippocratic Oaths in service of racial science and genocide. It has within it a chapter dedicated to anti-semitic Polish doctors who enthusiastically cooperated with the SS within concentration camps. While it does not mention Ukrainians—Lifton’s subject matter does not extend to that country—it does reinforce the perception at the time that “all Poles are anti-semitic”—a perception that carries over into the present time. Where one finds Western and Polish anti-semites, the Poles are always worse. The farther east one travels, it seems, the further away from civilization one gets.
Ukrainians make appearances in Into that Darkness, a profile of Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka, an extermination camp), by Gitta Sereny, as SS soldiers and guards both of the trains and the camps, at the station to greet incoming trains and crack the whips. Sereny, a careful recorder of Stangl’s personality and of Treblinka itself, includes many firsthand accounts of the horrible crimes of the Holocaust. In one account, by a member of the Polish resistance named Pan Zabecki, the Ukrainian guards come across as victims, too; Zabecki describes the Lithuanians as the truly bad collaborators: “I know a great deal has been said about the brutality of the Ukrainians,” he said, “but actually the Lithuanians who mostly guarded the trains were the real sadists; they used to shoot at people, blind, through the windows of the cars, when they begged for doctors, water, and to be allowed to relieve themselves. They did it as a sport—they laughed and joked and bet while they did it. Amongst the Ukrainians there were several who we knew wanted to get away…” Nevertheless, Zabecki’s resistance group imposed harsh penalties on members of the surrounding Polish population who cooperated with the Ukrainian guards, and acknowledges up front that even at that early juncture (the book was published in 1973, barely 30 years after the war’s conclusion) Ukrainians had a reputation for “brutality.” Throughout Into that Darkness Ukrainians have two basic identities as guards: that of the brutes wielding the whips, and that of the “reasonable” guards, capable of being bribed, amenable to approach.
If it seems to readers like these are the basic identities of prison guards of any race, ethnicity, and historical period, that is probably true. The point here is that those Ukrainians who appeared for police or paramilitary duty were conditioned to be used in ways that predisposed them toward violence and cruelty, no more and no less than citizens of other, similarly-subjugated countries, but with the important distinction that they were fully empowered to conduct ethnic cleansing on the spot against neighbors that they’d long viewed as enemies or outsiders. The tragedy is that this “prison guard” became their national historical identity.
While this is a small snapshot of a particular cross-section of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans (those in close proximity to or involved in the Holocaust), at a very particular moment (WWII), one can find evidence of this trope without much effort. Just about any story authored by a Western European that describes or discusses the Holocaust or WWII’s eastern front at length will eventually bring a spotlight to bear on Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian or Belarusian anti-semitism and cooperation with the Nazis in that anti-semitic context. This is muted in Soviet accounts of the Holocaust and WWII, for the same reasons that histories of the Civil War do not focus on the vicious fighting that took place in border states like Kansas, Kentucky, and Maryland.
Throughout WWII, alongside stories of enthusiastic cooperation with Nazi units, and heroic fighting in defense of their ideology and agenda, these groups also struggled mightily against the Nazis, though, and suffered heavily. As under the Russian Tsars and the USSR, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians were exploited, repressed, and treated little better than chattel slaves. When one views them with detachment and perspective, the peoples of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth come to resemble prisoners in a massive camp, in which different inmates were set against each another for the amusement and entertainment of great powers. Russians and Germans were sometimes treated that way by each other, as well, when the opportunity presented itself.
The legacy of anti-semitism and “ethnic enmity” in Ukraine is not specially Ukrainian, nor is it a function of Ukrainian culture or society. It is the logical output of a series of conditions, legally established and violently enforced, by a succession of rulers—Polish, Russian, German, and Russian. To call Ukraine an anti-semitic place or to accuse Ukrainians of anti-semitism is an inhuman act, historically inaccurate, an unsupportable act of political and social violence against a marginalized people.
