“For too long Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe after Russia, was one of the continent's most under-reported places,” veteran war correspondent Tim Judah writes in his grim and important new book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. “Now, with revolution and war, the interest of editors has inevitably been awakened, but most outlets still do not give journalists the space to make people and places really come alive.”
Judah is lucky: he's been given ample space in the pages of The New York Review of Books to write about the protean nature of unrest in Ukraine, and he's had editors – and readers – willing to trust in his perseverance and ample storytelling skills to convey a complex picture of what the lives of Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life are like now, in wartime. His book, which collects all of those NYRB writings, is intended to capture “what I saw, what people told me and also those parts of history that we need to know in order to understand what is happening in Ukraine today.”
He stresses at the outset that it's not his intention to write a comprehensive analysis of the major events that have rocked recent Ukrainian history, particularly the Maidan Revolution, which began in November of 2013 as a series of peaceful demonstrations that quickly amassed enough popular support to drive the country's president, Vicktor Yanukovych, from power. And yet, Judah is a bit too modest: Although he requires that his readers have some familiarity with the broad outline of recent Ukrainian politics, he actually manages to do a better job at broad-stroke general history than he gives himself credit for. "In Wartime" is a fast-paced and very topical book, an old-fashioned series of magazine-crafted war dispatches, but Judah's expertise is appealingly ambitious in its scope.
But the book's main strength is in its detail-work. Judah has traveled Ukraine from its powder keg main cities to its many small rural regions, talking everywhere with older people who remember World War II and years of Soviet domination, with mothers and grandmothers who lost sons to seemingly interminable fighting, with working people and with political activists of all kinds. Local ecologist Iryna Vykhrystyuk laments the ruinous state of farming in the Tatarbunary region: “In Soviet times we always wanted to be ahead of the Americans in terms of producing grain, wheat, corn, sunflowers and grain for cattle.… Then this system was destroyed.” Another interviewee talks about the country's current international stance, worrying that “people laugh at us and say that we are manipluated by people who have power … so that Russia and the U.S can resolve their political issues on our territory.”
Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin come up often in these stories, especially in light of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea in the wake of the Maidan uprisings. Everywhere Judah goes, he encounters stark opinions about the country's ominous neighbor, including plenty of reactions to the invasion, and questions about why Ukraine didn't use military force to resist it: “The government feared that if they gave the order to fight, this might not just prompt a crushing defeat in Crimea but trigger a full-scale invasion.” (As one interviewee puts it, no doubt echoing widespread sentiment, “If a hooligan meets no resistance he is emboldened. We should have fought and resisted.”)
As looming as the threat represented by Russia is, it's matched wherever Judah goes by an internal threat every bit as dire: the near-universal rot of corruption. In business, in local politics, even in activism, Judah finds everywhere both graft and the systemic cynicism it always engenders. At many points in the book, it's tempting to conclude that Ukraine is a wrecked country, a sink of petty profiteering and money-laundering. But even in the midst of encountering such stories, Judah also manages to hear from Ukrainians – philanthropists, businessmen, and working folks – who retain a stubborn hope that their system can be made to work better. As one such businessman tells him, “An optimist is not the first to shout 'hurray' … but the last to shout 'we're finished.'”
It hardly requires the foresight of an oracle to finish reading these dispatches of Judah's and to know for a certainty that more trouble and heartbreak lies in Ukraine's immediate future. War has a foothold in the country, and war is never satisfied with a foothold. But the fluid nature of the situation makes books like "In Wartime" more valuable, not less: Here we see the day-to-day doubts and hard-won little victories of the actual people behind whatever headlines are coming next year. Readers won't forget the pathos and violence Tim Judah has described, and they owe him a vote of thanks for that.