Anna Reid’s history of the Ukraine, Borderland, is a must for anyone visiting this huge and complex country. As the Kiev correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995, Anna Reid was close to the political situation post independence in 1991. But the book contains more than political analysis: it combines this with a more personal appraisal of the country and its history and the result is a work which is wide ranging, considered, informative and deeply empathetic towards the Ukrainian people. It is also beautifully written, at times witty, and very readable. The first edition, published in 1997, has been brought up to date by the addition of a second section in 2015, covering the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan in 2014.
It’s all in the name: Ukraine, we are told, translates literally as ‘borderland’ or ‘on the edge’ and this for Anna Reid means two things: as a borderland it has been much fought over throughout its history by powerful countries to either side of it, and, secondly, this has led to the Ukrainian people having a fragile and weakened sense of national identity. These two ideas work as leitmotifs threading through the book as the author charts the history of Ukraine by visiting individual cities and regions and examining how history has played out in each of them.
We begin with Kiev, and I was immediately drawn in by Anna Reid’s account of Kiev in the winter of 1993:
The staircase to my one-room flat might have stunk of urine and rotten cabbage, but outside raggedy black crows swung about in the poplars, shaking gobbets of frozen snow on the rattling trams below. I liked the cobble streets with their elaborately stuccoed turn-of-the century houses, so dilapidated that the city authorities strung netting under the balconies to prevent chunks of plaster falling onto pedestrians’ heads. I liked the hillside parks with their brick paths and rusty wrought-iron pavilions, where teenagers smooched in summer and children in rabbit-fur bonnets tobogganed in winter.
Quite caught up in this crumbling world, we are taken back to the 11th century when Kiev was the centre of the country known then as Kievan Rus and the magnificent cathedral of Santa Sofia, built by Prince Yaroslav the Wise, was testimony to its greatness. I loved the description of Santa Sofia: Etiolated saints, draped in ochre and pink, march in shadowy fresco round the walls; above them a massive Virgin hangs in vivid glass mosaic, alone on a deep gold ground, reminding me of the delicate beauty of the wall paintings in this atmospheric place, which I visited earlier this summer. In this section on the early history, Anna Reid explores the adoption of Christianity in early Kievan Rus: Yaroslav’s father, Volodymyr, realising he should keep up with his neighbours by adopting an advanced religion, rejected Islam on the grounds he couldn’t do without pork and wine. So he went for Christianity, and Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism, after emissaries reported back on the glory of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
The theme of Ukraine as a borderland is explored in the second chapter when its relationship with Poland is examined. I was aware through my reading of East West Street and The House with the Stained Glass Window that the area known now as Western Ukraine containing the city of Lviv was part of Poland between the First and Second World Wars-the negotiations at Versailles which led up to this are set out in detail later in this book- but I’d not known about the earlier struggles between Poles, Russians and Cossacks in the 17th century over the country we now call Ukraine. Anna Reid uses this section to give us a lucid account of who these Cossacks actually were. I had a vague, muddled idea based on a dim recollection of Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and the spare description in our guidebook, but actually found Anna Reid’s description very helpful: Outlaws and frontiersmen, fighters and pioneers, the Cossacks are to Ukrainian national consciousness what cowboys are to the American.They did not form anything approaching a nation or a state- they were not so much a people as a way of life. And the most important Cossack of them all was Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who fought the Poles for independence over many years. As this bellicose period ended with the Russians winning all land east of the Dnieper, Ukrainians have been uncertain how far to celebrate the achievements of Khmelnytsky. But, according to Anna Reid, Ukraine is a country short on heroes, so he’s been reclaimed as a hero for being the leader of the first stab at independence.
Anna Reid’s lucid narrative clarifies many other historical events, including the Nazi invasion and the Chernobyl disaster, but one of the most illuminating accounts for me was that of the appalling Holodomor, or famine, of 1932- 1933 in which an estimated 7 million people died. Several historians characterise this as a genocide rather than a famine, as grain stores full of emergency supplies were kept locked and guarded while people starved- Anna Reid calls it one of the most under-reported atrocities in human history. It was the equivalent in the countryside to the Stalinist purges in the towns. She carefully explains the three stages of this rural terror: food requisition, dekulakisation ( where the kulaks, the local spokespeople and farmers, were arrested and their property requisitioned) and mass starvation. The villages fell to rack and ruin, millions of peasants were deported, people were eating grass, leaves, acorns, snails, ants, earthworms, and there were ghastly reports of cannibalism. She does not shy away either from criticising the complicity of the foreign correspondents at that time: keen to keep favour with the censors in Moscow, foreign journalists did not comment on the starvation and Western intellectuals such as Malcolm Muggeridge and George Bernard Shaw visiting the country claimed not to have seen ‘ a single undernourished person’. Flattered and fêted they were of course steered away from the unsightliness of starved corpses in the streets of Kiev.