WWII and beyond, to Chernobyl
WWII may have ended in 1945, but a large undeclared war between Poland and Ukraine raged into 1946, and Western Ukrainians waged an insurgency against Russian dominion until 1954. Russia was able to resolve the Polish-Ukrainian conflict with large-scale forced population exchanges according to how civilians had identified themselves during Nazi censuses, as well as by imposing land exchanges. This stopped the conflict between Poland and Ukraine, but fighting against Moscow didn’t truly end until Khrushchev was elevated to first secretary of the Communist Party. An eastern Ukrainian himself, who had worked with Lazar Kaganovych and had been present at Stalingrad, Khrushchev saw that the USSR needed Ukraine to succeed, and that violence and repression would only go so far in assuring compliance. To truly thrive, the USSR needed Ukraine as an ally, not an ally-in-name-only. Khrushchev settled on a brilliant idea, stitching Ukraine together with Russia by giving Ukraine Crimea, and bringing the two SSRs into closer cooperation.
For thirty years, from 1959 until 1989, the arrangement held without falter. Ukraine took part in the USSR’s successes, contributing grain and technology and energy. It shared in its disasters, as over 300,000 Ukrainians fought in Afghanistan under the Red Army. Over generations and through shared experiences, Ukrainians became increasingly intertwined with the USSR’s leadership. The future and fate of the USSR came to involve Ukraine as much as it did Russia, and vice versa—by design.
Only one major event interrupted the status quo, and it did so with long-reaching consequences. The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and the bumbling way in which it was handled politically and publicly left a lasting impact on the people of Ukraine. As it was the people of Ukraine (and Belarus) who suffered most from the meltdown—both in terms of the personnel affected directly, and the land scarred by the fallout from the meltdown—the event shaped their confidence in how the USSR was capable of handling crisis. In terms of response and transparency, the meltdown exposed the USSR’s governing mechanism as out of touch, insular, and ineffective. Its impact extends to the present time, where the country and culture is riddled with anecdotal accounts of early death from cancer. As likely as not this is due as much to widespread unregulated industrial output, rather than radioactive fallout, but the suspicion that “Chernobyl killed my father/grandfather” persists in Kyiv and cities like it, ensuring that the calamity stays part of the present.
The Fall of the USSR and After
This essay has spent more time discussing negative events in Ukraine’s history than positive. That is because at the moment, the weight of that negative history counts for more than the positive events—positive moments in Ukraine’s history have been mined, culturally, and expropriated by external powers, like “Russia.” It might be a stretch to say that the peoples of Muscovy “stole” the name “Russia” from people living in Ukraine, but it’s certainly true that (1) Ukrainians are far more “Russian” than the vast country that bears their name, and (2) Russia is far less “Russian” than Ukraine. This probably seems like a small or irrelevant detail—personally, it is difficult for me to treat it with great seriousness—but it is of utmost importance to Ukrainians themselves, and to “Russians,” and for this reason deserves consideration. It’s also important because, again, one of the primary attacks leveled against Ukraine is that it is a fake or contrived country, and, this cannot be stated enough, so is the country and people levying that criticism against Ukraine and Ukrainians. Other countries have long used history to shape and justify their behavior. This is especially conspicuous in the dealings of Russians as well as European countries happy to determine the identity of people living in Ukraine.
But there have been great accomplishments by Ukrainians, and great things wrought by people living under the Russians, and Austro-Hungarians, and Poles, and under the USSR. Something like the 240,000,000-strong USSR doesn’t last for 70 years without getting a few things right. From 1960-1990, the USSR was prosperous, especially compared with those civilizations that preceded it. They managed to send life into outer space, and to bring it back. They brought stability to an area that had been riven by war. Entire full lives were lived within the boundaries of the USSR.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the fall was simultaneously the greatest single political collapse in history in absolute terms, and the most peaceful collapse, one unique in history for its goodwill and sincerity. Among the extraordinary things that happened: (1) Russia did not fight wars to hold onto departing SSRs including Ukraine and Belarus, (2) Poland immediately recognized Ukraine’s territorial identity rather than springing into war with their neighbor in spite of the past century of mutual ethnic cleansing and revenge-killings and many of the victims on both sides still being alive, (3) the USSR did not seek to externalize the threat and declare war on the West. There are many other related, smaller miracles that occurred around 1991, but these were the greatest. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear arsenal seemed like another, similarly inspired gesture at the time, though later events proved that decision to be an error.
