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Is Ukraine a Borderland?

There are very few books published in the west about Ukraine for the general public. Anna Reid’s Borderland, that was released back in 1997, is one of them. What follows is no way an analysis — but several personal views on the book.

Alex Pan, a translator (Ukrainian)

“The story — Ukraine as borderland, Ukraine as battlefield, Ukraine as newborn state struggling to build itself a national identity — begins in Kiev. When I flew in, on a winter’s night of 1993, the airport baggage hall was ankle-deep in lumpy brown slush… The road into the city — Ukraine’s only four-lane highway, I found out later — was wrapped in Blitz-like blackness… My companions smelt of wet clothes and old food, and carried large, oddly shaped bundles wrapped in string… Deposited in a silent square in the middle of an invisible I went in search of a telephone box. What I found was a scratched bit of aluminium coping with an ancient Bakelite receiver attached — no instructions, no phone directory, no light…— my Ukrainian journey had begun.”

Thus begins Ms Reid’s book. Hardly a warm welcome — winter, slush, darkness, silent square, ancient telephone. And the book continues in the same vein: “[The town of] Kamyanets-Podilsky had one functioning cafe, a dark, damp cell… It sold ersatz coffee and cardboard biscuits…”; “Impervious to the freezing wind, he led me round snow-whipped slag heaps and half-buried bits of rotting machinery…”; “[We] arrived [at the local Cossack museum] on a bleak Sunday in February, when the museum was half-closed and the surrounding park thigh-high in grimy snow”; “The Austrians gave it [the city of Lviv] parks, cobbled boulevards, Jugendstil villas, a flamboyant opera house, municipal buildings…a shabbier Salzburg… a place where ‘the civilized Austrian was menaced by… bears and wolves …and lice and bedbugs’ ”; “Of all the rag-tag foreign leavings that make up present-day Ukraine, the remotest and most obscure is the Bukovyna”; “[She], crabbed and shrunken as a Pompeii mummy, has lived in Matussiv all her life. Her cottage has two rooms and smells of horse”; “Three [old women], stout as ponies, wiggle their spades under a rectangular flagstone and heave it over…I am in Ivano-Frankivsk, a nondescript town in south-western Ukraine”; “…the tap-water in their housing block is undrinkable, so they heave buckets up five flights from a pump in the yard…hot water only twice a week… All the same, [she] is proud of her city [Sevastopol]”; “Outside the greasy windows of my hired [car], the midsummer countryside rolls bucolically by… But like the establishing shots of some rustic fright-movie, behind apparent normality horror lurks: Chernobyl”; “In a construction shed in an industrial suburb of Kiev stands the skeleton of the world’s biggest aeroplane… it will almost certainly never leave the ground…The plane’s name is the Antonov AN 225 Mriya — in Ukrainian, ‘Dream’. The Dream may never fly. But what about that even bigger dream, Ukraine itself?“ (bold type is by me — Alex Pan).

The Mriya has flown (the prototype Mriya was tested in flight at the end of 1988; later it was shown at several Air Shows; An-225 returned to flight in the spring of 2001 at the Hostomel Airport near Kyiv, Ukraine; the Ukrainian Motor-Sych Company contributed to the money that was needed for Antonov to get the Mryia back into the air; Antonov displayed the An-225 at the air show in Le Bourget, near Paris in June 2000; it is now available for commercial operations).

All these quotations have been taken from the beginnings of chapters — and the openings are designed to give the tenor and mood for what is to follow. There is one thing I want to make absolutely clear before I proceed — I am not a blind patriot of Ukraine, I am very critical of the way the country is run; I find many Ukrainians much too passive and lacking in resolve to change things for the better; I am appalled by the general low level of “civilized culture” in everyday life — in short, I am perfectly aware of the many things that may make life or stay in Ukraine for a westerner a harrowing experience.

On the one hand, I am thankful for Ms Reid’s having taken the trouble to write the book, and for the publishers’ going ahead and publishing it. On the other hand, the book turned out to be a painful disappointment. Probably I had expected too much from it.

