Friday book #9: An Introduction to Russian history

I am not sure how this week’s book – a 1976 introduction to Russian history, edited by Robert Auty and Dmitri Obolensky – found its way onto my shelf. I cannot recall either buying or reading it. Chapter 3 on ‘Appanage and Muscovite Russia’ is by one Nikolay Andreyev, described as ‘Emeritus Reader in Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge’. I am guessing that this is the same person as the N.E. Andreyev whom I mentioned in an earlier post as commenting on the songs of the White Army, the father of my doctoral supervisor at Oxford, Catherine Andreyev.


Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine

The office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a report on the human rights situation in Ukraine. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the whole thing, here is what I considered to be the main points:

Violations of international humanitarian law: Both sides continue to put civilians at risk by deploying armed forces in populated areas. For instance, ‘In Shyrokyne … OHCHR documented extensive use of civilian buildings and locations by the Ukrainian military and the Azov regiment, and looting of civilian property,’ while rebel forces also occupied civilian buildings in towns like Donetsk, ‘thereby endangering civilians.’

Summary executions, enforced disappearances, unlawful and arbitrary detention, and torture and ill-treatment: On the government side, ‘Throughout the country, OHCHR continued to receive allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and torture and ill-treatment of people accused by the Ukrainian authorities of “trespassing territorial integrity”, “terrorism” or related offenses … OHCHR documented a pattern of cases of SBU [Ukrainian security service] detaining and allegedly torturing the female relatives of men suspected of membership or affiliation with the armed groups. … OHCHR is also very concerned about the use of statements extracted through torture as evidence in court proceedings.’ On the rebel side, ‘OHCHR recorded new allegations of killings, abductions, illegal detention, torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by members of the armed groups. The accounts most often referred to incidents that took place outside the reporting period.’

Accountability for human rights violations and abuses in the east: ‘Civilians living directly on either side of the contact line are deprived of access to justice. Both Ukrainian authorities and the ‘parallel structures’ in the territories controlled by the armed groups systematically fail to investigate grave human rights abuses committed in the areas under their control.’

In government-held territory: ‘OHCHR has followed cases of residents of Government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions who have been charged and tried for their alleged membership in and support of the armed groups, simply for being in contact with people (usually their relatives) living in territories controlled by these groups. … OHCHR has observed a worrying trend in criminal proceedings of people charged with “trespassing against the territorial integrity or inviolability of Ukraine.” Courts regularly and repeatedly extend the initial period of detention for individuals held on national security grounds for 60 days without providing sufficient and relevant reasons to justify detention. Grounds for continued detention are almost never provided, and conditional or interim release is rarely – if ever – granted. Many defendants are detained for long periods of time, up to 20 months, and eventually charged with minor offenses, such as “hooliganism”. This has been noted as a serious trend in Kharkiv and Odesa.’

In rebel-held territory: ‘OHCHR notes that members of the armed groups seem to enjoy a high level of impunity for a wide range of human rights violations … In the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’, a parallel ‘judicial system’ has been operational since 2014, largely composed of people with no relevant competence. … OHCHR considers that armed groups lack the legitimacy to sentence or deprive anyone of liberty.’

Violations of the right to freedom of movement: ‘According to the State Border Service of Ukraine, 8,000 to 15,000 civilians cross the contact line each day. They are forced to wait for long periods of time – often overnight … During the reporting period, two elderly people (a man and a woman) died while queuing at the checkpoints due to lack of timely medical care. … Corruption around the contact line continues to be reported as an enduring problem. Bribes by Government personnel and armed groups are often demanded for expediting passage or allowing cargo.’

Violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief: In government-controlled territory, ‘OHCHR followed the tensions between local communities, identifying themselves with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) … Some parishioners and members of the clergy of both denominations reported to OHCHR their concerns about discrimination and use of derogatory and inflammatory language directed toward them on the basis of their affiliation to either UOC or UOC KP. Threats of physical violence, or coercion to force them to change their allegiance have also been reported.’ In rebel territory, ‘the situation of persons belonging to minority Christian denominations remained difficult. In particular, the persecution of Jehovah Witnesses – accused of “extremism” by armed groups – persisted.’

Violations of the right to freedom of association: Ukraine’s ‘“de-communization” law should be amended because it violates freedom of expression, speech, association and electoral rights.’ Also, ‘OHCHR remains concerned about the lack of space for civil society actors to operate in the territories controlled by armed groups, including to conduct vital humanitarian assistance. … In January 2016, several public figures were detained in the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’. On 29 January 2016, the female co-founder of the humanitarian organization “Responsible Citizens” was taken from her home by individuals believed to be members of the ‘ministry of state security.’ Her whereabouts are unknown. … The detention and expulsion of “Responsible Citizens” members followed the illegal deprivation of liberty and incommunicado detention of a blogger on 4 January, three Jehovah Witnesses on 17 January, and a religious scholar on 27 January 2016.’

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.