Promises made when the USSR broke up: that countries could live in peace with one another, and that capitalism and Western style liberalism would be an effective way to balance and govern the world, were swiftly proven untrue by events on the ground involving criminals and double-dealing locals, and hostility and exploitation involving western businessmen and politicians. Efforts to determine whether or not “liberalism” might have been more effective as a guiding strategy under different political circumstances is a pointless counterfactual exercise. The architects of the USSR’s dissolution—George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev—were not allowed to see their vision through, for better or for worse—instead, that transition was coopted by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, who, to be as fair as one possibly can, did not do a good job with it. What happened in Ukraine and the rest of the USSR is that in the 1990s, a brief period of optimism was swiftly replaced by a brutal, no-holds-barred gang war for industrial dominance by oligarchs, just a step better than petty warlords. The USSR, which had been at the very least an ideologically coherent (if corrupt and increasingly unstable) group of nations quickly deteriorated into a series of national boundaries ruled by despots or oligarchs, balanced precariously within and without, tied together by bonds of language and shared experiences and, no longer, common interests.
With time, each of those countries experienced revolutions. The most European of the countries to fall behind the USSR’s iron curtain were also the countries fastest to grow beyond their recent past: East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Baltic States quickly returning to their traditional stability, and integrating into the European project with varying degrees of difficulty.
Ukraine became unique among its neighbors—famously undergoing revolution after revolution, each of which offered some hope for change, and little in the way of lasting reforms. This was partly due to the short and contested existence of anything approximating “Rule of Law” in the country but also likely indicative of its proximity to Russia (which had and has a vested interest in keeping Ukraine disorganized and fractious). Social instability is also a gift to Ukraine by Russia and part of Austria-Hungary’s legacy, and related partly to Ukraine’s proximity to Europe, which offers Ukraine’s westernmost and central residents positive examples of successful countries, and hope for a different model of governance than iron-fisted Russia.
That was the case when, in 2013-14, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime. After students on the Maidan square were beaten, what was, essentially, an intellectual protest against a perceived shift away from Europe and toward Russia blossomed into a mass-protest against the police, corruption, a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability and justice. Within a month, hundreds had become hundreds of thousands. By the end of February, Yanukovych’s men were stuffing suitcases of cash and valuables onto military helicopters, then onto the back of an AN-26 transport plane, from whence he made his escape to Russia, and parts relatively unknown (okay, somewhere near Moscow).
The conflict that followed has consumed thousands of lives, displaced over a million citizens (more if one considers the annexation of Crimea, which one should), and thrust Ukrainian politics into an even less stable if theoretically or potentially more accountable chapter, led by the election of Volodymyr Zelensky.
In August of 2016, I was filling my hands with mattress in an apartment overlooking a position 300 meters to the southwest across an open field. Russian-backed separatists were knocking at it with large caliber mortars. The position, an abandoned industrial building connected I think with grain collection, was, I learned later, the Headquarters of the Battalion-sized mechanized infantry unit dug in about 500 meters to my east. Tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery on both sides conversed with each other, while I conversed with a God I’d forgotten existed.
How to describe an exchange? Terror at each loud, bone-rattling bang! that cracked the evening, in groups of five or seven or more. Terror when the Ukrainian Army fired back, scratching the night’s heavy quiet like nails dragged down a chalkboard during a test. Terror at the machinegun fire on both sides. A general sense of growing anxiety when silence dragged on too long—a minute or two meant something really furious was about to start. Pondering the extraordinary, like, “why have humans developed such destructive power, when outer space remains unexplored,” hoping that holding such thoughts might insulate me from madness. This particular fight went on for a couple hours, then intermittently flared up after. I’d never heard anything like it for so long, not even during two tours in Afghanistan.
The next morning, I, an interpreter, and a humanitarian aid volunteer—our host—took us to survey the damage. The morning wasn’t hot; I remember a whiff of autumn in the air, which had disappeared by noon. Another thing I remember was widespread and conspicuous superficial damage—destroyed buildings, fires, unrepaired roofs. We arrived at an apartment that had a chunk blasted out of its master bedroom. The lucky inhabitants (away for the evening) had returned to take stock of the damage. They let us in and strolled around, flabbergasted at their bad and good fortune, as catastrophe victims who live often do. There wasn’t much for me there; I heard their story and recorded it, but couldn’t actually fix anything. If I could have, besides, what difference would it have made?
Standing in the bedroom, looking out the hole, I did notice that it was impossible to determine the shell’s origin. Had an errant round fallen short, was this an episode of friendly fire? Or is that how the round had impacted, travelling at some obscure angle from the east? I wasn’t trained in post-blast or crater analysis, so I didn’t know. So much of the conflict in Ukraine is unknowable to the casual observer, and trying to sift through the misinformation, bias, and layers of historical propaganda and get at something approaching a truth is the work of years.
