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On the Front Lines


Herb Randall

First, the name: It’s Kyiv, not Kiev, which is a Russian transliteration, and never “the Ukraine” which denotes the region when it was controlled by the Russian empire, not the independent nation.

The confusion over the name of Ukraine and its capital can serve as shorthand to the current crisis, which has a long, echoing history, as if Catherine the Great and Adolf Hitler are shouting imprecations in an unhumorous version of Bill and Ted, only the adventure is not theirs, but Russian president Vladimir Putin’s. And the Ukrainian people’s nightmare.

Late Monday, as the world knows, Putin signed decrees recognizing the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and directing the Russian Defense Ministry to deploy troops in those regions to carry out “peacekeeping functions.” A full attack on Ukraine is widely expected in the next hours or days.

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I visited Ukraine for the first time in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the country and people, their tragic history, and the feeling of being not quite in the East, not quite in the West. Recalling it nine years later, I can almost feel the intense cold as the wind whipped down through Khreshchatyk, the main boulevard in the center of Kyiv, its wide lanes and grandiose buildings the backdrop for many a Soviet military parade.

Now Khreshchatyk is crammed full of trendy cafes, European luxury shops, and at one end, the huge Bessarabian Market where insistent sellers hawk every kind of Turkish sweet and dried fruit, next to babushkas selling pungent pickled, well, everything. Despite the brutal wind that day, I found myself unaccountably happy.

That archetypal tension, between the push towards the West and the ancient pull from the East, was the backdrop for the 2014 uprising, called the Maidan Revolution, or more poetically, the Revolution of Dignity, that unseated the Russian puppet president Viktor Yanukovych and his corrupt pro-Russian party. You may remember Yanukovych’s name from the news coverage of Paul Manafort, who was, essentially, the fixer on behalf of the Russian oligarchs who made up Yanukovych’s shadow cabinet. For their parts, Ukrainians would associate Yanukovych, above all, with his refusal to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to Europe and further from Russia’s influence.

Yanukovych's refusal to allow Ukraine to join an agreement that would have transformed the country’s economy brought Ukrainians into the streets. As the violence threatened to get out of hand, Yanukovych called on Russia to help him flee the country. In his absence, Ukraine’s parliament declared that Yanukovych was relieved of duty in a 328-to-0 vote, out of 450 members.

While the upheaval was going on, Russia took advantage of the chaos to annex Crimea, a peninsula that was, at the time, part of Ukraine. Russia then supported a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians make up a sizable chunk of the population. The Russia-backed rebels declared Donetsk and Luhansk independent "people's republics." Independent of Ukraine, that is. Not so independent of Russia, which has continued to supply cash, arms, and sometimes boots on the ground to keep a pro-Russia insurgency going, though until now, never declaring them to be independent states.

In 2015, Russia and Ukraine participated in negotiations that were supposed to formalize a structure that would take into account the disputed status of Donetsk and Luhansk: the Minsk Protocols. According to Russia’s interpretation of that agreement, it would have required reintegrating Luhansk and Donetsk into the Ukrainian government, handing Russia a veto over Ukraine’s domestic affairs and foreign policy.

This would have spelled the end of Ukraine’s orientation towards Europe, which had brought tangible benefits to its people in recent years, despite the many imperfections in its fledgling democracy. Ukraine refused to implement that interpretation of the agreement.

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Angela Merkel presents Vladimir Putin, left, to Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine from 2014-2019, in Minsk.

The two men shook hands briefly.

For the past several years, as the conflict simmered, Russia has been strengthening the insurgencies in Donetsk and Luhansk. While still nominally part of Ukraine, they became full-on puppet statelets dependent on their patron’s cash, arms, and sometimes active intervention from regular Russian troops to stay afloat.

Perhaps this is why, during the latest build-up of tensions, most of my Ukrainian friends seemed hardly moved by the renewed threat of war. Part of this is what I call the “cult of ‘all will be fine’”: the stock phrase usually offered for any misfortune, large or small. It’s a charming cultural affirmation that often things will work out on their own and it’s up to God or fate in any case.

But ask them, and invariably Ukrainians are quick to remind you that they have been at war with Russia for the last eight years.

It is not news to people that their eastern neighbor has unreasonable demands, wants more territory, seeks to impose its will on Ukraine. Quietly they prepare their “anxious bags”: a backpack full of important documents, passports, warm clothes, and medicines to grab at a moment’s notice while continuing to enjoy Kyiv’s many fine restaurants and chic shops, stroll in Lviv’s charming European city center, take selfies at Odessa’s Langeron pier against a wintry Black Sea backdrop.

These are photographs could turn out to be keepsakes for their children, or their grandchildren, in the event that familiar landmarks are bombed into oblivion, relics of a life that will exist only in memory if they are forced to flee. “What else can we do?” they reply, and life goes on.

It is for them that I worry but also take some comfort for Ukraine’s future. Again, words are important. The Maidan Revolution, named for Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which translated as Independence Square, the central square of Kyiv, sparked a flowering of civic society, particularly in younger generations. There is an infectious spark of creativity, volunteerism, and optimism that will seem familiar to Americans. While going on with life as usual in recent weeks, Ukrainians have also been attending self-defense training, first aid classes, and volunteering for territorial defense units.

Last month, as Congress debated aid to Ukraine, some politicians expressed concern that funding and weapons could fall into the hands of white supremacists like the Azov Battalion, a unit in the Ukrainian National Guard with ties to the country’s far-right, ultranationalist National Corps party and Azov movement. As the Intercept reports, Congress has passed measures aimed at preventing aid from going to the battalion, which has negligible popular support in Ukraine, anyway. Nonetheless, satellite groups associated with the far-right movement are believed to be slipping past those prohibitions.