Ukraine is a country of many hundreds of years of history, of ancient traditions, of a people that has preserved its national identity despite all the wars, invasions and disasters, natural and man-made, despite all the attempts on the part of the empires it was part of, to destroy its the very roots, of a people that is struggling to preserve its language. Ukraine is so different from the picture painted by a journalist who seems never to have seen the sun while in Ukraine, never met people who would tell her things of a much greater interest than hauling up bucketfuls of water five flights of stairs. The book ideally fits a journalistic stereotype of the cold war times, and if it was meant to show that “Ukrainian dream” will never fly, it has coped with such an ungrateful task brilliantly. Ms Reid appears to pose in her book as a sophisticated westerner, condescending to look at a gloomy place somewhere much further in the east than “eastward in Eden.” So much further indeed that she seems a bit surprised Ukrainians are also human and possess all the human emotions.

Characteristically, in the list of works Ms Reid used in writing her book I found only two references to books in Ukrainian — the rest are in English, either translations, or books or articles published in the west. It is a bit strange — to write about a country relying on information picked from sources published outside this country in a foreign language, isn’t it? It is about the same if I decided to write about present-day Britain or US using books and articles published in the Soviet Union.

I did not find anything in Ms Reid’s book which seemed invented or which had a ring of untruth about it but neither did I discover any attempts to go beyond the appearances, to probe deeper in the nation’s soul and character of its people. As a piece of superficial journalistic writing, a series of newspaper articles it could be accepted, but as a book about Ukraine I see it as a complete failure.

Ukraine has changed a lot since Ms Reid wrote the book but the reader of today will subconsciously — and naturally — think that things are pretty much the same as they were at the time when it was written. Similarly to many other post-Soviet countries Ukraine faces a multitude of knotty problems: pandemic corruption; ineffective parliament; economy in shambles, disoriented people, lack of charismatic leaders — but all of these things are the stuff for periodicals to write about. A book which claims to be a “Journey Through the History of Ukraine” is supposed to have much more than scraps of information picked from books published in English and from random conversations with a handful of people in Ukraine. I wonder what language these conversations were conducted in — I had an impression that either the people the journalist Reid talked to knew some English, or there was an interpreter present (or may be she used bits of Ukrainian herself) — but never did I feel the author was fluent in Ukrainian. Anyway, it seems the author heard what she wanted to hear and saw what she wanted to see. I may be mistaken but as a reader and as a person who has been living in Ukraine for quite some time and who has read many a book in Ukrainian and written by Ukrainian authors recently and in the times past on Ukraine and its past and present, am I not entitled to my own opinion? An opinion based on the first-hand experience and knowledge procured from scholarly and not so scholarly books?

It can be argued that “a view of an outsider” may be more objective than an opinion of an insider. In some cases it is true but it does not seem to apply to Ms Reid’s case. Her approach reminds me of an American friend who visited Egypt in the early 1970s and was appalled “by the squalor in the streets, roaches the size of your palm in hotels, cheating vendors, buses and trains never running on time,” etc. What about the temples, the pyramids, the tombs, the Oriental bazaars, the amazing handicrafts? He dismissed them all, saying, “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all; the same with bazaars and pyramids.” He was a person of great charm and wit and his remarks — he was dead serious — did not destroy our friendship. But he did not write a book about Egypt. Ms Reid did write a book — with a similar look on things.

Ukraine is so much more than its dishonest and corrupt officials and must not be equated with “New Ukrainians” ostentatiously displaying their ill-gotten wealth either. And she is NOT the rag-tag foreign leavings that make her up. I find it thoroughly regrettable that in a situation when a clever, honest, penetrating account about Ukraine, its history, its traditions, its culture and its present day written for the westerners is so badly needed to put Ukraine back on the world map, there is a book which is widely read and which seems to have been designed to delete Ukraine from the European map altogether.

Andrew Evans, a writer (British)

When it comes to reading about our homeland, we would rather know the truth about other people than have them know the truth about us. We can praise an outside perspective as long as we are on the outside, but honest commentary becomes cause for indignation when some of our more unsightly bits are carefully deliberated out loud. Anyone reading Anna Reid’s Borderland should praise the book first and foremost for the simple fact that it was written. Shameful little has been written on Ukraine in the English-speaking world, and Ukrainians should feel proud that their country has inspired such an inquiry. Each chapter stems from individuals’ stories reviewed in the present and these are connected to historical events within the context of particular geographical regions of Ukraine. This type of correlation may seem facile in the midst of Ukraine’s complexities, and at times this particular structure makes portions of the book read like a fast food version of Ukrainian history. However, Borderland is not a history book, and Anna Reid is not a historian. Hrushevsky, Subtelny, and Mogosci have provided the English-speaking world with the longer version of the story, but few travellers want a seven hundred page volume to read on their flight to Kyiv. As a journalist, she has successfully identified the questions and uncertainties that plagued Ukraine in the mid-90’s, and this is supported with sincere research and a decent amount of footwork. The book becomes her personal venture as an outsider infected with Ukraine now searching for answers. Ukrainians should be grateful the author has dealt honestly with their country and has avoided a soft, coddled approach in addressing their independence. In Great Britain and the United States, Ukraine has too often been considered a pet project on the sidelines of Russian Studies but Borderland is written for a new circle and calls for a separate debate.