Why I decided to go to Ukraine of all places
Ukrainian patriots may excuse my ignorance of their country. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s there was never any compelling reason to learn about anything happening east of the Alps. Recent history was either finished and therefore an uninteresting abstraction, or so inchoate as not to be worth learning, as I thought as a sheltered young man. I doubt I knew of Ukraine’s existence until the mid-1990s, when an angry Ukrainian interrupted Kramer and Newman’s game of Risk on an episode of Seinfeld. I was vapid and insular.
Rumors of Ukrainian Mi-6 pilots flying provisions out to our distant Forward Operating Base during my first deployment to Afghanistan, with the 173rd Airborne, helped open me to the history eastern Europe. By then I was generally aware of Ukraine’s role in the world—another post-Soviet state muddling halfheartedly toward capitalism, stuck somewhere in the late 19th century model of plutarchy.
When Euromaidan started, I tried to travel there during my spring break at Columbia Journalism School, in February/March of 2014, and report on the revolution. There was a photo of Ukrainian Red Army veterans of Afghanistan protecting student protesters that fired my imagination; I wanted to talk to these people, to trade stories about Afghanistan, meet people with whom I’d shared a geographic if not temporal overlap. People who’d seen Afghanistan’s mountains from different vehicles, in the context of international communist revolution. I ended up working on my master’s thesis about systemic racism in the VA instead, in New York City.
But Ukraine stayed with me, the images of Euromaidan, of long-haired grizzled Soviet veterans of Afghanistan (whom Svetlana Alexievich called Afghantsi), the cheering yellow-and-blue cheeked youth, the overmatched army fighting a desperate defensive war against Russian aggression. I read vociferously about the place, and imagined my reception as an ally and friend.
Things didn’t work out at all how I thought. The first Afghantsi I met thought I worked for the CIA, and I was not able to shake this suspicion. I had unusual access as a result of people assuming a freelance journalist was actually working for The Agency—at least as far as the first meeting would go—and then, when people realized I really was simply a freelance journalist, they’d lose interest in working with me further.
Following opportunity, I embedded with a U.S. Army training mission in Ukraine’s West, and wrote about what I observed there. That piece went viral, and opened up reporting possibilities that had previously been closed to me; I traveled along with a group of journalists and freelancers to Mariupol, and then to Lviv and to Odesa, to do more sociological and cultural research. The longer I stayed, the more questions I had about the country and its people.
All told, I stayed about two months, cutting short my trip by a few weeks when I severely injured my left foot (a fracture of my left calcaneus that took years to heal properly). Two months was long enough to realize how much more I had to learn about the country—long enough to feel the rhythm of a foreign but intuitively familiar song. Long enough to see in the mysterious interplay between the town and the city a connection that I’d forgotten, echoes of a way of life that was ending in the United States just as I was being born.
Why I decided to go to back
Although it was clear to me by the fall of 2015 that Russia would not be pushing further in Ukraine, that the truly dangerous phase of the war was over, the alien-ness of the place still haunted me. Understanding a people about whom I knew so little, understanding a place that had witnessed so much history, and communicating that back to friends and countrymen felt like something important I could do on behalf of my own culture. I assumed, probably naively, that my writing abilities were sufficient to do Ukraine some justice. Given the relative lack of written material about Ukraine at the time, and even to a certain extent to this day, I also assumed that anything of sufficient quality would be better than nothing.
I traveled back to Ukraine in the winter of 2015-16 to write, and then again in the summer of 2016 to do a project for a non-profit organization (Center for Civilians in Conflict or CIVIC) reporting on harm being done to civilians living in the kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between Ukrainian and separatist-held territories. I ended up staying in Ukraine with a few breaks until September of 2017.
While there, it was possible to take a closer look at Kyiv’s monumental buildings, the wide boulevards, the public housing works thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s when Ukraine’s population kept booming upwards and outwards, and the battlefields (so many battlefields) of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.
The following two essays explain what I saw in Ukraine, and draw some conclusions about what is likely to occur there in the nearest future. From my home in Connecticut today, it all seems impossibly distant. Nevertheless, the photos of me with various people whose lives became entangled with my own, and mine with theirs, I feel obliged to attempt the task.