Left-wing media outlets contend that the U.S. is representing the oil and gas industry’s interests, hoping to stall the transfer of Russian oil and gas via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that cuts through Ukraine to enhance sales of U.S. fracked natural gas to Europe. Within hours of Putin's move into Ukraine, German's chancellor Olaf Scholz halted certification of the $11 billion pipeline, completed last year.

While economic benefit could be a byproduct of U.S. influence in Ukraine, it’s not naive to take the Biden administration at its word that the immediate concern is holding the line on old-fashioned democratic liberalism and human rights in the face of a full-scale invasion by Russia. That seems to be the position of many Ukrainians, as well, including the Jewish community in Odessa. In The New York Times, reporter Michael Schwirtz wrote:

Pavel Kozlenko, the director of the Museum of the Holocaust, who lost 50 members of his family at the hands of the Nazis and their allies, accused Mr. Putin of betraying the memory of the “common victory” of World War II. Then he told a joke, as Odessans often do in dark times, about two Jews standing on the street speaking in Yiddish.


“A third comes up and says, ‘Guys, why are you speaking in Yiddish?’” Mr. Kozlenko said, “to which one of the Yiddish-speaking men replied, ‘You know, I’m scared to speak in Russian because if I do Putin will show up and try to liberate us.’”

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Prayer services following shabbat at the Great Choral Synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine

This week, as the world watched Putin carve out another slice of their country, Ukrainian Twitter was raising funds for charities to help their soldiers and encouraging one another to “let’s break through” anxiety while they waited until the early morning for President Zelensky’s address to the nation. If Putin does decide to go all-in, the Russian army will meet a Ukrainian populace determined to resist. Moreover, with eight years of wartime experience, not to mention Western training and weapons, the Ukrainian army is not the ragtag collection of poorly outfitted volunteers and militias it was in 2014. Ukraine will put up a prodigious fight, and it will last as long as necessary.

Like it or not, Ukraine’s fight is ours as well. Putin’s rabid speechmaking on the eve of Russia's military incursion made it clear that Ukraine’s accession to NATO or the European Union (both distant prospects) is not his true grievance. Ominously, he seeks to relitigate the entire aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, what he has previously called the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

With Russia flush with cash from its natural gas exports, Putin appears to be aiming for his place in the history books as a great Russian leader bringing home its people separated by accidents of history. He's done the math, and according to the calculations, it’s now or never for his gamble that no one will truly go to war for Ukraine.

Putin’s demand to tear up much of the security structure that has protected the Eastern, Central European and Baltic states threatens the world with great instability at a time when we ought to be focused on the challenges of climate change, recovery from the pandemic, and a myriad of social ills.

The echoes of world war are disturbing, as they should be. Ukrainians like to say that for the last eight years, they have been holding the front line for the West. Let’s hope that they can continue to do so, for their sake and ours.

Herb Randall’s first short story, “Pictures of Galina,” was recently published in Apofenie. His writing has also been featured at Punctured Lines and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in northern New Hampshire.

The New York Times visits Ukraine's militia

Movies: Mr. Jones

The failure of Stalin's agricultural policies in the 1930s fell most harshly on Ukraine. The famine historians call "man-made" killed between 4 and 7 million people and left lasting scars on the region, now an independent country. Mr. Jones is a 2019 film by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland that deserves the term "epic," a sweeping, complex story that is a paean to real journalism, and a long-overdue retelling of a forgotten aspect of history.

Manola Dargis in The New York Times:

The field of wheat seen early in “Mr. Jones” sways prettily under the sun. The director Agnieszka Holland lingers on the image, then shifts to a man busily typing in a house nearby. He’s unkempt and unidentified but you will likely guess his name when he mentions “talking farm animals” and begins narrating his once-upon-a-time nightmare: “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night.”

The man is George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), who then disappears. In short order, so do most of the animals that Holland scatters here and there — a pretty cat, a few pigeons, squealing pigs, the rabbit adorning a man’s walking stick. Taking their place is the lonely figure of Gareth Jones (James Norton). Based on a real Welsh journalist, he is the unassuming hero of this grim, quietly furious movie, which revisits Jones’s 1933 trip to Ukraine, then in the grip of a catastrophic famine. There, the world is barren and the grain — “Stalin’s gold,” as someone casually calls it — is gone.

A political thriller with an insistent, steady pulse (the script is by Andrea Chalupa), “Mr. Jones” dramatizes a harrowing chapter in the life of a man long overlooked by history. It opens in the early 1930s with Gareth reporting on his recent trip to Germany. He’s in one of those ominous centers of power — burnished wood, cigarette smoke, crepuscular lighting — sharing his worries about Hitler and Goebbels to a gathering of officious harumphers, including his employer, David Lloyd George, the former prime minister. It’s a nice bit of scene setting. Minutes later Jones is chatting on a phone in Russian, and not long after he’s in Moscow, en route to an unspeakable tragedy....

Once Gareth leaves for Ukraine, the movie settles into an increasingly eerie, almost otherworldly calm. There’s a touch of danger to some of this stillness, as when other passengers in Gareth’s train car watch him eat with great intensity. (When he throws away a scrap, several scramble to retrieve it.) By the time he has ditched his government minder — sneaking away to tramp by foot through the snowbound, depopulated countryside — it seems as if he were walking through a vast graveyard.

Watch the 2018 Donbass here. But take this with a grain of salt, according to The Guardian's columnist.