One of the books’ strengths is its variety of sources: Anna Reid uses personal stories and interviews, history, memoir and fiction, and, in the second section, TV and film. The encounters with real characters are often powerful and sobering in that they give us sudden insights into what life is like for people in Ukraine. There’s Alexey, the Donetsk miner, who said he and fellow miners had nearly wept on a twinning visit to Cardiff on seeing the ‘special baths, the clothes, the equipment they had’. The employees still working at Chernobyl in 1995 when Anna Reid visited were aghast at the International Atomic Energy Agency report insisting on immediate closure. Despite the high levels of radiation still around they valued being able to work in skilled jobs, unlike the many well trained graduates in Ukraine who were working as taxi drivers. I enjoyed too her use of literary sources- so in the chapter on Kiev, she refers to Bulgakov’s The White Guard, and to the section on the Jews, she quotes from Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories- to name but a few.
A people’s sense of identity is intimately bound up with its language and the development of Ukrainian as a language is referred to throughout the book. In the nineteenth century Ukrainian was regarded by many as a peasant dialogue and when it was more widely encouraged during the Soviet era, this was found to be challenging. Victor Kravchenko in his diaries refers to the difficulties students had in the 1930s, who may have spoken Ukrainian at home but were not used to having their education conducted in Ukrainian or reading text books in Ukrainian-quite apart from the fact that the language was simply lacking the modern, technological vocabulary required in the worlds of electrotechnics, chemistry, aerodynamics and most other sciences. The differing uses of Ukrainian and Russian has always been a feature of a huge country with powerful Russia as its older brother, sometimes breathing down its neck, and it’s true that Russian remains the first language for many in the Crimea and the Donbass region. Anna Reid sees the permissive, liberal attitudes to both languages being spoken as a success of Independence in 1991 and characterises the typical 20 something Kievan as speaking a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian at work and to his children, Russian to his parents and Ukrainian to his grandmother at the dacha on the weekend.
Anna Reid knows how to hook us in: the second section of the book starts with her meeting a Ukrainian friend in 2014 who is sponsoring a twelve-man sniper unit in the Ukrainian army. Obviously we ask ourselves how it has come to this, particularly as her predictions for the future of the country at the end of the first section were cautiously optimistic. There then follow four more chapters outlining political events from 2014 and the Orange Revolution to the invasion of Crimea and the fighting in the Donbass. Again, she narrates the events leading up to both periods of unrest with clarity and unpicks the political fighting and intrigues going on between the oligarchs Kuchma, Yanukovitch, Yuschenko and Tymoshenko with admirable lucidity. The corruption of this period does not make for happy reading and nor does the activity of the Russian backed forces in the Donbass region where 5,800 civilians and 1,500 Ukrainian are thought to have died. But Anna Reid does find some optimism for the future of the country in Lviv on the other side of the country. Here business is thriving, with IT, manufacturing , tourism and food processing important industries. The city has a European feel to it and an honesty about its past. She senses a real change in the feeling of national identity- since the Maidan people, particularly the young, have felt like real Ukrainians. This is when, according to one middle aged man ‘the Soviet Union inside us died’.
Now it’s not been easy to do justice to this wide ranging book about Ukraine. I’ve just selected a few topics and themes that interest me and there is much more. The only slight niggle I have is that a little more updating could have been done for the second edition. For example I felt somewhat affronted by the description of the ‘gloriously awful productions of Tosca and Traviata’ at the opera house: this may have been true of productions in the mid 90s but didn’t chime with the world class ballet performance of The Marriage of Figaro’ we saw this summer. But this is a mere bagatelle when compared with the great content and the engaging tone in which it is delivered. One of the last accounts that will stay with me is that of the Maidan: its drama but also how the experience of taking part changed people. Andrei Terekhov: ‘It was a wonderful feeling- almost like going to church though I’m not a believer… It didn’t matter who you were or what language you spoke; you knew that everyone there was a good person. ‘And the cries going up: Slava Ukrayina! Heroyam Slava! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes !