I have followed Tim Judah in the New York review of Books because he is a reporter who gets right down on the ground and speaks to ordinary people of various persuasions all across the vast geography of Ukraine.
Most of the intellectuals with whom I have contact in Canada have little knowledge and less interest in central and eastern Europe, and I find it useful to read writers such as Judah, Snyder, Satter and others because they give sharp insights into this complicated and unfortunate part of the world.
Ukraine remains a complicated place for westerners, who assume that nationality relies on language, but in this part of the world an ardent Ukrainian might speak Russian. The concerns of Bulgarians, Gaugaz (Turkic speakers) Bulgarians and others in Bessarabia, to say nothing of Crimean Tatars, all remain opaque on this side of the Atlantic.
The book is excellent in describing the failed hopes, the geopolitical fantasies, and complete corruption in a place that was unable to reform itself before falling under attack. The much-maligned Azov battalion consisted of Ukrainian extremists much despised in the west, and yet their volunteers were the ones who defended Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists because the regular army was in disarray. Their actions don’t justify their beliefs, of course, but people looking for simple heroes and simple villains in this region will be disappointed.
Judah generally supports the Ukrainian national idea, and he is contemptuous of the lies coming out of Russia, but he does not deny that people living in Donetsk and other regions, the few who remain, would welcome any government that might improve their lives.
Judah gives a view from the street of people who never expected war to come, and were horrified when it did. Indeed, his experience in the former Yugoslavia taught him that the complacency of every life or the exhilaration of fresh, revolutionary ideas, might give way all too quickly to the horrors of war.
And the title is accurate.
The book lays out how power no longer resides in the party, but rather in an interlocking system of corrupt government and oligarchs with complete penetration of the society right down to street level. Media, judiciary, police, and commerce are all under the thumb of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
This message has been coming out for some time now, but Satter’s systematic demonstration is unsettling to say the least, especially at a time when the west is concerned primarily with the Middle East and now Europe ever since Brexit.
One of the happiest people on the subject of Britexit must be Vladimir Putin, because Europe has been weakened by the loss of a major contributor.
Paradoxically, this comes at a time when NATO is finally coming around to seeing the Russian threat. Angela Merkel, no warmonger, has said Russia is no longer an ally but a competitor. At this writing, four NATO battalions will be placed in Poland and the Baltics after a July 2016 NATO conference in Poland. Canada is considering participation, while three of the other four are to come from the USA, Britain, and Germany. But will Britain’s commitment to NATO slacken after the withdrawal from the EU? President Obama says we should not worry about it, and yet we should.
I have skin in the game because I am in the Baltics often, doing research for my novels, and I have family living there. But coverage of this part of the world is slight in North America. At my regular poker game, attended by intellectuals of various stripes, I am considered an alarmist about Russia.
Maybe it’s because the more I know, the worse I sleep.
What isn’t tragic seems funny to me, and sometimes comedy and tragedy are so closely entwined that it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
One of my earliest collections of Stories, Buying on Time, was comic and nominated for a humour award. After that, I wrote what was essentially tragedy in Woman in Bronze and Underground.
Now I am returning to comedy with a new book to be published by ECW Press in 2016 or 2017, and its working title is The Barefoot Bingo Caller.
Guess what mood that might be in.
As a writer on Eastern Europe and the WWII and postwar, I am all gravitas, as many of the posts in this blog can attest. But when I write about my childhood and life in Canada, I veer toward comedy.
Some people I know find this confusing. After killing 47 people in Underground, I needed some relief. Comedy is my refuge from the darkness of history.
And when one reads before an audience, it’s so much easier to tell when comedy succeeds. When I read from my heavier work, I’m never sure if the audience has appreciated my gravitas, or if I have inflicted some combination of mental anguish and gastric distress.
Timothy Snyder‘s new book on The Holocaust is garnering some grudging reviews, but as a non-specialist on The Holocaust, I found it illuminating.
One of his theses is that The Holocaust in the popular imagination is situated in Auschwitz, but he contends that that place gives an incomplete view since most of the Jews who died did so in the territory he has earlier called the “Bloodlands,” the places where Nazi and Communist regimes overlapped. In those places, Jews were often from lower social strata and they left no memoirs – most of them took bullets and died without leaving records of their suffering.
Snyder states further that these people were first made stateless, and this act made them unprotected by the rights and laws of citizenship. The warning in the title consists of the thesis that this type of stripping of rights might be used again in the future.
My fascination with the book came with the capsule descriptions of prewar places like Lithuania, which I know, and like Hungary and others, which I do not. In every place where states were destroyed, the Jews fared worse than in places such as Holland, where the prewar state retained some control.
Snyder goes into great detail about the history of Poland in the period.
Further, he analyzes Hitler’s writing to understand his world view, and then shows how that vicious world view was imposed on conquered nations.
As I have written elsewhere, the story of the war and The Holocaust contain narratives in collision. The Soviets are heroes to some and murderous tyrants to others.
I was particularly surprised by Adam Gopnik’s review in the New Yorker, in which he stated that no historian believed the cliches about Eastern Europeans. That might be true of historians, but it is not true of the population at large.
Most people I know do not read much history, and what they do know is largely based on Hollywood movies. Yet everyone seems to have an opinion. Snyder’s latest book, and there are now many others, is a welcome explanation, by no means definitive, of a tragedy for those whose knowledge of the war is limited to Inglourious Bastards and Saving Private Ryan, and their knowledge of The Holocaust limited to Schindler’s List.
But I despair of many learning anything better. When it comes to this book, several people I know, intellectuals all, have questioned its thesis, but none of them seems to have read it.
Here is a link to a very good recent interview with Timothy Snyder on the TVO.