The book’s provocative tone is intended, and the title of the final chapter ends with an honest question mark. Perhaps Ukrainians know these questions too well, but for the rest of us, Borderland is going to be remembered as an important beginning.

By the way, it was a pleasure to discover your magazine on my most recent trip to Ukraine. It is not often to see a local publication written with such a professional command of the English language. Your articles are well-chosen and your photography especially artistic. Providing a magazine in a foreign language is one thing, but bridging the cultural gap is the more difficult task which you have managed with aplomb. Thank you.

John Karwatsky, a project officer (Canadian)

I am a Canadian, living and working in Ukraine. I was born and raised into an English / French- speaking family and was raised and educated in Canada. I came to Ukraine when I was twenty-seven and have been working in Kyiv for seven years. My work often requires my going on business trips to various regions of Ukraine and meeting new people. I see for myself what kind of problems Ukraine currently faces. I have learned the Ukrainian language well and have encountered plenty of Ukrainian experiences to be able to say that I have come to know this country extremely well. All the more interesting was to read a book about Ukraine written by a westerner, Borderland by the British journalist Anna Reid.

I was excited at the prospect of reading “a beautifully written evocation of Ukraine’s brutal past and its shaky effort to construct a better future,” as quoted by London’s Financial Times. The more I read the more obvious it was becoming to me that the book was by far not what I expected it to be. As a result I felt the need to say a few words about rooting out biases and doing away with misconceptions.

I strongly believe that in a philosophical sense all our lives are made up of certain biases, misconceptions, preconceived ideas and misunderstandings, some of which reflect the truth to a lesser or greater degree. The rock-steady belief in certain basic values and ideals accepted once and for all, make on the one hand our navigation through life simpler, but on the other hand hinder the development of the analytical approach to life and our search for truth, even our creativity is impeded. People in the west have some knowledge of what is going on in the post-Soviet states in general, particularly in Ukraine and this knowledge comes mostly from reading newspapers or from TV or radio broadcasts.

A book about Ukraine could be a welcomed insight into the life of this country, and it is a great pity that Anna Reid’s Borderland has fallen short of what it was intended to achieve. It seems to me that Ms Reid looked at Ukraine through the pages of outdated books published mostly in the west, with some biased or completely wrong assessments of the historical past and of the present day Ukraine. The author seems to have focused on some of the “current” issues, which indeed she happened to experience but did not go deeper into these experience and stayed on the surface. I found nothing in Anna Reid’s book that was factually wrong, but the correspondence to facts was only nominal. Stating things (and in this case, these things were chosen in a random, subjective and emotionally colored manner; the black-and-white photographs that go along with the text are of a very poor quality and of no informational value) without making an attempt at an analysis is hardly justifiable in a book of this kind, and can do more harm than good.

I don’t think it will be en exaggeration on my part to say that a book like Borderland cannot be successfully compiled and written in London without having spent a substantial amount of time in Ukraine. One could easily do so with reading materials published in the west or surfing the Internet and visiting some of the Russian sites.

My knowledge of Ukraine and the things that I have learned from the many people whom I have met allows me to say that understanding a country like Ukraine and passing this understanding on to others would take much more than dealing out a number of preconceived notions, random experiences and leafing through a number of outdated books.

And now probably the most important thing that I wanted to say. While reading Anna Reid’s Borderland I had a feeling that the book had been written by a person who looked at Ukraine and at Ukrainian people in a condescending, superior and shallow western manner. This attitude that dominates the book and the general gloom that permeates it, leaves the reader with a feeling that Ukraine, notwithstanding a millennium of an exciting history and culture behind her, and good prospects for the future before her, is doomed to remain “a borderland,” never reaching the full-fledged status of a European country.

NB: In my view the word “Ukrayina” does not mean “borderland” but means u krayini, that is in the country.

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