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William T. Vollman on post-Soviet Ukraine


In the fall 2016 issue of Bookforum, William T. Vollman reviews two recent books on the volatile history of modern Ukraine: Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine and Sophie Pinkham’s Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Vollman writes that the two books do an admirable job of explaining a complex and eventful period in Ukraine’s history, and do so using different approaches. Pinkham book is more of a memoir, while Judah’s reads more like history for a general reader. Here’s an excerpt from Vollman’s review:

Black Square and In Wartime both deserve attention. When they touch on common topics, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (UPA), they verify each other, which is a relief. Although they tilt somewhat against the separatists (Pinkham widens the lens to relate what is being said about them in Russia), both books try to present their motives fairly. Judah gets further into Polish relations and the Austro-Hungarian period; Pinkham makes the present more vivid. Neither one adequately recapitulates the Orange Revolution. Judah touches on the Maidan Revolution. Pinkham’s account of Maidan is thoughtful, if mostly secondhand. Having visited that nationalist theme bar whose toasts were old UPA slogans, she grows “uneasy” to hear the same words shouted by two hundred thousand people. Since at this point in the book we have some sense of her associates—free spirits, artists, leftists, sex workers, gays, Romas, addicts—it means something when she says, “I was surprised at how many of my friends and acquaintances defended” the nationalists. One “Russian-speaking lesbian feminist activist, the last person you’d expect to make excuses” for them, tells her, “Even though they’re homophobes and fascists and racists and often very unpleasant in their values,” they “did some good work and impressed a lot of people.” (I’ve heard similar praises of our Mr. Trump.)

To finish the comparison: Judah gives a very helpful overview of Ukraine’s systemic economic difficulties. Of the two writers, he is more interested in structures and world pictures. He often succeeds in making his abstractions vivid, as when he repeats a pre-Crimea characterization of Putin as “like a dog with its teeth clamped into a man’s neck.” “A year later,” he remarks, “it seemed rather that the dog had its teeth clamped onto Ukraine’s leg. Ukraine could not shake its bleeding leg free,” while “the dog, unable to do more harm, still would not let go.”

Pinkham is a do-gooder of the best sort; she has worked with AIDS-infected addicts in Ukraine and Siberia, so my heart goes out to her. The most moving passages of Black Square were written from a deeply caring perspective. As for Judah, he is brave, thoughtful, self-effacing, and effective. I feel grateful to both writers for the risks they took to introduce us to Ukraine’s situation.

Image: Anti-government protests in Kiev, 2014.


‘The Civil War, for instance, has small perceptible impact on our daily getting and spending.’

is it really so? vollman goes on: ‘a Scots-Irish coal-mining family in Appalachia need not vote any differently from the descendants of Norwegian immigrants in Minnesota, so what is causing Ukraine’s trouble? The answer: In Ukraine, the past is an unquiet grave. The present is inhabited by three ghosts.’

is the past an ‘unquiet grave’ in the US? is its present not inhabited by the civil war?