Book review. Wartime: Stories from Ukraine

In the postscript to his new book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine, veteran British journalist Tim Judah explains that his objective was ‘not another straight history and not a political science-cum-analytical text … [but] a book which gave a flavour of what Ukraine is really like, and what its people have to say, especially outside Kiev. … What I wanted to do was mix people, stories, history, politics and reportage rather than explain why this event followed that one.’ I would say that he more or less succeeds in fulfilling his objective. If you are looking for something to give you a flavour of Ukraine, you may find this book interesting. But if you are looking for an explanation of why the country is wracked by civil war, you probably won’t find it here.

In pursuit of his goal, Judah travels to Lviv (Lvov, Lwow, Lemburg; Judah quite consciously mixes Ukrainian and Russian spellings of towns haphazardly), Ukrainian Bessarabia, Donbass, and Odessa. He describes what he saw and the people he met and throws in a lot of historical context as well. The overall effect is rather depressing; again and again we get pictures of seemingly irreversible industrial decline, most notably decaying cities and polluted lakes in Bessarabia and ruined mining towns in Donbass. Only in Odessa does Judah report any kind of economic success story.

‘What is odd is how much rubbish people believe’, writes Judah. The Ukrainians he talks to range from paranoid conspiracy theorists in the Donetsk People’s Republic to residents of Lviv whose understanding of Ukrainian history (especially of the Second World War) is decidedly selective. ‘In the east, one set of memories is propagated and in the west another,’ says Judah, ‘there is a history war and one full of bitterness and prejudice.’ In the author’s description of Ukraine, people with a fair and balanced understanding of their country are few and far between.

Judah attempts to be fair and balanced himself. For instance, he acknowledges that some Ukrainian leaders have far-right connections and that ‘the lionizing of [WWII Ukrainian nationalist leader] Stepan Bandera … did much to alarm and even embitter those in Ukraine whose fathers and grandfathers had fought in the Red Army against his movement.’ Nevertheless, in his efforts to explain why people believe so much ‘rubbish’, a clear bias does emerge, for his primary explanation is ‘Russian propaganda’, a theme he insists on returning to every few pages. It’s as if ‘the entire mainstream media were taken over by the Ku Klux Klan’, he writes. ‘What has happened on the Russian side of the info-war especially, bears a close resemblance to the experience of Serbs in the early 1990s’, he adds.  And so on. But Judah never asks why people chose to believe this ‘propaganda’, or (on the other side of the conflict) to ‘lionize’ Bandera.

I would have preferred Judah to draw more out of the conversations he had. Many of the descriptions are very short, and don’t reveal anything of great interest. None of them are likely to make a lasting impact on my view of Ukraine and its current problems. Overall, therefore, I neither liked nor disliked this book. I suspect that a few months from now, I won’t remember much about it.

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16 thoughts on “Book review. Wartime: Stories from Ukraine”

  1. Oh, so he is one of those “balanced” and “moderate” reporters on Ukrainbe, who claims that only half of the Moon is made out of cheese?

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  2. “It’s as if ‘the entire mainstream media were taken over by the Ku Klux Klan’, he writes.”

    There’s nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve seen in Russian mainstream media that would justify this claim. Does he give any examples? I’d really like to see some examples.

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    1. Alas, Judah gives none. After all, it’s common knowledge that American hate groups run the Russian mass media. Remember?

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      1. No evidence is required to substantiate an established fact. Do you need to produce evidence every time you say that the Earth is a sphere not flat? ‘Russian propaganda’ is equally beyond contestation.

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      2. “No evidence is required to substantiate an established fact…‘Russian propaganda’ is equally beyond contestation. “

        Paul, either:

        1) Provide us with a number of real examples of it. Because, no – its not as assured as you think. And while claiming that Earth is not flat IS true, claiming that it is “round” is eaqually wrong.

        2) Then remind equally tirelessly about UKrainian and Western propaganda as you do with Russian one.

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  3. What a thought-provoking review. It’s difficult to find a book on the Ukraine crisis that attempts to be fair and balanced, and even more difficult to find one that pulls it off successfully, as Wartime seems to show. Thank goodness Judah remembered to put the obligatory ‘Russian Propaganda’ explanation in, or I would’ve *never* been able to tell where his sympathies lie!

    Do you have any plans yet for the next review, Paul? Will you be keeping with the current pattern set by this review and Ukraine à fragmentation?

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    1. Right now I have just started Plokhy’s history of Ukraine and Michel Eltchaninoff’s ‘Dans la tete de Vladimir Poutine’. Next on my reading list after those is Anne Garrel’s ‘Putin Country’, which is about Cheliabinsk and comes out on 15 March.

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  4. Re: propaganda. Here’s Tatiana Montyan, a Ukrainian lawyer and what you’d call a ‘human rights activist’ (although she won’t be glamorized in the west):

    Note that she is not ‘pro-Putin’ at all, very much anti-Putin, in fact.

    She explains the situation, this travesty that is the ‘new Ukraine’, by Kiev regime propaganda – which she calls “radio of a thousand hills”, after the “Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines”, the radio station responsible for the genocide in Rwanda. So, here were are, the KKK and all.

    Watch the whole thing, she is good…

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  5. I found it really disappointing reading this review. I think there’s really a place for a book that goes in depth in terms of exploring the mentalities of different groups in Ukraine. I think Ukraine is a very foreign place for most Westerners, and having a good picture of the people who live there would go a long way in helping to understand both the country and its current situation. Unfortunately, “People in Ukraine believe stupid things because Russian propaganda,” doesn’t make things much clearer. Hopefully someone will eventually do a better job of this project than Judah did.

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  6. It may be more accurate to say that people have certain beliefs in spite, not because of, Russian propaganda since the latter is often self defeatingly bad.

    I do wonder if having “bad propaganda” is partly a conscious thing, after all, as long as Russias propaganda is RT level bad, Russia should be able to escape the trap of believing its own propaganda.

    The latter trap very strongly affects the west.

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    1. Right now both the UkrMedia and Western Free and Independnet Media ™ just strawmanning when they claim to “fight Russian propaganda”. Especially, because all-trusting Western Media prefers not to investigate things on their own, but to copy-paste what their Ukrainian collegues (ha-ha!) report.

      By now “Russian propaganda” indeed become a forced meme, a trope about which everyone is aware but have a hard time finding real, decent examples of. Just call someone “pro-Kremlin/pro-Russian” and you will ruin their credibility

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