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.