As an American, I can safely vouch for my ignorance of the state of affairs in whole sections of the Earth. While I consider myself reasonably well-informed, my job does not require an extensive knowledge of world affairs, and for the most part American news understandably focuses on stories that are of interest to most Americans. Like how much Donald Trump pays for his hair weave.
But one night I was watching the news and my young daughter walked in while the news was briefly focused on Russia’s efforts to annex Crimea. She asked me to explain what was going on, and to my shame I realized that I couldn’t even start. I was vaguely aware of the Maidan Revolution in 2014 in Ukraine and I knew of Vladimir Putin’s cynical attempts to re-annex Crimea. But beyond that, my knowledge of Ukraine was limited to my childhood “RISK”-playing days.
In an attempt to remedy my narrow perspective, I picked up Tim Judah’s “In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine.” Tim Judah’s book can go a long way toward remedying even the most casual reader’s lack of knowledge of Ukraine – a better-researched but more-depressing book is hard to imagine. Ukraine, for lack of a better word, is broken. Judah, a political analyst for The Economist and author of well-reviewed books on Kosovo and the Serbs, takes a journalist’s approach with “In Wartime.” The book is almost a travelogue as Judah has divided the book into sections that correspond to the geographic regions of the country, which may be the most logical way to try to understand this war-torn country, given that it lies between some of the biggest powers in Eurasia – Russia to the East, the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the East, and Poland to the Northeast. Only the Black Sea to the south offers a safe border. One would be hard-pressed to find a country more perfectly situated to be the hot spot for European-Russian conflict.
As Judah explains as he tours the country and talks to dozens of people, both from the downtrodden and the connected, “Ukraine” is a fairly odd concept. While it’s clear who a German is, or if you’re English, it’s not clear who a Ukrainian is. A Ukrainian from the city of Lviv in the West is much more likely to have European sympathies and a Polish cultural heritage than a Ukrainian from Lugansk to the East, a few miles from the Russian border. In addition to being divided by language and culture, the regions of Ukraine are also riven by the belief that only they are doing their part, but the criminals and thieves from the other parts of the country are coasting on their efforts. As one frustrated politico explains, it’s hard to pay for schools when nobody pays their taxes, which they do not pay because the government can’t provide the basic necessities of life, like schools.
When you add the confounding political vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the kleptocracy that has elevated corruption to a systemic art form, 2014’s ousting of elected President Viktor Yanukovych, and the economic collapse caused by the Russian invasion of Crimea, you see a country that is not functioning in any modern sense. A teacher must pay a bribe to get a teaching job. Judges are bribed to put business competitors in jail. Commercial litigation is won by whoever pays the most under the table. Raise your voice to complain, and you might not live out the month. We hear in the U.S. about the collapse in trust in institutions, but in Ukraine there are no institutions to trust in the first place.
While Judah focuses on the people living and fighting in today’s Ukraine, he rounds out the book with a high-level review of Ukrainian history, giving just enough background for the non-initiated reader like myself to understand the context of Ukraine’s problems. And that context is essential, as otherwise you would throw up your hands and say the whole country had gone insane.
While I cannot say that “In Wartime” is an essential read, it is an important one for anyone who wishes to understand their world a little better. Judah has done a noble service by bringing the stories of this war-torn land to light, so we can better understand the human cost of the headlines we all too often skim over.